The pandemic has led many people to avoid public transportation, and as a result, sales of used cars have boomed in the last few months. If you're among the buyers, here's what you need to do as the car's new owner.
Start with a reading assignment. Many people ignore the owner's manual until something goes wrong. Don't wait: Read the manual cover to cover on Day 1. For older cars, it's probably a paperbound book. For newer cars, it's most likely offered in digital form. If a manual didn't come with your car, you can get one from an online source, regardless of the vehicle's age.
The owner's manual will tell you when the various systems must be serviced. It also will show you how to find things like the dipstick, coolant tank and power-steering reservoir. Some provide instructions for maintenance jobs you can do yourself.
Keep an eye on the tires. They are critical. Check air pressure weekly. Do it before driving because pressure will rise with tire temperature. Keep the tires inflated to the vehicle manufacturer's specification. You'll find it in the owner's manual and, in many cases, on the door jamb. And check the spare, as well. You might need it someday.
Check the oil level and change the oil regularly. Oil keeps things humming. All cars use some oil in normal driving, and a used car might use a quart or slightly more between oil changes. If you allow the oil level to drop well below what is prescribed, it could damage your engine. But don't add oil until it's at least a quart down. Use the type prescribed by the vehicle manufacturer.
Oil becomes contaminated over time, so it must be changed regularly. For cars driven largely on high-mileage trips, an interval of 6,000 miles is sufficient. If you drive only 1 or 2 miles every time you use your vehicle, an interval of 4,000 miles is better, because moisture contamination is a problem when engines rarely reach operating temperature. (Newer cars have a system that monitors oil condition and tells you when it's time for service.)
Check other fluid levels as well, including coolant, brake, power-steering and transmission fluids.
Make sure you can keep your eyes on the road. If your windshield streaks when you turn on the wipers, it's time to replace them. You'll find instructions in your owner's manual. Make sure you get the correct blades for your car. If you don't want to try replacing them yourself, most service stations will do it while you wait.
Let your lights shine. Before purchasing a used car, make sure the lights work — high- and low-beam headlights, taillights, turn signals and brake lights. Thereafter, check them once a month. Some bulbs are easily serviced. Others, such as complex LED arrays and headlights, might require more disassembly work than you want to tackle. Whether you have to pay someone for the work or not, don't drive without a full complement of lights.
Don't be caught dead. If you don't know how old a car's battery is, having a set of jumper cables in the trunk can keep you from worrying about that day when the battery suddenly doesn't have enough juice to turn the engine. You can't always find a good soul who will give you a jump. That problem can be resolved by purchasing an emergency jump starter. Many of these portable power packs sell for less than $100.
Although gas/electric hybrids have a high-voltage circuit for powering the electric motor, they also have a 12-volt circuit that handles other chores. In many cases, starting the engine is among them. A hybrid's 12-volt battery can be jump-started, but take care that you make the right connections. See your owner's manual.
Keep it clean. Washing your car will keep it looking good and protect it. Insects, tree sap, road salt and other nefarious substances can damage paint and speed corrosion. So regular washing is recommended. Doing it yourself with a bucket, sponge and garden hose might appeal to your self-reliant instincts, but it's not the green way to go. You'll waste far more water and do more damage to the environment washing your car in the driveway than you will by going to a carwash that recycles water and safely disposes of waste.