How to Find a Good Used Car in Seven Steps

Q: How can I avoid buying a troublesome used car?
A: Follow these seven steps:
1) Do your homework. Research vehicle reliability reports online. Sources such as Consumer Reports and Edmunds will help you identify troublesome vehicles. Find out what others say are the best and worst vehicles. Before you shop, on the lot or online, decide what type of vehicle you want and what models you will look at.

2) Check NHTSA records. Check the federal government’s databases ( for any recalls, service bulletins, safety investigations and owner complaints on the vehicle you are interested in. Service bulletins are notices that the manufacturer sends to dealers to warn them about problems that have been discovered and how to try and fix them. Ask your local dealer’s service department for a vehicle repair history to find out if problems have been identified and repaired on the vehicle you’re considering.

3) Read the Buyer Guide on the window. Federal law requires every dealer to post on the window of every vehicle this one-page form clearly disclosing whether the car is being sold “as is” or with a warranty. To see what the form looks like, visit: The car dealer also must entirely complete the form and give the buyer a copy. Make sure that all promises are written on the sales contract or the Buyer Guide, and that you understand what guarantees come with the car. When a motor vehicle is sold “as is,” you may have no recourse if defects arise later. Cars with problems are often sold “as is,” so be careful. Ask the seller for a written guarantee, even if it is only good for 30 days.

4) Ask the seller. Learn everything you can about the seller’s experience with the car. Ask for repair records or visit the repair shop that did most of the work on the vehicle. You can also write down the vehicle’s serial number, go to the nearest new car dealer for that make and model, and ask the service department for the vehicle’s repair history printout from the factory computer. Nearly all dealers have computer access to factory records showing most repair work by factory-authorized dealers. The law does not require repair shops to give you this vehicle information, however.

5) Inspect the vehicle thoroughly. Inspect the outside, inside, and the engine compartment, too. Check the tires, steering, the ride, and the tailpipe for colored exhaust smoke. Body paint that doesn’t match or body panels that don’t line up can indicate body repair work. Check the seat belts for signs of friction that might have been caused by an accident. Make sure all the warning lights work (they should light up when you start the car and go out once the car is running), and make sure the warning lights (including the air bag light) don’t stay on. Check the carpeting inside the car and trunk and smell for any odors or mildew. Thousands of cars were flooded in Louisiana and New Jersey; you don’t want to buy one of them.

Look for fluid leaks, low fluid levels, unusual fluid color, and for metal particles or tiny lumps in the oil that may indicate the oil is old. If the oil has a burnt odor, is light brown or has a frothy residue, you might be facing big repairs for the head gasket or engine damage. The transmission fluid should be reddish, but if it smells burned or the color is different, you could have big trouble soon. Have someone start the engine while you look at the tailpipe for colored smoke. Billowing white smoke could mean expensive engine repairs. Blue smoke probably means excessive engine oil burning and expensive repairs.

Check for unusual tire wear and any big difference in wear on one side. A worn spot in the middle of the tire usually just means the tire was over inflated, but lots of wear on the tire’s outside edge can signal hard driving and fast cornering. Uneven cupping tire wear can mean suspension or brake problems.

6) Get a professional inspection. Ask a local mechanic for a thorough inspection. AAA also may recommend a repair shop or you can go to your nearest independent repair shop.

7) Get an online vehicle history report. Take the vehicle’s serial (VIN) number and get a report online telling you where the vehicle has been owned, if it has a salvage or flood title, etc. CarFax, AutoCheck and NMVTIS gather data from insurance companies (including accident records) and title department records. For a small fee, you can get a printout describing most, if not all, of the vehicle’s history. Every vehicle’s VIN number is located in the windshield area of the dash on the driver’s side and every digit means something. To understand what your vehicle’s VIN numbers mean, you can find VIN number decoders on the Internet.

Q: What if I follow these steps and still get stuck with a lemon?
A: If you get a lemon anyway, give the seller a chance to repair the vehicle or take it back. If that fails, you can complain to the Better Business Bureau online ( or to the Ohio Attorney General's Consumer Protection Division ( or call 800-282-0515. If all else fails, consider talking to a consumer law attorney about your legal rights.


This "Law You Can Use" column was provided by the Ohio State Bar Association (OSBA). It was prepared by attorney Ronald L. Burdge of the Burdge Law Office Co., LPA in Dayton.​

Articles appearing in this column are intended to provide broad, general information about the law. This article is not intended to be legal advice. Before applying this information to a specific legal problem, readers are urged to seek advice from a licensed attorney.



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