Finding a trouble-free used car has nothing to do with luck and everything to do with applying good research and investigative skills.
To help you determine whether a used vehicle is a good value or potential trouble, here's some advice from Consumer Reports:
-- Check the reliability record. A good way to reduce the risk of purchasing a trouble-prone vehicle is to select models with a good reliability record before you begin shopping. Consumer Reports' annual subscriber survey provides exclusive real-world reliability information that can help you narrow your selections.
-- Read the window sticker. Usually attached to a window, the buyer's guide must contain certain information, including whether the vehicle is being sold "as is" or with a warranty, and what percentage of repair costs (if any) the dealer is obligated to pay. The buyer's guide information overrides any contrary provisions in your sales contract.
-- Check the exterior. Begin by doing a walk-around of the car, looking for dents, chipped paint, mismatched body panels or parts, broken lamp housings and chipped windows. Paint overspray on chrome or rubber trim or in the vehicle's wheel wells is a telltale sign of body-panel repair.
-- Check the interior. A long look into the cabin can reveal such obvious problems as a sagging headliner, cracked dashboard and missing knobs, handles and buttons. Frayed seat belts or ones with melted fibers (because of friction) may be evidence of a previous frontal impact above 15 mph -- damaged safety belts should always be replaced.
Prematurely worn pedals or a sagging driver's seat are signs that the vehicle has very high mileage.
-- Check under the hood. At first glance, the engine, radiator and battery should be relatively grease-free and have very little or no corrosion. Belts and hoses should be pliable and unworn. Look for wet spots, which can indicate leaking oil or fluids. Melted wires, tubes or lines, or a blackened firewall may be signs of overheating or even an engine fire.
-- Check the tires. Wear should be even across the width of the tread and the same on the left and right sides of the car. Tires that are frequently used while over-inflated tend to have more wear in the middle; tires driven while under-inflated tend to wear more on the sides. Heavy wear on the outside shoulder near the sidewall of the tire indicates a car that has been driven hard. This can be a sign that other parts of the car may suffer from excessive wear due to aggressive driving.
-- Check the vehicle's history. A vehicle-history report from CarFax or Experian Automotive can alert you to possible odometer fraud; reveal past fire, flood and accident damage; or tell you if a rebuilt or salvage title has ever been issued for the vehicle.
-- Visit a mechanic. Before you buy a used vehicle, Consumer Reports recommends having it inspected by a qualified mechanic who routinely does automotive diagnostic work. A thorough diagnosis should cost around $120.