Car Deal Canada

What To Look For in a Used Car

What To Look For in a Used Car

With new car prices continuing to rise, more and more car shoppers are looking to the used market to find a great deal. Buying a used car can be thousands of dollars cheaper than a new model, even if it’s just a few years old. You can get a gently-used car with relatively low miles for a big discount compared to its original sticker price. This allows your dollars to go further when you want a nice vehicle but don’t want the high cost of brand new.

Of course, there are some risks associated with buying used. You don’t get a factory warranty and there may be unknown maintenance issues or damage from previous owners. However, you can minimize your chances of getting a bad used car by thoroughly inspecting it yourself or having a trusted mechanic look it over. Follow the tips in this guide during your shopping process to help find a high-quality used car that suits your needs and budget.

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Do Your Research

Before you start looking at specific used cars, it’s important to decide on your budget and what type of car you want. Consider factors like:


  • How much can you afford to spend on the purchase price and ongoing maintenance/repairs?
  • What size car do you need (sedan, SUV, truck)?
  • Are there certain features that are must-haves for you (leather seats, sunroof, towing capacity, etc)?
  • How many miles do you drive in a typical year? This can help determine an appropriate mileage limit in your search.


Once you know your budget and general car criteria, spend some time researching used car prices online. Look at sites like Autotrader,, CarGurus, and Facebook Marketplace to get a sense of what’s available in your area and price range. Consider expanding your search distance as well.

You also need to decide whether you want to buy from a dealership or private party. Dealerships offer some advantages like:


  • A larger selection of inventory
  • The ability to get financing through the dealer
  • Cars that have been inspected and reconditioned


However, private sellers generally have lower prices. You may also feel more comfortable buying from the original owner who can tell you the full history of the car. Weigh the pros and cons of each option for your situation.


Check the Exterior

Giving the exterior of the used car a thorough inspection is crucial to determine if there are any issues hiding below the surface. Here are the key things to examine:


Look for dents, rust, misaligned panels – Carefully scan the entire exterior of the car looking for any dents, scratches, rust spots, or body panels that don’t line up properly. Small dings and scratches are common on used cars, but larger dents, rust through, and misalignment can indicate the car was in an accident or not properly maintained. Run your fingers along each seam to feel for inconsistencies.


Inspect paint condition – Closely evaluate the condition of the paint on the entire vehicle. Check for any overspray, fading, orange peel texture, or inconsistencies in color that may indicate shoddy repair work was performed. Give extra attention to the edges, door jambs, and underside where paint flaws are harder to hide.


Examine tires and wheels – Take a close look at the tires for adequate tread depth, uneven wear patterns, or any sidewall damage like cracking or bulges. Also check the wheels for dents and scratches. Make sure the spare tire is in good condition as well. Proper tires and wheels are essential for safe driving.


Check the Interior

When inspecting the interior of a used car, pay close attention to the condition of the seats, any strange odors, and that all the electronics are functioning properly. Here’s what to look out for:


Inspect the Seats for Wear

Lift up the carpeting and check the condition of the seats. Are the seats excessively worn, stained, or ripped? Run your hand along the seats to feel for tears or holes. Sit in each seat and make sure it still has enough padding and support. If the seats are badly worn, it could be a sign the car wasn’t well cared for.


Sniff for Odors

Take a deep breath inside the car with the doors and windows closed. Do you detect any musty, moldy, or chemical smells? A bad interior odor could indicate water damage, leaks, or a smoking owner. It’s difficult to eliminate odors completely, so be wary of any persistent bad smells.


Test All Electrical Components

Go through and test every interior electronic feature. Turn on the headlights, interior lights, power windows, locks, seats, and any entertainment components. Check the function of less obvious things like the cigarette lighter, sunroof, and seat heaters too. Make sure the odometer reading is consistent with the car’s age and condition.


Test Drive

Taking the used car for an extensive test drive is one of the most important steps when making your purchase. You’ll want to simulate different driving conditions and speeds to get a true feel for how the vehicle handles.

Make sure to drive on a mix of city streets, highways, and backroads if possible. Drive at slow speeds, moderate speeds, and higher speeds up to the speed limit. Accelerate hard from a full stop to test the engine and transmission. Come to quick, hard stops to test the brakes.

As you drive, listen and feel for any odd vibrations, noises, or sensations. Make hard turns left and right to test the steering and suspension. Check that the car tracks straight when driving on a straight road – any pulling could indicate an alignment issue.

