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What to Look for When Shopping for a Reliable Used Car

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By Makenzie Crutcher on March 11, 2022 in Life Hacks

So, you’re in the market for a new-to-you car but have no clue where to start. That’s understandable. Maybe you’ve had your current ride for over a decade and forgot what the car search entails or maybe you’re just not a “car guru” and your knowledge of vehicles stops at how to drive. No matter what your situation is, we’re here with a few tips to ensure you get the best deal on a reliable used car.

Here's what to look for when shopping for a dependable used car:

Vehicle History

Let’s be honest, we all do a little internet searching when we want to learn more about someone – whether we’re meeting them for the first time or are just feel nosey about a friend-of-a-friend. Why shouldn’t you give your potential new ride that same treatment? Websites like Dealer Rater give you information from other buyers about car dealers and service centers, so you can decide where to start your search and where not to! Other websites like CarFax allow you to do your own research by running the VIN. You can see accident/damage reports, number of owners, service history, original use, and mileage.

Exterior Condition

We’re confident this one is #1 on everyone’s lists when searching for a new car, and rightfully so. Don’t just look at it in terms of ~vibe~ but look at these specific elements!

  • RustRust can be caused by parking location, wash/wax schedule, lack of winterization, and more. While a little rust is fixable, it might indicate how well taken care of the car was by its previous owner(s). However, if you see bigger patches of rust where the metal is completely rusted through, you’ll likely want to steer clear. Phil Long Collision Center estimates larger rust repairs run between $100 and $1,500, so if you’re not prepared to take on that extra expense avoid rusty rides!
  • Paint Damage and Dents – Treat paint damage and dents the same as rust. Small sections could be purely cosmetic and relatively cheap to repair, but bigger dents and paint chips could mean more cash money to spend.
  • Lights and Turn Signals – Bring a friend or spouse along when you check out the car for the first time. This way one of you can hop in and operate the lights while the other one makes sure all lights and turn signals work! Also, check lights for cracks and fogginess caused by moisture inside the light.
  • Tire Condition – There are a couple of elements to investigate with the tires. First, poor alignment. Are the tires worn unevenly? This could indicate a steering, suspension, or frame issue. Second, tire tread. You already know the drill. Grab your penny, flip it sideways, insert it into the tread, and make sure part of Ole Abe’s head is covered. Finally, general wear and tear. Look for scuffs, cracks, and bulges. Plus, don’t forget to give the spare the same treatment, if there is one!
  • Frame – While the tires can give some insight into the car’s frame, you can also determine potential frame issues by checking if the car sits level. Lean down and make sure nothing is hanging from the undercarriage. Check the bumpers, hood, and trunk for any signs of previous accidents and/or recent repairs. Lastly, open and close each door to make sure they function correctly and fit snuggly – if they don’t that could be a sign of frame damage, potentially from a recent accident.
  • Under the Hood – Pop that hood! Inspect the engine for any fluid leaks, cracked hoses, worn belts, or corrosion. Grab a dipstick and check engine oil, transmission oil, brake fluid, power steering fluid, coolant, and windshield washer fluid levels! Some sellers will vow to change oils before you purchase, so this is a quick check to ensure the oil is full and you didn’t get hosed.
  • Mileage – High or low mileage…what should you look for? Well, according to Kelley Blue Book, the average driver drives about 14,263 miles per year. To determine if your potential ride has had a rough life, let’s do some quick math. Divide the total miles driven (example: 50,000 miles) by the age of the car (example: 5 years) to get the average mileage (example: 10,000 miles). In our example, the average mileage is 10,000 miles – this number is lower than KBB’s average, so it shouldn’t have too much wear and might be a good choice. Beware: the higher the mileage, the higher the possibility of major wear and tear on the mechanical components of the car.

Interior Condition

  • Electronics – Okay, have a little fun. Push some buttons! Pump up the jams to check the stereo system. Hop in each seat and move them around to check seat adjustments. Then, confirm all the other electronic components are up to par, and definitely don’t forget to test the heat and A/C! If you see any warning lights like TPMS or check engine or ABS, investigate further while being cautious and aware that these may be signs warning you to stay away.
  • Upholstery – Look for tears, stains, and cracked leather on the seats, headliner, and steering wheel. Treat these like the rust and paint, small problems could be easy to fix, but bigger issues can be very costly to repair.
  • Smells – Do you notice any strange odors while sitting in the car? Some odors like smoke or mold can be tricky to remove and sometimes dealers will try to sell you “no smoking” cars that have residual smoke smells. Mold odors can be caused by water damage, so check the carpet for stains!

Test Drive

We’ve reached the most important part – the test drive! Never test drove a car before and don’t know what to look for? Edmunds recommends evaluating the car in these elements: acceleration, suspension, steering, braking, and engine noise.

Make sure to choose a route that allows you to test maneuverability, high and low speeds, braking, how well it drives on both rough and smooth roads, any blind spots, and the tech like cameras, navigation, and other sensors.

Mechanic Inspection

If your potential ride passed all the previous sections with flying colors, here’s the last step. Take the vehicle to your trusted mechanic or auto shop for a quick inspection. They’ll be able to find any hidden issues or things that could cause headaches in the future!

Other Helpful Tips

1. Assess your Needs

It’s important to know what you’re looking for, but also be flexible because you might not find your dream car at your dream price. Just know what your must-haves are, whether that’s a big trunk or a roomie back seat for the kiddos!

2. Set your Budget

Be honest with yourself. How much can you really afford? A good rule of thumb is not to exceed 15% of your monthly take-home pay if you’re planning to pay in payments. Also, do you plan to lease or buy? This will determine how expensive of a car you’ll be able to afford.

3. Estimate the Cost of Ownership

Here’s a kicker. Estimate the cost of ownership, not just the cost to buy. If you’re buying a sports car that requires more expensive gas and regular maintenance – those are expenses you need to factor into your monthly car allowance. Just focus on being realistic (and try to plan for the unexpected as much as possible)!

4. Research Market Prices

Continuously check resources like KBB and Edmunds to avoid paying more than the market rate!

5. Get Insurance – At this point, you’ve likely spent a lot of time picking the perfect ride and now it’s time for the perfect insurance. Get a quick, 100% online quote from Say Insurance and lock down all-star discount options like pay-in-full and paperless!


We’re excited for you and your new ride! We know there are a lot of elements to consider when purchasing a car. While this might seem daunting, it’s important to remember if you choose a good reliable ride, you could have it for many years to come.

Happy car buying!

Makenzie Crutcher is the Brand Strategist for Say Insurance. She graduated from Westminster College with a degree in English, emphasis in Literature. Prior to joining Say, Makenzie was an insurance underwriter specializing in policy risk analysis. Having nearly a decade of experience in the insurance industry, she brings a unique perspective to the Say marketing team. Makenzie loves to use her industry expertise and charismatic personality to bring everyone the scoop on Say!