What to look for when buying a used/second hand car.

Used cars cost less than new models and retain more of their value over time. Many used vehicles include the same or similar technology, safety features and "creature comforts" as their newer counterparts, meaning you don't have to compromise on features to save money.

Despite these perks, fear of winding up with a lemon makes some car buyers wary of choosing used. This guide can help you distinguish between a good deal and a deal that's too good to be true so that you can purchase a secondhand vehicle with confidence.

Know Your Models

The car you want to drive and the car that will give you the best long-term experience may be very different things. Make a list of two or three models you'd like to shop for, and spend some time researching each car. Check out Consumer Reports, review sites and online forums where drivers discuss their experiences with particular vehicles. Pay attention to repeated reports of the same problems or repairs. If multiple people report the same issues with a used car, chances are you'll be subject to similar pitfalls if you choose to purchase that model.

Use what you learn to narrow down your car buying choices before beginning your search for a specific vehicle. In addition to popular opinion, known repair issues and consumer reviews, research the gas mileage and average life expectancy of the vehicle. Look for cars delivering more mileage for less money and few or no anticipated repair bills to find the best deals.

Check Out the Seller

Used car listings can be found everywhere from Craigslist to dealer websites, but not all sellers are created equal. You could wind up with a lemon from either a private seller or a dealership if you're not careful. Dealers offer the best in terms of selection and extras, including extended warranties and financing options. However, not all dealers are reputable. Read online reviews of dealerships, and weed out those with the lowest ratings.

You can't get reviews of private sellers, but you can gauge how trustworthy they are simply by talking to them. Make sure the license plate number, VIN number and registration information matches on all documentation. If something doesn't check out, move on to another buying option.

Full Visual Inspection

When you find a vehicle you like at a dealer you trust, take the time to give the car a complete inspection. Look for any signs of damage or unusual wear and tear inside and out:

The Exterior

  • All glass should be smooth and free of cracks.
  • The exterior should be free of cracks in the frame, obvious paint touch-ups and excessive rust. Paint touch-ups could have been done to conceal rust.
  • Measure tire tread depth, assess the level of wear and make sure all tires are the same brand; it can easily cost you $500 or more if you need to replace the tires.
  • Check the doors and make sure they open and close smoothly.
  • Check the spare tire (if applicable) to see if it's inflated properly.

Under The Hood

  • Pop the hood and determine if any of the rubber or metal is damaged, fraying or rusty.
  • Check the level and color of oil, transmission fluid, power steering fluid and brake fluid.
  • Pay attention to the smell of the interior and the components under the hood.
  • Check the battery and make sure the terminals are free of corrosion.
  • Check underneath the vehicle for rust and leaks

The Interior

  • All lights and signals should be in working order with no cracks in the covers. Test the lights - headlights (regular and high beam), directional lights (both front and back), fog lights, hazard lights, and brake lights.
  • Take note of warning signals if any.
  • Make sure all safety features are working as they should.
  • Check the heating and air conditioning systems and make sure that they are in working condition.
  • Check the stereo/sound system.
  • Test the windshield wipers (and the different speeds) and make sure that they are in working condition.
  • If the vehicle is equipped with power windows, test the windows.
  • Test the seat belts and make sure they work smoothly.
  • If the vehicle is equipped with sunroof, test it.
  • If the vehicle is equipped with remote and car alarm, test it.
  • Test the parking brake to see if it activates and deactivates smoothly.

The DMV website provides a printable checklist to take with you so that you don't miss any critical steps in your inspection. If you're uncomfortable assessing any of these points yourself, bring along a knowledgeable friend for guidance.

Your inspection reveals important details about the car and any potential problems you may run into while driving it. Inspections can also tell you whether or not the seller is being truthful about the condition of the vehicle or how previous owners treated it.

Get a History Report

Any car checking out visually could still have a shady past. If you're buying from a dealership, they should provide you with a free CARFAX report detailing the history of ownership, miles driven, known damage, past repairs and the current state of the warranty. It will also show whether the airbags have ever been deployed or if any part of the vehicle has been subject to recall.

Independent sellers should be willing to provide CARFAX reports as well. Any vehicles you find using the search function on the CARFAX website come with the same information. The information you get on one of these reports fills in details you can't get just from looking at the car. It also tells you more about the trustworthiness of the seller, especially if they seem hesitant about providing a report when you ask. If for some reason you can't get a report, it's possible to purchase one directly from a reporting service.

Take it For a Spin

The test drive is the final piece in the puzzle of determining whether a used car is worth buying. Take the vehicle out on the types of roads you expect to drive the most, and put it through the paces. Drive at different speeds, assessing the brake function with multiple starts and stops. Pay close attention to any unusual sounds or smells, and note how well the car handles. Vibration, pulling, difficulty stopping and hard steering could be signs of hidden damage.

Get a Professional Opinion

Before closing the deal on any secondhand vehicle, have it inspected by a trusted mechanic. This professional inspection can reveal problems waiting to happen, or the mechanic may have more information about a particular model's shortcomings than you were able to find on your own. Consider the results of this inspection along with the other information you gathered to determine whether the car is worth buying.

Diligence through every step of the buying process will help you find a reliable used car and avoid any unpleasant surprises. Understanding what you want and what to look for gives you the knowledge to make a choice you'll be happy with for years to come.