Pay attention to how the engine sounds and responds. Make sure the transmission shifts smoothly and doesn’t slip or hesitate. Check that the brakes don’t make any noise when stopping and aren’t grabbing to one side.

Essentially, you want to put the car through its paces during the test drive. Don’t be afraid to push it a bit harder than normal driving. Any issues will make themselves known, which is exactly what you want to uncover before purchasing the used vehicle.


Get a Professional Inspection

One of the most important steps when buying a used car is to have a mechanic professionally inspect it prior to purchase. This will help uncover any hidden issues or needed repairs that you may have missed during your initial inspection. Don’t skip this step – a pre-purchase inspection can save you from buying a lemon.

When you’ve narrowed your search down to a specific used car, take it to an independent mechanic you trust. Avoid using the dealer’s mechanic, as they may not provide an impartial inspection. The mechanic will put the car up on a lift and thoroughly inspect the engine, transmission, tires, brakes, suspension, electrical components, and more.

Review the mechanic’s inspection report carefully afterwards. Make sure you understand all the issues they flagged and get estimates on how much any necessary repairs will cost. Use this information to try and negotiate the price down if major issues are found. It’s much better to uncover problems before buying rather than after.

A professional pre-purchase inspection gives you peace of mind that your used car is mechanically sound before you sign on the dotted line. Don’t skip this vital step – you’ll be glad you had a mechanic check over your potential used car purchase.


Review Maintenance Records

A vehicle’s service history can provide crucial insights into its current condition and reliability. When buying a used car, be sure to thoroughly review its maintenance records. Here’s what to look for:

Ask the seller to provide all service records for the vehicle. This may include items like oil change and tire rotation invoices, repair shop work orders, and inspection documents. You can also purchase a vehicle history report like a CARFAX to check for accidents, flood damage, odometer rollbacks and other issues.

Review maintenance records carefully, looking for gaps or irregular intervals between services. This could indicate the owner neglected routine maintenance, which may lead to problems down the road. Pay attention to major services like timing belt replacements, transmission services, brake jobs and engine repairs.

Look for a consistent service history at the dealership or same repair shop. This instills confidence the car received proper maintenance. Beware if records come from multiple shops, which may mean the owner didn’t stay on top of service needs.

While minor gaps are normal, large time periods without servicing are a red flag. Cross reference mileage intervals as well – if a 30,000 mile service is done at 90,000 miles, that’s a concern. If anything seems amiss, ask the seller for an explanation.

A used car with thorough maintenance records gives you peace of mind. But gaps or irregular intervals are a warning sign the vehicle may have underlying issues. Review the history carefully before making your used car purchase.


Ask About Warranties

When buying a used car, it’s important to inquire about any remaining factory warranty. Most new vehicles come with at least a 3 year/36,000 mile bumper-to-bumper warranty and a 5 year/60,000 mile powertrain warranty. If the car you’re looking at is only a couple years old, it may still have some of this coverage left.

Ask the seller for details on the original warranty and how much time or mileage is left. Review what components are covered and what repairs would be your responsibility. Having a remaining factory warranty can provide peace of mind and save you money on repairs down the road.

You may also want to consider purchasing an extended warranty. While not mandatory, an extended warranty acts as an insurance policy for your used car. It provides additional coverage beyond the factory warranty for a set number of years or miles. This gives you protection against expensive mechanical issues after the original warranty expires.

Extended warranties vary in length and cost. But they often cover components like the engine, transmission, electrical system, air conditioning, and power equipment. Review the details closely so you understand what’s covered and what limitations or deductibles may apply.

Ask the dealership if they offer extended warranty options or shop third party providers. Having this extra coverage on a used vehicle can help avoid surprise repair bills and provide peace of mind down the road.


Check Safety Features

Safety should be a top priority when buying any vehicle, especially a used one. When test driving the car, make sure to thoroughly check that all the safety features are functioning properly. Here’s what to look out for:


Airbags – Turn the car on and off and watch the airbag indicator lights. Make sure they come on as expected and don’t stay illuminated when the car is running, as that could indicate a problem. Press gently on the airbag covers to confirm they are intact and not loose or damaged.

ABS – Take the car to an empty parking lot and accelerate to around 25 mph. Then slam on the brakes hard without locking the wheels. The car should shudder slightly as the ABS engages and you should be able to maintain steering control.

