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With the sky-high COE prices, entry-level used cars are now priced higher than before and buying one can be a potential headache, more so when you do not know what to look out for.

11 Oct 2011 | Category: Car Buying Advice


Getting a used car gets a bad rap as past owners and second hand car dealers seize every opportunity to rip every dime you have when in fact things aren't as complicated as they seem to be.

Finding a real gem of a used car doesn't depend solely on luck. You've got to know what to look out for and how to spot potential trouble. As most of us aren't car-savvy, this article aims to assist and guide you on your car buying decision to provide a more positive car shopping experience.

If you aren't money-heavy on the pockets but would love to get your hands on some of the lovely cars, the used car section would be where you might want to take a look. To that extent, here are some crucial points you might want to go through when considering a vehicle:


Car Body

Always look at the car in bright light to check for uneven or distorted reflections and mismatched colours or poorly aligned body panels. Look carefully at each panel for ripples or overspray. Signs of these are usually a cover up for an accident that caused scratches or dents.

Look for corrosion or rust too. Rust is probably the most damaging thing of all on cars over five years old. Look for rust at the top and rear of the front wings, along the side sills, below front and rear bumpers and the bottoms of the doors.

Sometimes a rust blemish on the paintwork can indicate more serious corrosion underneath. Press the panel gently with your thumb. If there is a cracking noise it indicates advanced corrosion.

It is usually not worth repairing rust that has perforated the bottom of doors, the bodywork around the front and rear screen rubbers, on trailing edges of boot lids or tailgates and leading edges of bonnets and on rear wing panels. These can only be repaired expensively by specialists and subsequent painting can be relatively costly.


Interior
Have a thorough look inside the cabin to see if there are any signs of problems such as cracked dashboard, missing knobs, handles and buttons. Tattered seat belts or ones with melted fibres due to friction may be evidence of a previous impact. In addition, An air bag warning light that stays lit may indicate that a bag has deployed is improperly replaced or not replaced at all.

Also be sure to check the foot pedals and car seats for wear and tear. Discoloured seats could be a sign of spillage of some liquid. Foot pedals can be subjective but be sure to do a test drive before you conclude if they are in proper working condition. That said, Look to see if the mileage corresponds with the condition of the brake pedal and wear marks on the gear lever. A very low mileage may indicate the car might have been left unused for long periods or used only for short journeys. Both can cause engine problems. A car that has been regularly used and serviced is a better bet.

Ensure that you turn on every switch to make sure all the electrical components such as windscreen wipers, electrical windows and side mirrors, air-conditioning, audio system and lights are working.

Test drive
Never be too shy to request for a test drive. This way, you'll be able to spot any damages to the suspension or steering wheel if there are any. Plus, it's always important to get familiarised with the car that you're about to buy.

Be sure to look out for any warning lights on the display panel. There should not be any warning lights lighted up when you start the engine. Furthermore, listen out for any kinds of whining or humming noises. Regardless of the car's transmission, the gears should shift seamlessly and quietly.

Additionally, check for smoke emitting from the tailpipes. The common ones are usually black or white smoke, which can be signs of problems to come.

Brakes
During the test drive, depress the brake pedal a couple of times to make sure it's not over spongy. The brake pedal should offer good resistance and not sink most of the way to the floor when applied. And if the car vibrates heavily upon applying the brakes, the front brake discs could be distorted.

Suspension
Check the suspension by pushing down hard on each fender and letting go. The car should rebound softly, once or twice. More than two severe rebounds indicate worn shock absorbers or struts. If the car bounces and slams at moderate speeds during test drives over common pavement may have a worn or damaged suspension. Also be sure to check for fluid leakage from the dampers or struts. Slight leaking is acceptable but nothing more.

Steering
During the test drive, the alignment of the steering and the front tyres should be straight and should be consistent with no tendency to pull either left or right. If the steering is vague and feels heavy, it could be a sign of worn or under pressurised tyres.


Manual transmission
If the car has a manual gearbox, ensure that the clutch operates smoothly and all gears engage easily. If the gear change stiffens as revs increase the clutch may be worn. Additionally, when test driving the car, there a couple of steps to note about the manual transmission to ensure that it is in good working conditions.

Automatic transmission
If the car has an automatic gearbox, gear shifts should be smooth and quiet. Similarly, you can check for the necessary steps to take note of when test driving the car.

You can also check the transmission dipstick for correct fluid level. This is best done when the engine is hot and idling.

As most transmissions are mounted to the back of the engine, vehicles equipped with transmission dipsticks generally locate them on the lower side of the engine towards the back. The dipsticks may vary in handle colors, so be sure to refer to the owner's manual to correctly identify it.


How to check the transmission fluid with a dipstick?
To have an accurate reading of the dipstick, remove it and wipe it with a rag. After which it's clean, slide the dipstick all the way down into the transmission fill tube. Pull the dipstick out again and check the fluid level against the markings on the end of the dipstick.

The reading should be between the "Maximum" and the "Minimum" marks on the dipstick. If you find the oil level at or less than "Minimum" mark on the dipstick - suspect excessive oil consumption or lack of maintenance. In either case, the engine may not last long.Take three or four readings to ensure that the transmission fluid level is correct.


Engine
In general, a dirty engine may suggest that the car hasn't been well looked after and that servicing may have been irregular or neglected. But having a sparkling clean engine may also suggest that the owner is trying to disguise problems such as oil leaks. So what can be done to ensure that the engine is running well?

Apart from checking the fluids level via the dipstick, the colour of the oil is vital as well. This time, wait until the engine is cool before checking the colour. Normal engine oil is brown depending on when it was last changed. Gritty or gelatinous oil may indicate long stretches between oil changes. Thin, frothy oil that's the colour of chocolate milk may point to a blown head gasket or to a severely damaged block or cylinder head.

On the other hand, transmission fluid should be bright red to light reddish brown, not dark brown, black, or mustard coloured. Those colours can indicate serious problems. If it has a strong burnt smell, that can indicate severe wear and should be checked immediately.

Try and listen for any heavy rattling or knocking noises shortly after start up. This could indicate wear of the crankshaft and big-end bearings. If there are any clattering or light knocking noises from the top of the engine, it could be a sign of the camshaft wear.
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