3 Tips on How to Buy Your First Used Car (and Not Regret It)

By: Vontae Jones

If anyone ever told you that buying a used car is easy, they lied. If you happened to believe them, you are flagrantly underprepared for the first consequential purchase of your life. The truth is, a car is a complicated piece of heavy machinery. As you’d expect a construction worker to know how to operate a crane before lifting multi-ton girders over your head, you should have reliable knowledge and adaptive inquiry skills before buying a vehicle. By the end of this article, you’ll be one step closer to being a competent buyer (a car salesman’s weakness) with these three red flags that constitute an automatic-walk on any car.

As a bonus, I’m going to connect you guys to ChrisFix and Bobby the Car Guy. ChrisFix is an automotive YouTuber who’ve I’ve been watching since I brought my first car. He has a comprehensive guide on the entire usedcar-buying process, as well as a myriad of DYI repair videos. I recommend giving his channel a look after reading to deepen your knowledge and keep yourself from making any critical mistakes when buying your first used car. As for Bobby the Car Guy, he’s a venerable salesman who operates in the Novi, metro-Detroit area, and is someone I recommend working with if you want access to reliable inventory and a professional who won’t sell you into a bad deal.

  1. Gunk under the oil cap

Yes, that’s right, I said gunk, yellow or white milkshake-like residue. This is the very first thing I check when I investigate any used car. This residue, which you’ll find under the oil cap on the vehicle’s engine (you should see what type of oil the car takes printed on the cap, ex. 5W30), is a demonstrable sign of catastrophic engine issues. I’m not talking replacing the spark plugs here; this indicates damages such as head gasket leaks and sludge build-up in the engine. The head gasket leak alone can cost thousands to fix (any primary engine problems will carry exorbitant fees because the engine is the car).

This is not a problem you can ignore. If you were to buy a car with this type of issue, which you should never, it is only a matter of time before your engine gives out and you have a three-thousand-pound couch sitting in your driveway.

So, when you go look at any car, before you even start it, pop the hood and unscrew the oil cap. If you see lurid mucus underneath, you walk. And trust me; this is more common than you might think, frustratingly so even. Also, be sure to check inside the engine (unscrewing the oil cap will give you a glimpse), and be vigilant for the residue because it may have settled there.

  1. Rust

Unfortunately, I live in Michigan. If you also live in an assiduously cold state (God bless your soul), you probably think that all the cars have a little rusty. It’s normal, right? Yes. But No. Older cars will have surface-level rust patches here and there; that’s expected. But what you should be wary of is aggressive or deeply set-in rust, particularly on the car’s frame. The car’s frame or chassis is what every vehicle component is built onto, which means everything from the engine block to the seats you’ll be in. You can identify parts of the chassis if you look underneath the car and find it’s thickest beams of metal; these pieces will outline the car’s boxy perimeter.

Since cars drive over puddles (which is something you should avoid if you can safely help it) and moisture constantly bedevils them, the frame may have a little rust on its surface. This is fine. But, if you see that the frame is so rusty and brittle that the metal crumbles to the touch, you should walk. Damages this egregious mean mechanics won’t lift the car to work on it because there’s a risk of the vehicle evaporating at the bottom and crashing down. That also means that you can’t safely lift the car with a scissor or hydraulic jack to do something as simple as put on your spare tire. Having a car that nobody can work on is the last thing you want and will only guarantee you a trip to the scrapyard.

Be mindful, a certain degree of rust is tolerable, but it only gets worse with time. So, if you spot a car that’s technically ok, but just about as bad as I describe, just walk and save yourself the trouble in the future. Lord knows cars have enough tendency to fail at the most inconvenient moments, so do your best to mitigate this inevitability.

  1. The exhaust

This one is a bit tricky, especially if you’re buying a car when it’s cold. When you start the car for the first time, have your friend (always have multiple eyes if you can) watch the exhaust pipe. You want them to study the thickness of the smoke the car expels as it starts and runs for a moment. After a while, give the car some gas to test the smoke while the engine is under load. What you’re looking for is light, wispy smoke trails or no smoke trails at all. This is a sign that the combustion system is working correctly. There are a few caveats to this check to be aware of:

  1. If the car has been sitting in a dealership’s lot for a while, it’s initial startup will produce a thick billow of hopefully white smoke. That’s just condensation. There’s nothing to worry about if the smoke’s thickness ebbs to being thin and wispy after a few minutes.
  2. If it’s cold, the initial start will produce a thick billow of smoke regardless of if it has been sitting for a while. After some time, the thickness should lessen, but it will still be relatively dense due to the weather, making this test marginally inaccurate. However, I looked for my first car when it was cold, and it was producing so much smoke that I couldn’t see out the rear window. I didn’t buy the car.
  3. When you apply gas to the car, regardless of weather conditions or how long it has been sitting, you don’t want to see excessive amounts of smoke blasting out of the exhaust in time with your applications of the pedal.

This is an auxiliary check to looking under the oil cap for residue because some sellers may have the foresight to clear the oil cap before showing the vehicle to someone. You can’t hide this, however. If you see the car is emitting blue smoke, you walk because it indicates coolant or oil mixing into the combustion process. This is indicative of a head gasket leak and other major engine problems. If you see the car emitting a steady billow of white smoke, you should walk as well because it’s also a sign of engine troubles. If you see black smoke, the car is running lean (using excess fuel when in the combustion process). While this isn’t necessarily a death sentence, it means bad fuel economy and possible issues with the car’s computer systems or fuel injections.

Remember, thin and wispy or no smoke at all is what you’re looking for.

Bonus Tips and Tools

If you take anything away from this read, remember, if there any engine or transmission issues, just walk away and save yourself the headache. Buying a car is a long, arduous process. It’s best to go into it thinking this way to avoid feeling despair from not finding something right away or impetuously buying the first thing that’s half decent. This is an investment (rather a deficit since cars don’t gain value), and your job is to be prudent and self-possessed as you go on this adventure. No used car will be perfect; that’s a given, so when looking, be aware of what you can tolerate and what you won’t tolerate and don’t concede your standings. You’ll thank yourself in the future for being thorough and stalwart. Like I promised above, I’m linking the short video series I studied (I watched this at least three times over) before I embarked on my journey. Also, if you live in the Novi, metro-Detroit area, Bobby the Car Guy was the professional who ultimately got me my first used car. I highly recommend starting your search with him. Good luck!

Bobby The Car Guy website:

ChrisFix video 1:

ChrisFix video 2:

ChrisFix video 3: