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- Check the vehicles current available values
- Does the Seller have a rating?
The front shocks or struts have mounting points in the engine bay that usually can be seen easily. Are those mounting points rusty? Will those struts or shocks handle the vehicle road and off road capabilities?
Does the vehicle feel solid when you test drive it? Or, does it feel like it's going to fall apart at any second?
- Mechanical and Electrical
As you get into your test drive you will have a better idea of what kind of a vehicle you are dealing with. But, many people forget one thing. If the vehicle has four wheel motivation, you really should check to see if that 4x4 system actually works. Find a dirt or snowy road and stop to engage the system. Does it engage? Once engaged, does it grip if you blip the throttle on loose terrain? Hopefully you've found a vehicle that has this system working properly because repairs can be costly and would need to be taken into consideration when negotiating a final sale price.
If you know what to look for, open the fuse cover and see if the fuse box looks unmolested. If it does not, if wires are protruding or look like they are shoved carelessly in holes, or if there is partial melting of the box, then ask the Seller what's going on, or walk away.
After all these check points are reviewed, then you can look at the really minor stuff – cosmetics.
- Cosmetic – doorway rubber insulation, shiny paint or the lack of it, tires all the same, yellowing headlights or fog lights, carpet condition, glove box door and center console doors swing and attach correctly, etc.
If the entire used car buying process is intimidating to you, and you would prefer to have nothing to do with it, then hire an independent mechanic to go through the vehicle with you or for you. You'll either need him/her to come with you to the appointment or to bring them the vehicle for their review. There will typically be a small fee associated with this. Peace of mind, however, may make it worth it.
Remember, you are more than likely buying this vehicle As Is, Where Is. So, check and recheck everything because the lack of warranty means that any issue down the road falls on you and your wallet. It's a big transaction you'll be doing with somebody to purchase the vehicle. So, don't feel you need to be apologetic about making sure that this is the right vehicle.
Although this post is geared to a Private Party purchase, the same tips can be used for purchasing a vehicle from licensed dealer. The difference being that a licensed dealer is more than likely going to have the vehicle already inspected, and have already fixed some of these maladies to make the vehicle more appetizing on the car lot to buyers. Dealers are also monitored for regulatory compliance and so have to be more open about their familiarity of the vehicle and their business practices. You also deal with a professional at the dealer instead of Joe Shmoe. These things together tend to justify the higher purchase prices over Private Parties. Even still, going the Private Party purchase route can save you some dough if you know what to look for.