6 Common Problems with Buying a Second Hand Car

Buying a used car would seem like a simple task and an affordable option until you realise just how many parts and systems can be defective. Finding the car of your dreams at the right price can unravel if you’d made the purchase without looking at some very crucial components. In fact, the cost to repair the vehicle might exceed the purchase price, leaving you with a sour attitude and moment of hopelessness. You can protect yourself by knowing exactly what to look for and what to avoid in choosing a vehicle that will perform adequately and last for some time.

Buying a Second Hand Car

Buying a Second Hand Car

Engine and Transmission Performance

A test drive is the best way to determine the operable performance of an engine, regardless of size – if no test drive is available, consult a website such as Parkers. Upon starting the vehicle the RPM (revolutions per minute) should begin at a high choke setting, and as the engine warms up it should slow to a regular idle. The engine should not miss on any cylinders, usually determined by a vibration or hesitation. Normal exhaust smoke is somewhat clear; blue-white or black smoke is an indication of excessive oil-burning or raw, unburned gas, respectively. The car should accelerate when the gas pedal is depressed, with no signs of popping, clacking-clicking or hesitation.

Used Car

Automatic transmissions should shift smoothly through all gears with no lugging or slippage. There should be no whining noise coming from the transmission area. A stick shift should transit through the gears from first gear to the highest gear with quiet and smooth engagement. A stick transmission that produces a grinding noise just before engagement has a problem with a synchromesh gear, linkage misalignment or bearing problem.

Battery and Charging

The battery is the electrical storehouse for the car. The car should start, turning over fast when the starter key is engaged. A clanking noise will indicate a problem with the starter motor or gear. A slow turning starter motor can indicate a partially discharged battery. A charging light or “Check Engine” light should not appear on the dashboard, indicating a generator or alternator discharge condition.


Brakes are responsible for stopping the car quickly and safely. The brake pedal should feel firm and ride high under the foot. The pedal should not leak down under a constant pressure. When stopping from a running speed, the vehicle should not pull to the left or right but slow and come to rest in a straight line. Brakes should be quiet upon brake pedal application; this means no grinding, swishing, clicking or squealing noises. Excessive noise originating from the front or rear brakes could result because of a problem with the pads or shoes, or caused by worn rotors or drums. Rotors and drums are very expensive to replace, and should be smooth with no visual grooves in their surface.


Tires are one of the most expensive components on a car when bought in sets. Maximum allowable wear on most tires is 2/32 of an inch. You do not want to see bald (smooth) tires that have no tread. Look for tread wear patterns on the inner and outer extremes of the tread top—this points to problems with the front end parts being either worn, defective or out of alignment. Tires that have scallops or chunks of rubber missing from the tread indicate problems with weak suspension springs or defective shocks.


Handling is best checked on a test drive. You want to see a vehicle that corners smoothly without squealing the tires. A car that is in proper alignment will track straight down a relatively straight road without fading or pulling left or right when the steering wheel is released. A car should not rebound more than 1 ½ times over bumps, gutters or dips. Suspension should not bottom out and make clunking or clanking noises when the cabin is filled with passengers. The steering wheel should transit smoothly into full left and right turns without slipping or jarring movements. Erratic steering wheel turning can result from low power steering fluid levels or problems with the caster adjustment in the alignment.

Lights and Electrical Systems

Make sure all the lights illuminate and function properly. This includes the brake, tail and headlights, along with the license plate illumination, backup lights, high-low beams and turning indicator lights. These are safety components required by motor vehicle departments and law enforcement.

Check the function and operation of the air-conditioning-heater by running it through its different cold, warm and hot settings, in addition to the various fan speeds. The AC should be cold and the heater should blow hot air from the vents. Check the dash lights, interior lights, radio-stereo, emergency flashers and any other electrical devices equipped with the car. The gauges should be operative and accurate, such as the speedometer, odometer, temperature gauge and amps or voltage gauges.

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