Traction control – Again find an empty space where you can safely accelerate. Turn the traction control off, then accelerate hard while turning the wheel back and forth. You should notice wheel spin. Now turn traction control back on and repeat – the system should limit the wheel spin.

Check for outstanding recalls – Use the VIN number to check for any open safety recalls on the vehicle. Outstanding recalls need to be addressed before buying the car. Consider having the seller take care of any open recalls before purchase.

Test all lights, wipers and horn – Make sure headlights, brake lights, turn signals, parking lights, hazard lights, interior lights, and windshield wipers are functioning. Also confirm the horn works properly.


A thorough inspection of all safety systems will help ensure your used car purchase is as safe as possible. Taking the time to properly evaluate airbags, ABS, traction control, and recalls could prevent accidents down the road.


Take It for a Longer Test Drive

After doing an initial short test drive, it’s important to take the used car on a longer test drive of at least 15-20 miles. This will allow you to experience how the vehicle performs in different driving conditions that can reveal issues.

Make sure to take the car on the highway and get it up to speed. Listen for any noises and feel how it handles at 60-70 mph. Check the transmission shifting and make sure the car doesn’t vibrate at higher speeds.

Drive on city streets and make some tight turns. Listen for any clicking or clunking sounds which could indicate suspension issues. Test the brakes in stop and go traffic. See how the engine idles at stoplights.

Take the car uphill and accelerate hard to see how the engine performs under strain. Check that it shifts properly and doesn’t lose power. After cresting the hill, test the brakes on the downhill.

Following a longer test drive allows you to get a better feel for how the used car performs in normal driving situations. You may experience issues that don’t appear on a short 5-10 minute test drive around the block. Take your time and evaluate the vehicle carefully during an extended drive.


Have Your Mechanic Inspect Again

After your initial test drive and inspection, it can be wise to have your trusted mechanic take another look before you finalize the purchase. The first inspection may have missed some issues that crop up later. Or problems may appear after you’ve driven the vehicle more extensively. This second look by your mechanic is your last chance to uncover any lurking problems and potentially walk away if something concerning comes up.

Have your mechanic thoroughly inspect all the major systems again – the engine, transmission, electronics, suspension, etc. They may pick up on leaks, worn parts, or other problems that warrant repairs. Listen carefully to their assessment – a vehicle needing major repairs can quickly become a money pit.

Use this second inspection as an opportunity to drive the vehicle for an extended test drive. Put some miles on it and simulate your normal usage. See how it performs after warming up and getting up to highway speeds. Any issues that appear during this longer drive are definitely worth getting your mechanic’s opinion on.

If your mechanic does flag any new concerns on their second look, seriously consider walking away from the sale. You don’t want to get stuck with a problematic used car needing thousands in repairs right off the bat. This last inspection gives you an out if the car no longer seems like a smart purchase. Don’t feel bad about changing your mind – protecting yourself from a potential lemon is wise.


Negotiate the Price

Once you’ve thoroughly inspected the vehicle and are ready to talk numbers, it’s time to negotiate the price. Be prepared to factor in any repairs or reconditioning the car needs based on your inspection. If the tires need replacing soon or the brakes are worn, use that to negotiate the price down.

Have a budget in mind and know your maximum price. The seller will likely start higher than you want to pay. Don’t be afraid to make counteroffers until you reach an agreement. Refer to pricing guides online to help determine a fair price. Point out any flaws you found to justify offering less.

If you and the seller can’t agree on a price you’re comfortable with, be willing to walk away. Don’t get emotionally attached. There are always other used cars for sale. You want to feel good about the price you pay, so don’t cave if they won’t come down to your target price range.


Check Title and Registration

Before finalizing the purchase, be sure to verify that the seller has a clear title for the vehicle with no outstanding liens or loans. Ask to see the title document to confirm it is in the seller’s name and has no lienholders listed. Double check that the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) on the title matches that on the car itself. Also confirm the registration is up to date and not expired. An expired registration can lead to tickets or impound fees that you may become responsible for if you buy the car. Review the registration paperwork to verify it matches the seller’s name, address, and other details. Taking these steps helps ensure you are purchasing a used car with full legal title and proper registration, with no surprises down the road.


Close the Deal

The final step when buying a used car is to close the deal. This involves reviewing all the paperwork carefully and finalizing the sale.

