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In my early twenties, I impulsively bought a vintage European car that I had spotted for sale on the side of the road (a decision I admit was based mostly on appearance). My dad visited soon after and noticed the car's odometer was not working. Luckily, the seller took the car back and refunded my money. I'm older and wiser now, and am once again searching for a used car. Do you have tips on what to watch out for? – Janice in Oakville, Ont.

The popular wisdom on what to watch for when buying a used vehicle includes a healthy dose of folklore. Bumper stickers and radio-station presets may speak volumes about the seller's taste, but really won't tell you about the condition of the car.

Obviously, if the vehicle is in visibly poor shape, if it shakes, smells or sputters, there's a problem. But what about issues that may be lurking under the hood, in the labyrinth of wires, hoses and switches that the average buyer knows little or nothing about? Solid mechanical know-how and brand-specific knowledge is needed to unearth a serious or hidden flaw, especially when dealing with a specialized vendor – or worse a curbsider.

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The most important pre-purchase step you can take is to have the vehicle inspected.

"Not just a safety inspection, but the complete vehicle," says George Iny, director of the Automobile Protection Association (APA). "On our website, you can download an inspection form for free if the shop you're using doesn't have one. The form forces them to check at least 30 or 40 items and do a road test."

Second, if you want to find a vehicle to carry you through years of motoring, don't be a price junkie. "Advice which says compare prices, don't pay too much, be cheap, look for a bargain – all of that is premised on the idea that every used car of the same year and model is roughly the same as the next one. While that's true for new cars, it's not true for used," Iny says.

"If you find 25 used Honda Fits for sale on Kijiji in Toronto, the cheapest five are cars you don't want to touch. Generally, we've found they're being peddled by curbers or dealers and may be accident rebuilds or have other issues not declared in history searches. There's a reason why the price is low," Iny says.

"The best place to look is among the more expensive 50 per cent of listings. Go visit and have a look at those vehicles. Because the sellers are probably not getting any phone calls, they're much more negotiable than the guy selling a car for $7,995 when it really should be $8,500-$9,000. He knows he'll find someone to take it at that price, and he's not negotiable. Whereas the guy asking $9,995 might be willing to take $500 or $1,000 off and is selling a much better car."

A good point to enter the market for a model is in its third and fourth year, when lease returns come in. "Because there's a relatively abundant supply of vehicles in that cohort, it tends to bring prices down, and you have a good selection. Depending on the brand, they're often one-third off, and sometimes a domestic product is up to half off. The car is good for another 15 years, so there's lots of value there," says Iny.

In addition to an inspection service, the APA offers a dealer referral service to members buying used vehicles in the Toronto area.

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Whichever route you choose, don't make a purchase decision until a thorough inspection and full vehicle history report have been performed.

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Send your questions about automotive buying, maintenance and repairs to globedrive@globeandmail.com

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About the Author

Joanne Will is based in Toronto. She has been a regular contributor to The Globe and Mail since 2009. In 2014, she was a Knight-Wallace Journalism Fellow at the University of Michigan. More

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