Buying a used car

Buying & selling a car

Buying a used car: 7 tips for success

The last time I tried to buy a used car, the previous owner made it sound like I was getting the world’s best deal:

“It’s hardly been driven,” he insisted, gently petting the silver VW Jetta, “the tires are brand new! It’s very reliable - and the drive is so smooth!”

But he was unable to answer my very simple question: “If it’s such a great car,” I asked, “why are you selling it?”

“Ah…ummm…I dunno,” he mumbled.

Okay, maybe I’m a little paranoid about buying used stuff. But it is important to be careful, or you might get stuck with a lemon - a majorly disappointing hunk-a-junk that will end up spending more time at the mechanic than on the road.

So here are our golden rules to help you make the right purchase:

  1. Do your research

    You’ve seen the ads, you like the pictures, great! Even before you contact the seller, do an internet search of the car’s make and model. Is it a gas-guzzler? What are the car’s safety ratings? What will it cost to insure it? Will it still pass Ontario’s Drive Clean test? What special features does the car have?

    This background info will help you ask the right questions when you meet the seller, and also prepare you to ask for the right price.

  2. Find the best deal

    Now that you know everything about the car you want to buy, it’s time to find the best price. You can start by using an online tool to find the approximate selling price for the model. The actual price will vary based on the car’s mileage, condition, and if it has extra features like a dope stereo system, heated seats, etc.

    Then go to a car classifieds site like where you can compare the prices of your favourite models. It’s worth it to check sites like Craigslist and Kijji as well, to see if you can get better deals there.

    Sort through the best quotes and pick the cars you want to test drive.

  3. Check out the seller

    It’d be great to buy a car from a friend or acquaintance, as they’re less likely to sell you a lemon (you know where they live.) But most of us buy cars from strangers or dealers, so watch for these warning signs:

    • Multiple ads under the same name or phone number¬ - you could be dealing with a curbsider - a con artist who’s trying to evade regulations and taxes.
    • An ad has been up for too long - other people have already decided the car is not worth buying or the seller isn’t worth trusting.
    • A seller asks to meet somewhere other than their house - could mean they do not own the car they’re trying to sell!
    • The dealership staff are pushy or insistent - check online reviews to be sure people have not felt cheated by the sales staff.
  4. Watch out! In a 2013 survey, one in five Canadians who used the Internet to buy or sell a used car encountered at least one instance of fraud.
  5. Ask questions

    Beyond “Why are you selling this car?” asking some questions can help you understand how the seller treated their car:

    • Where and when did you buy this car?
      This will tell you if there have been other previous owners and a bit more about the car’s history.
    • Did you get regular oil changes?
      Most sellers will say “Yes.” You can ask to see their mechanic’s receipts.
    • Do you have a CarProof report?
      Ask to see the report. If they don’t have one, note down the car’s VIN number and buy a report from Carfax or CarProof. This will give you previous accident data, police data, and more info about the car’s history. It doesn’t hurt to ask the seller if they can lower the car‘s price a bit if you have to pay for the report.
    • Can I get an independent inspection?
      If they agree, get your mechanic to look over the car to save yourself trouble down the road.
  6. Inspect and drive

    This goes without saying, but you can never be too careful when inspecting a used car. Bring along someone who knows a bit about cars - maybe a parent or your family’s trusted mechanic. But don’t worry if you’re on your own - here are some red flags that anyone can spot:

    Watch out for:

    • Mileage (shouldn’t be too high or low for the car’s age)
    • A fresh paint job or mismatched paint
    • Misaligned bumpers
    • Large rust or corrosion spots
    • Uneven/worn out tread on the tires
    • Odd sounds from the engine
    • Cracks in the windshield
    • Electrical problems - locks, windows, lights
    Whether it’s hot or cold outside on the day of your test drive, be sure to check both the heat and the AC - you’ll need both in Ontario. You could negotiate a discount if either doesn’t work properly.

    Take your time with the test drive - up to 30 minutes is ideal. Follow these tips to get the most out of your test drive.

  7. Check the paperwork

    • Make sure the seller’s name and address match the car’s registration info. You do not want a stolen car.
    • By law, private sellers in Ontario must provide buyers with a Used Vehicle Information Package. Make sure you get the package.
    • Check the mileage on the odometer and the package to make sure the numbers match up.
    • Check the car’s last Drive Clean Vehicle Inspection Report - it should clearly have “pass” printed on it.
    • Get a Bill of Sale or a receipt from the seller when you buy the car.
  8. Don’t rush

    A final word of advice: Even if you like the car, don’t rush to buy it and definitely don’t be pushed into a purchase by some aggressive salesperson. Don’t fall for the “Last chance, 80% discount, gone tomorrow” nonsense - no reliable seller will try those tricks on you.

    If you noticed that the car needs repair work, ask whether the owner will fix it before the sale, or ask for a reduction in the price.

    Make sure there are no hidden taxes or costs, and be prepared to walk away if the car doesn’t fit your needs and budget.

    PS. Once you’ve bought the car, remember Ontario gives you only six days to register the used car in your name.


    Honor joined ingenie in 2014 and is in charge of words on the Young Driver's Guide and blog. She started learning to drive last year, at the age of 24.