3 Simple Things To Look For When Buying a Used Car

I'm going to tell you about some very easy things to look for that can save you a lot of money if you buy a used car: brake pads, rotors, and tires.

These are bigger money wear and tear parts, so don't assume they're "new" because they look okay at a glance on a pre-owned vehicle.

Not only should you build replacements for these parts into your budget for the life of the car, knowing how to spot worn out parts could also save your life.

Grab a flashlight. I promise this stuff is easy to spot.

photo: Tessa Hall

We'll use the pre-owned car I bought last month as an example.

Rotors:

In the pic, you can see my buddy Chris checking to see if the rotors have little lines spidering from the holes drilled in it. Once those lines either meet other lines from opposing drilled holes in the rotor or the edge of the rotor itself, you need to replace the rotor.

Another time to replace a rotor: if you see a "lip" on the outside of the rotor (depending on the depth). That lip starts forming as the brake pad wears away the metal of the rotor over time as you brake. The brake pad doesn't extend to the extreme outside edge of the rotor, so that edge winds up higher than the rest of the rotor.

You can sometimes get rotors refinished (the outer "lip" worn down to match the surface level of the rest of the rotor), but it's not the same as replacing them outright. Don't expect the same sort of lifetime from refinished rotors compared to new rotors.

Brake pads:

You've got two parts to a brake pad: the brake pad itself, and the backing plate. They're essentially glued together to form one piece: the softer part that grips the rotor (the actual brake "pad"), snuggled against a harder metal known as the backing plate.

See the red thing in the wheel well where Chris is shining the light? That's the brake caliper. It holds the brake pad in place. You'll shine your flashlight UNDER the caliper (so stand in front of it) to see how much of the pad itself is still there. The pad starts out life the same width as the backing plate.

If the pad is close to half the width of the backing plate, it needs to be replaced.

(Note: most calipers aren't red, but either black or gray...possibly brown-ish if they're dirty enough.)

Tires:

TIRES CAN BE DANGEROUS EVEN IF THEY'VE GOT PLENTY OF TREAD.

Remember playing with PlayDoh as a kid? If you left it out long enough, it dried up, got all crusty and became utterly useless (and gross). The rubber in tires reacts similarly.

You can have a tire that's literally never been driven on be completely useless if it's old enough. That's because the rubber dried out and now you've got no grip. The less grip you have, the higher chance you have of losing control of the car.

Your tires should be no older than five years. Really, once you hit that five year mark for most tires, it's better to replace them.

I KNOW REPLACING TIRES IS EXPENSIVE AND THEY LOOK FINE.

They're not fine. It's the difference between having those Fisher Price adjustable roller skates with the plastic wheels as a kid that made your legs cramp up from trying to control them...and roller blades with the really sticky rubber wheels that let you fly around corners almost parallel with the ground.

Tires have the date of manufacture on the tire itself. Look for word, "DOT," on your tire, followed by a string of numbers. At the very end of that string of numbers should be four numbers grouped together. The first two of those numbers records the week of manufacture, followed by the last two numbers that tell you the year.

EG: 0219 means the tire was manufactured in the second week of 2019 (which would mean it was manufactured in January 2019).

Checking for worn out rotors, brake pads and tires helps you narrow down a desirable pre-owned vehicle. If you spot worn out parts, either negotiate to get them replaced, or negotiate the price to give you room to replace them once you buy the car.

Do your due diligence to research how much it costs to replace those parts for the car you want to buy.

I also recommend taking a car that passes your preliminary inspection to an independent mechanic who can do a more in-depth pre-purchase inspection. That typically costs $100-$150. It's worth it to catch a problem that might cost you $2,500 down the road.

Happy car shopping!

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