Be sure to thoroughly read the entire sales contract before signing anything. Make sure all the agreed upon terms are correct, including the sale price, warranty details, and any other promises made by the dealer. Watch for any extra fees that may have been added at the last minute.

If financing the purchase, double check that the interest rate and loan terms match what you previously negotiated. Review all the fine print to avoid any surprises.

Once you’ve looked over the contract and are satisfied, go ahead and sign. Be sure to get copies of the paperwork for your records, including the title transfer documents.

Finally, pay for the vehicle and get a receipt. Most dealers accept certified bank checks or cashier’s checks. Whatever form of payment you use, make sure to get documentation proving you paid.

Taking the time to carefully review all the paperwork and tie up loose ends will help ensure your used car purchase goes smoothly. Don’t feel rushed – it’s a major purchase and worth getting right.



Buying a used car is a major purchase, so taking the time to thoroughly inspect the vehicle beforehand is crucial. Focusing on examining the exterior, interior, mechanical components, and taking it for an extensive test drive allows you to feel confident you’ve uncovered any potential issues. Having a trusted mechanic do a pre-purchase inspection provides an experienced second set of eyes. While it takes diligence on the front end, putting in the effort means you can avoid expensive problems down the road. Taking the proper steps to check over a used car before buying helps ensure you select a reliable vehicle that will meet your needs and budget.


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Questions About What To Look For in a Used Car

When buying a used car in Canada, you’ll want to thoroughly inspect both the exterior and interior. Check for any dents, rust, misaligned body panels, or scratches. Look under the hood for any fluid leaks. Open and close all doors, trunk, and hood to ensure proper fit and operation. Inspect tires for wear and age cracks. Inside, check all controls, electronics, and mechanical items for function. Sit in each seat to test comfort and look for damage. Inspect carpets and headliner for stains or damage. Check vehicle history reports for open recalls, accidents, theft, or extreme use. Ask to see all maintenance records to understand the care it received. And be sure to take it for an extensive test drive.

When buying a used car in Canada, review key paperwork like the bill of sale, vehicle history reports, ownership registration, safety standards certificate for the specific province, lien check, outstanding recall check, service records, and any additional warranty or return policies offered by the seller. Cross reference the VIN, mileage, specs, title status and maintenance records across all documentation.

In addition to the vehicle purchase price when buying a used car in Canada, expect to pay sales tax, registration fees, title transfer fees and applicable provincial tire and air conditioning taxes. Sales tax varies by province from 5% in Alberta to 15% in parts of Nova Scotia. Registration runs $30-90. Title transfers are usually under $20. Tire air taxes add 3-4% in most provinces. Be prepared for up to several hundred dollars in additional fees beyond vehicle cost.

The average annual cost of insuring a used car in Canada is $1,316 but varies dramatically by driver profile and province. British Columbia has the highest rates averaging $1,832 while Quebec has the lowest at $721 on average. Your personal driving history, vehicle type, usage amounts, age, credit and other factors determine your premium cost. Compare quotes across providers before purchasing the used vehicle.

Purchasing an extended warranty from the dealer or third party provider gives you peace of mind by covering certain repair costs past the initial term. However they add expense upfront and not all issues end up being covered. For newer used vehicles still under the original factory warranty, an extended warranty may provide less benefit. For high mileage or older used vehicles, the protection may justify the warranty cost but compare coverage details carefully before deciding.

Signs of flood damage when buying a used vehicle include damp or musty smells, fogging inside lights, stained, faded or mildewed upholstery, moisture in spare tire well, rust around doors or undercarriage, brittle wires under the dash, and mud or debris in strange places. Check carpets for water stains and under seats for silt. Confirm no flood history on the vehicle history report. Professional detailing can hide some signs so remain diligent during inspection.

Insist on a lien check when purchasing a used vehicle to uncover any outstanding loans not yet cleared on the title. Review the actual title document to confirm no liens listed. Request the bill of sale notes the seller guarantees clear title upon total payment. Complete the title transfer paperwork with your provincial registrar showing the lien satisfied and title fully in the new registered owner’s name once purchased.

Key questions to ask a private seller when buying their used vehicle include: Why are you selling the vehicle? How long have you owned it? How many owners were there prior to you? Do you have complete service records you can share? What is the general condition mechanically, electrically and cosmetically? Has it been in any accidents? Are there any existing problems I should know about? Are there any pending repairs needed that I should anticipate? Have all applicable taxes been paid on the vehicle? May I take the vehicle for an independent inspection? Your goal is determining detailed history.

