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You don't have to be an expert to decide whether a used car is worth paying a mechanic to check out. The key steps to choosing a good used car is to follow these guidelines below.

Get the name and telephone number of the previous owner if you buy the car from a dealer. If the dealer won't give you this information from the title, pass up the car (it could be stolen).

Call the former owner and ask what the car's major problems were (not if it had any problems). Also, get the mileage on the car when it was sold. If the speedometer now reads less, it has been tampered with. Go elsewhere.

Inspect the car yourself. Even a superficial look can reveal some signs that will warm you off or will be worth getting repair estimates before you settle on a price.

Check the car for signs of fresh undercoating. There is only one incentive for a dealer to undercoat an old car: To hide rust. Check this with a knife or screwdriver (with the dealer's permission). If you find rust forget the car.

Rub your finger inside the tailpipe. If it comes out oily, the car is burning oil. Your mechanic should find out why.

Open and close all the doors. A door that has to be forced is another sign of possible wreck.

Check the tires. Are they all the same type? Does the spare match? If there is excessive wear on the edges of any single tire, the car is probably out of alignment.

Check the brakes by applying strong pressure to the pedal and holding if for 30 seconds. If it continues to the floor, it needs work.

Check for rust around molding, under the bumper, at the bottom of the doors, in the trunk, under floor mats and around windows. Lumps in vinyl tops are usually a sign of rust. Rust and corrosion on the radiator mean leaks.

Test-drive the car, and note anything that doesn't work, from the air conditioner to the windshield wipers. Listen for knocks in the engine and grinding or humming in the gears. Check the brakes and the steering. Drive over bumpy terrain to check the shock absorbers.