Buying a Used Car


toolkit Whether you are buying a used car from a dealership or an individual, learn as much as you can about the vehicle. The following steps can help make sure your new car runs great:
  1. Examine the car using an inspection checklist. If you don't know a lot about cars, bring a friend who does. To see a sample checklist, go to
  2. Test drive the car under different road conditions - hills, highways and in the city.
  3. Ask the owner for the car's maintenance record. If the owner doesn't have copies, contact the dealership or repair shop where the work was done.
  4. Ask the previous owner about the car, especially if the current owner doesn't know the car's history.
  5. Have the car inspected by a mechanic you trust.

The above steps will help make sure that the car is mechanically sound, but you will also need to investigate the car's title history. Every used car will have a history that started when the first owner drove it off the lot. Whether that history is good news or bad news depends on how people drove and took care of the vehicle. It could be a dream car...or the start of a nightmare.

Each time an owner sells a car, that sale goes on the title. Eventually, almost all cars quit running or start to fall apart. The more miles already on a car, the less valuable it is. More miles also mean it is more likely that parts have worn out and need repair. To get a detailed title history you can contact the Iowa Department of Transportation (DOT) Office of Vehicle Services. The DOT keeps a record of all the car titles issued in Iowa. You can get a vehicle history and have searches done on the vehicle's title, registration and owner name. There is a cost for these DOT reports but it's small. There's also a limit on how much time you can ask the DOT to spend on conducting searches for you. To conduct a search you'll need the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN), owner's name, title number or license plate number.

One way to obtain a quick summary of a vehicle's history is to buy a "Carfax" report from A Carfax report has information about liens, salvage titles and other damage, odometer rollbacks, repairs, lemon cars, emissions inspections and the use of the vehicle, e.g. rental car, taxi, leased vehicle. The Carfax reports cost $30 for a single report. You can also purchase an unlimited number of reports for 30 days for $40. The second option is best if you'll be looking at several different vehicles before you buy one. You'll need the vehicle's VIN and a credit or debit card to pay for the reports. Although these reports can be very useful, they may not be free from errors. Some odometer rollbacks do not show up on a Carfax report. Dealer-to-dealer transfers of a vehicle also don't appear on the reports. Other services like and also provide fast summaries of a vehicle's title history.

In conclusion, when buying a used car, learn as much about it as possible. You need to investigate the shape the car is in and the car's history. Try to learn who has driven it, what repairs it has needed, and how likely it is to need major repairs in the future.

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Last Review and Update: Apr 29, 2009

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