The average new car loses more than 12 percent of its value within the first year of purchase. Buying a used car can save you money in upfront charges, depreciation costs and insurance premiums. However, buying used requires a little more research to make sure you’re choosing a quality vehicle.
A comprehensive used car inspection can tell if what you are about to buy is a peach or a lemon. With a simple checklist, you can uncover hidden problems in the body, powertrain and electrical systems of a used car. Ideally, you should have a qualified mechanic inspect the car before you negotiate for purchase. If a specialist is not available to you, take a friend or family member with you. He or she might spot something you missed and help you weigh the purchase decision. As a general rule, if a dealer or private seller—for any reason—should object to a thorough inspection of the used car on sale, walk away.
Check 1: Paperwork
The first thing on your used car inspection checklist should be the vehicle’s documentation. Ask the seller for the title and service and repair records of the car you are interested in. Check if the vehicle fits the description on record, if the title is in the owner’s name, and if the service records are recent. Proceed with caution if the car is registered to someone else or if the seller cannot produce service records. Maintenance records can be helpful because they give you an idea of how well the car has been cared for.
Look up the vehicle identification number (VIN) and obtain a Vehicle History Report from CarFax, AutoCheck, or any of the other providers of vehicle history reports. Most car dealerships provide this report for free. If the dealer gives you a copy of the report, ensure it is recent and for the specific vehicle you’re interested in. Look for title history blemishes, mileage inaccuracies, liens held on the vehicle and any record of prior accidents or damage. If the title includes the word “salvage,” it means an insurance company deemed it a total loss after it sustained extensive damage from an accident or flooding. While vehicles with salvage titles are usually safe and roadworthy, their value is significantly lower than vehicles with clean titles, something to remember when buying or selling a salvage vehicle.
Check 2: Exterior
Make sure you view the car during the day and in the light. Walk around the car and inspect the body for signs of scratches, dents, and rust. A few slight marks are normal for a used car, but significant dents and large patches of rust and faded or cracked paint are causes for concern. Check if the body panels line up evenly and if they are of same color and shade. If they are not, it could be a sign the car was in an accident and was poorly repaired. Take a magnet with you to make sure it sticks to the body panels; if it doesn’t, it’s usually a sign that that panel has been repaired but not replaced.
Look over the tires. If they are of different brands and sizes or have faded treads or side cracks, they may need replacing. Do the penny test to make sure there’s enough tread on them; put a penny upside down in the main grooves of the tire — the tread should be deep enough to touch Lincoln’s head. Check the wheels’ lug nuts to make sure none are missing. Ensure the jack, spare tire, and lug wrench are on the car. Check if the jack is working and if the spare tire is inflated and in good condition.
Bounce the car from one corner and listen for creaking noises. Unusual noises—like uneven tire wear—indicate potential suspension problems.
Check 3: Interior
Get inside the car, turn the ignition, and make sure all the gauges are working. Confirming that the speedometer, fuel gauge, battery charge gauge, and temp gauge are working saves you the headache of getting speeding tickets and of your car abruptly running out of fuel, losing charge, and overheating.
Make sure that the mileage reflects the general condition of the car. While you are still on the driver’s seat, run all indicators, switches, and knobs on the dashboard. Check if the interior lights, signal indicators, and mirror adjustment systems are working. Turn up the heat and run the AC system on all speeds. Have someone else turn on the high beams, reverse lights, and turn signals and check from outside if they are working.
While you are still inside the car, close the doors and windows and take a hard sniff. If there is a musty smell, it could be a sign the car sat in still waters for some time and was probably flood damaged. If you smell a strong detergent, the dealer may have tried to cover up the smell of mold or mildew. Peel the carpet and check for stains or other signs of water damage.
Consider the safety of the car. Before you exit, try out the front and rear seats and ensure their adjustments are working. Check that the airbags are intact and that all the seatbelts work.
Check 4: Underbody
Your used car inspection would be incomplete if you forgot the undercarriage. If you can, ask the seller to jack up the car so you can inspect the underbody for signs of denting, bending, and rust (or you or someone you’re with should at least get down on the ground and peer under the car.
If the frames or axles have signs of damage, it means the vehicle was in a major accident that might have compromised its wheel alignment and overall safety. Signs of straightening on the chassis and insides of the trunk may also be evidence of involvement in a serious accident.
Rust on the undercarriage may be an indication the vehicle was water damaged. If that is the case, the damage could have compromised the electrical systems. Look for signs of fluid leaks on the undercarriage and on the ground below the car. Proceed with caution if you spot drops or puddles of oil or fluid on any of these two places.
Check 5: Under the Hood
You can tell if a used car has been running in good shape by checking five fluid levels: engine oil, coolant, transmission fluid, brake fluid, and power steering fluid. A car owner’s manual, which the seller should have, can guide you to check the fluids. If any of these fluids is below the minimum level, it is an indication the car has been poorly maintained. When the engine is cool, open the radiator cap to make sure it’s full of coolant.
If engine oil has water droplets or appears foamy, it means some components may be cracked or broken and you are looking at a potential repair nightmare. Clean transmission fluid should have a bright to dark red, translucent color. If it appears brown, has a burnt smell or has metal particles in it, there might be worn components in the transmission causing excess friction.
Check the inside of the engine bay and the underside of the hood for dried fluid; this can point to a burst hose.
Check 6: Startup and Drive
When you start the car, pay attention to how long it takes to start. If it cranks too long, you may need to replace some components of the ignition system or the battery. Listen for abnormal noises when the engine starts up and when it is idling. Consider it a red flag if the engine makes loud or inconsistent sounds while idling. Rev the engine with the door open and listen for any sounds that don’t sound normal.
When you’re driving, try the car at different speeds and on various roads (rough streets and smooth highway). Irritating rattles or other unusual sounds are potential causes for concern. Pay attention to how the car steers and brakes. It should steer straight without vibrating or shaking, and it should not clunk or put up resistance when turning.
The brakes should be smooth and responsive. A well-maintained car will not make grinding noises or pull to one side when you apply the brakes.
Make sure you put the vehicle in reverse and do a K-Turn; these two simple maneuvers can reveal issues with their respective systems. If the transmission clunks when you put it into gear or reverse, that’s a sign that it may need to be rebuilt or replaced in the near future. When turning, pay attention to the steering feedback and listen for any awkward noises or movements.
At the end of the drive — during which you should have taken the car up to freeway speeds — feel the hood to make sure it’s not too hot. Pop the hood again and listen for any sounds or unexplained heat.
A Final Word
A used car inspection checklist can help you verify that the vital components of a vehicle are working as they should. More than that, it can build your confidence in the purchase process and give you the ammunition you need to challenge the asking price. But however comprehensive your checklist is, if something does not feel right, trust your instincts and walk away. Unless you are looking for a rare classic car, you are almost always guaranteed to find a car that checks all the boxes and feels right if you keep looking.