Take precautions when test driving any used vehicle. Confirm valid insurance and driver’s license with seller before allowing a test drive. Drive in a mix of settings – city, highway, uphill, etc. Pay attention to any unusual sounds, smells, vibrations, pulls or warning lights. Test electronics and mechanical items thoroughly. Assess ride comfort over bumpy roads. Accelerate to highway speeds and brake hard at lower speeds ensuring proper response. Test at length to uncover any issues only apparent once vehicle reaches full operating temperature after 15+ minutes.

To properly break in a used vehicle, especially if new to you: Follow factory recommendations on gradual speed and RPM increase during first 1,000 km. Maintain easy acceleration and braking for first 300 miles. Vary your speed frequently during break-in period. Keep trips under 10 minutes for the first 20 hours of driving. Limit idling and avoid towing heavy loads initially. Follow the severe service maintenance schedule going forward. These steps help acclimate components to load and duty cycles reducing future repair needs.

Used vehicles purchased from dealerships in Canada undergo more reconditioning and safety checks, provide financing options, may include short warranties and give you more legal recourse than private sales. However private sellers generally offer better pricing and you can better verify detailed owner history and care. For those less familiar with vehicles, a dealership may provide more confidence. Get any promises from a private seller in writing. Shop both to optimize pricing and quality assurances.

Canadians enjoy numerous financing options for used vehicles beyond cash purchases including: low interest dealer financing from your chosen make, bank and credit union loans leveraging competitive rates, flexible terms from third-party lenders like auto finance companies designed especially for used vehicles, secured lines of credit using your home equity, refinancing your existing vehicle to pull equity into the used car purchase, and 0% financing deals from manufacturers incentivizing certified pre-owned models.

When buying a used vehicle in Canada, confirm all open recalls are addressed before purchase. Insist on seeing recall repair invoices if already completed by seller. Run the VIN through Transport Canada’s recall database or the manufacturer website to uncover outstanding actions. If open recalls exist, make any necessary repair part of purchase negotiation, with written commitment from seller to complete recall service post-purchase at their chosen certified dealership if timeline does not allow for addressing pre-sale.

Post-purchase paperwork to retain in your records for a used vehicle includes the bill of sale, loan financing documents, warranty contracts, ownership registration form, insurance documents with VIN, safety standards certificate, lien release, maintenance logs with receipts, any accident repair records, original window sticker if available, vehicle history reports run prior to purchase, recall clearance documents and any inspection checklists from mechanics or appraisers. Store in a safe place along with all ownership manuals.

After purchasing a used vehicle in Canada, take it to your chosen mechanic for a post-purchase inspection before any warranties expire. This catches any issues not uncovered during initial review. Focus the inspection on wear items due for replacement soon. Have them assess the battery, belts, brake pads, tires, shocks, transmission fluid and filters. They can provide repair estimates for your budget. Also complete any first service interval items suggested in your owner’s manual to start fresh.

If undisclosed issues arise post-purchase with your used vehicle in Canada, first approach the seller requesting assistance with repairs given lack of transparency during sale process. If they refuse, consult your provincial consumer protection agency and consider small claims court for issues documented to have been present during sale but omitted from disclosure. Extended warranty companies may also provide repair assistance. Dealerships generally offer more structured legal procedures than private sellers.

When picking up your newly purchased used vehicle, ensure safe transport home by having appropriate insurance coverage initiated the moment sale is complete, planning your route to avoid extreme weather or conditions, securing the vehicle properly to your transport trailer if required, having a second person accompany you for assistance if needed, packing essential roadside items like spare tires, phone chargers, emergency kits, confirming valid registration for any temporary transit permits, performing a thorough pre-departure inspection of signals, glass and lighting, and driving cautiously while getting accustomed to new vehicle.

Vehicles with the highest resale value in the Canadian used car market currently are pickup trucks from Toyota, Ford and Chevrolet from 2015-2020 model years. Full-size SUVs also retain greater value over time, particularly Toyota Sequoia, Lexus GX and Lincoln Navigator models. Honda and Subaru dominate residuals for other market categories like mid-size sedans (Accord, Legacy), hatchbacks (Civic, Impreza) and crossovers (CR-V, Outback). Shop these segments for better long term value retention when prices correctly.

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