A mechanical inpection is your best bet for avoiding a used car that’s not as advertised. That inspection takes time and usually costs money, though, so it’s best to limit the cars you get checked to a chosen few. 

The good thing is, you don’t have to be a mechanic yourself to identify a vehicle worth adding to that shortlist. 

Marc Auger, an Ottawa-based independent mechanic with 30 years experience in the auto industry, says a test drive will reveal whether a car is worth considering. 

“If you do nothing else, take the car for a test drive,” says Marc Auger, an Ottawa-area independent mechanic with 30 years experience in the auto industry. “If the seller is reluctant, that’s a heads-up.” 

Once you’re cleared to take a spin, be sure you’re the one who starts the car, so you can see what the warning lights in the instrument panel do. They should all turn on when the car is started, and then go out after a moment. If any of the usual lights – oil pressure, brake, check engine and battery are the important ones in most cars – don’t turn on, ask why. Don’t put it past a seller with something to hide to remove the lightbulbs from warning indicators, rather than getting the car fixed, says Auger. 

When you’re on the road, listen for clunking noises, which indicate suspension and/or steering problems that could range from minor to serious. 

Erratic engine speed could mean transmission trouble. In a manual transmission, that calls out a bad clutch, an expensive, but relatively straightforward repair. An automatic that slips is a bigger deal, often necessitating an even pricier rebuild to get it working properly again. 

Be suspicious of a car that won’t drive a straight line on a flat road without your help. It could mean the car needs an alignment, or that it was in an accident and the structure is no longer “true.” Check the tires, too; uneven wear is a good secondary clue of alignment or structural problems. 

New tires are a good selling point, Auger suggests, but a seller can use those to hide symptoms of worn steering and suspension components. 

Auger says electronic odometers have made it difficult for unscrupulous sellers to fudge a car’s true mileage, but he suggests being suspicious of any car with especially low mileage. His suggestion is to look at the pedals: if the odometer reading is quite low, but the pedals are well worn, assume that something is not as it seems. 

He suggests also doing online research of the make and models you’re considering, to find out what that car’s common problems are. Ask the seller for service records. If they can’t produce them, or if they reveal holes in the car’s maintenance history, the seller could have something to hide. 

If, after all that, the car looks legitimate and drives well, take it to a mechanic for an inspection. Auger says that a secondary inspection by a body shop is a good idea too, to identify cars that have undergone rust or accident repairs. 

His final word of advice? 

“If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.”