Buying a car is the second most important purchase decision in most Indian households, right after buying a home. But, for first time car buyers and for many who are looking to upgrade to a larger, more premium vehicle in a segment above, the options could be limited if they are stuck within the confines of a budget. The best alternative for these buyers is a used or pre-owned car.

Over the past decade the base and quality of pre-owned cars available in the market has dramatically improved. Along with the explosion in choice available for new car buyers, so too has been the case for buyers looking for a high-quality used car.

The recent National Green Tribunal order seeking to de-register all diesel vehicles older than 10 years in Delhi will not lead to an increase in the population of quality used cars in the NCR (National Capital Region).

After all, most (though not all) cars that are over ten years old are unlikely to be very road worthy. Unless you are a collector and are expecting to own, restore and use the car sparingly.

But, the NGT’s anti-diesel stance (we will not go into the merits or otherwise of the view here) is likely to lead to a move away from the fuel even amongst existing car owners and could generally lead to an increase in the used-car population in the capital. Similarly, other cities around the country have been witnessing a churn where a combination of factors including launch of new models and a swing towards shorter ownership cycles are leading to increased choice in the used-car market.

But, how does one go about looking for a quality pre-owned car? What are the precautions to take and pointers to note for locating your dream car from the parking lot housing others’ erstwhile dream cars? Here are some points to remember.

Flexible Budget

The first point to remember is to identify the car model that most satisfies your head and heart. Yes, heart matters even though it is a used-car you are looking at. But, remember not to get too carried away by the prospect of an upgrade. Cars can be expensive to maintain. So, do your homework online or by word-of-mouth to verify how expensive (versus its peers in the segment) the car is to own and run.

Don’t buy a much older car (5+ years) just because it is cheaper. Keep your budget a bit flexible so that you don’t miss out on a good used-car for the sake of a few thousand rupees extra. Do your homework to get a fix on the average prices being asked for online and in used-car dealerships in your city. Look for cars that are not so popular in the used market, but which have a solid reputation in terms of longevity and low maintenance costs.

Accident History

The most critical factor to consider, check and cross-verify about the used car you have short-listed, is its accident history. Most cars operated on crowded Indian streets are prone to nicks, dents and scratches. So, while fender-benders are common, if the used-car has been through a bigger body bending incident, you must then check if it has lead to any long-term damage.

A physical, body exam can give you some answers. Paint sprayed over door seals, wheel well liners, boot strut ends and mufflers are giveaways for fairly extensive damage that has since been covered up. Even if you think that the used-car is from a trusted source or known owner, it still might be worth going through the process of checking the car’s accident history.

Of course, the other way of checking the car’s past is through its documentation. Ask for and scrutinise the car’s registration papers for previous owners if any, check the service record for any gaps in documentation or extensive repair bills and the insurance papers for the continuity of no-claim bonuses year after year and whether the change in insurer was simply because of a lower premium quote. If possible, check with the dealer who has been regularly servicing the car if the car has had any major repairs at any point in the past.


Most car manufacturers of today have a transparent and publicly announced recall programme for their vehicles. Recalls are a reflection of the maturity of the market and is what a responsible manufacturer ought to do to instil confidence in the mind of the buyer. Despite stringent quality and testing standards, many car makers end up discovering defective parts later into the car’s production cycle.

But if you end up with a car that has not been sent to the workshop for replacement of the defective part/s, then you might be faced with the prospect of a malfunction after purchase. So, check in the company website or other media sources for any publicly announced recall announcement for the car model you are considering and reconfirm if the model at hand has been part of the programme.

It is even more imperative if the recall was for replacing a critical component like a defective airbag.

Quality of powertrain and body

However under-qualified you think you might be for checking the quality of the car’s engine, gearbox and body, there are some fairly simple tests that you can put it through to answer the all important question – is the price worth it?

Make sure that the used-car you’ve short-listed is available for a fairly extended test drive. Switch your used car dealer if you are not allowed atleast 45 minutes with the car.

While driving check the quality of the gearshift, consistency of acceleration and braking, vibration levels while idling and the quality of ride over bad patches of road. Check oil levels, tyre tread quality, and ensure that there is no engine or battery warning lights on within the instrument cluster. A musty smell in the car could mean water ingress and generally you must check to ensure that there hasn’t been any flood-related damage to the car.

Expert guidance

Nowadays, there are a lot of resources online to locate quality used cars. But, when in doubt seek expert guidance. Again you could follow the steps listed above and do your own due diligence or take a known mechanic who could assist in locating a good car for you. The other option is simply to head to the nearest manufacturer-owned used-car dealership or outlet.

Outfits like Maruti True Value, Ford Assured or Toyota UTrust have an extensive in-house testing and certifying process that attempt to ensure that you won’t land a lemon. Most of these will also offer an extended warranty and free service for the first year of user-car ownership.

Ford Assured for example says its used cars go through a rigorous 169 quality checkpoints by Ford Certified engineers. Maruti True Value has its own 120-point check, offers three free services, does all the paper work for you and now has over 1,000 outlets in more than 770 cities across the country.