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It is important to do proper research on the car you're considering. You'll have tons of options when it comes to buying a car, so arm yourself with as much information as possible before you make a big decision. Websites like CarBuyingTips.com are great repositories of car buying information. When you find a car that piques your interest, determine that there are no major potential problems with it. The National Highway Traffic safety Administration maintains a list of recalls and Technical Service Bulletins, which will tell you about issues with the car.
You'll want to know if the car has been in any accidents, has failed smog checks, or had other past issues. Get the VIN (Vehicle Identification Number) from the seller, which you can use to learn about the car. CarFax is a good source of car history, taking data from insurance companies, shops, and other providers. Also be sure you know your budget, as well as the fair price and full cost of ownership of the car. Use Edmunds.com as a solid resource for determining the average cost of ownership of a car. We also recommend getting an insurance quote as well as pricing on registration fees and estimated yearly maintenance costs so you don't later discover any surprises.
Always, always, always test drive the car. Ask a lot of questions about the car including why the owner is selling it, and whether they have any service records showing regular maintenance. Do a visual inspection of the car's exterior and interior to see that it is in an acceptable condition, and check for signs of accidents or damage.
During the test drive, listen for any strange noises coming from the car during acceleration or braking. Be sure to take the car out on a freeway to ensure it operates properly at high speeds. Test the brakes several times during the drive, braking both hard and normally to determine their responsiveness. Check the dashboard for any warning lights and make sure all the various controls (wipers, blinkers, radio, etc.) and the air conditioning system work.
If you like the car and it is in good condition, negotiate the price subject to the inspection of a professional mechanic. At this point you can enlist a professional mechanic to give his/her diagnosis of the condition of the car. The mechanic's inspection will cover the fluids, brakes, electrical systems, cooling system, suspension, engine/exhaust, HVAC, tires, and body. The mechanic will scan the car's various computers for trouble codes and test drive the vehicle, checking for any hidden problems. Should the mechanic discover any problems, he can estimate repair costs and you can use these for further negotiations with the seller. This way you can have complete peace of mind about the car you are buying.
The seller of the car is required to get the car smogged before selling it. The car must pass the smog within 90 days of the intended sale date. This is the responsibility of the seller, so make sure you get a smog certificate or you may be in for a surprise when registering the car.
Make sure the seller is providing you with all necessary keys, key fobs, and remotes that go with the vehicle. For instance, if the car has wheel locks, make sure the seller provides you with the proper wheel lock key/socket. Also make sure the car comes with the owner’s manual, any extended warranty documents and service records, as well as a spare tire, and jack, and tools (this one often goes unnoticed).
Make sure that there are no liens against the car—in other words, no bank or other party still holds an interest in the vehicle. On the pink slip you will see the owner’s name and any lien holders listed. “Lien holders” should either be blank or any holders will have signed off as “lien-satisfied.” Essentially, make sure all owners have signed off on the car before going through with a purchase.
A vehicle pink slip may list a vehicle as having a salvage title. What this means is that at one time in the car's life, an insurance company recorded this vehicle as totalled, indicating that the car has been in a major accident with repair costs higher than the vehicle’s value. Buyer beware, some of these salvage vehicles may have extensive problems, have voided warranties, and/or not be eligible for comprehensive auto insurance.