Buyer Beware: A used car guide in sizzling market

Used car prices have jumped 50% over the course of the pandemic.   

The average price of a 1-to-3-year-old used car is going for more than $40,000 right now. It’s a major investment. So, if you’re looking to buy a used car, you need to do your research.   

"It’s gone very similar to the real estate market where the supply has really caused prices to skyrocket," said Christine Zewe of Pemco Insurance. 

"On the exterior of the car we’re looking at the paint to see if there’s anything unusual happening there," Zewe said. All around the car, you want to look at the seams to make sure that they are all even and then you want to look at both sides because if you have a door replaced you will see that the seams are a little bit different sized."  

"You also want to open and close all the doors and make sure that they open smoothly and quietly and close firmly," Zewe advised.  

You can certainly "kick the tires," as the cliché goes, but more importantly, look closely at the tread. Worn tires can indicate balance or suspension issues.

Next, you should look for evidence of water damage.  

"We’ve had a really rough flooding season, so that means there’s a pretty high risk of flooded vehicles being out on the market," Zewe said.  

So, under the hood, we are looking for evidence of water—mud or corrosion. We’re checking the headlights, brake lights, and electrical system for possible shorts. 

Inside the car, we are pushing lots of buttons—making sure everything works, on the dash and the backseat. 

Then, we start the car, and listen to the engine.  

"The first thing you want to do is a cold start because that can tell you if maybe there is a weak battery and check the tail pipe for any smoke condensation," Zewe said. "It is very common, but smoke is a very expensive problem."

When taking a test drive, Zewe said, turn off the radio and listen very closely. What is the car is telling you? Is it making noise? Grinding? How does it sound and feel turning both right and left? Loosen your grip on the wheel. Does it pull to one side? Be sure to test drive the car on city streets, and let it rev highly on the freeway.  

In this market, scammers are trying to cash in with unreported rebuilds and lemons. So, buyers need to beware now, more than ever. And not all issues with the car will be apparent from the Carfax report. 

"It depends on how the repairs are handled," Zewe said. "If they’re with an insurance claim, it will show up on the Carfax report. If it’s going to be the body shops, they are going to report that on the Carfax. If you have your friend’s uncle repair it, that’s not going to turn up anywhere. So again, that’s where having a mechanic look at it, he’s going to be able to go in there to check what you wouldn’t see otherwise." 

You can actually sniff out a bad deal too. A musty smell, or excessive air freshener inside, is a red flag. What are they trying to hide? Same with mismatched carpet and upholstery. Worn carpets and low mileage? That could be an odometer rollback, or someone who didn’t take good care of the car.

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