Used Car Checklist - What to Look For
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Used Car Checklist - What to Look For

By Autolist Editorial | March 15, 2021

A new car loses a significant percentage of its value as soon as the owner drives it off the dealership lot. Buying a used vehicle can save you money in upfront charges, depreciation costs, and even insurance premiums. However, buying used requires a little more research to ensure the purchase of a quality vehicle.

Do an internet search for the type of vehicle you're looking for: Year, make, and model. Many models have dedicated owner's forums, which may have buyers guides with common issues or repairs to look for.

A comprehensive used car checklist and inspection can tell if what you are about to buy is a peach or a lemon. You can uncover hidden problems in a used car's body, powertrain, and electrical systems with a simple list.

Ideally, it would help if you had a qualified mechanic inspect the vehicle before negotiating 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, that is an immediate deal-breaker.

1: An Informal Toolkit

Before you head out to check on a used car, make sure to bring a few things with you to assist your inspection. Bring a notebook and pen to take notes on the car's condition, any problems, the mileage, VIN, and asking price.

Bring paper towels or a shop rag to check the car's oil properly. Have a bright flashlight handy for checking beneath the vehicle and into dark corners both inside and outside.

If the vehicle has a CD player or other audio hookups, make sure to bring a disc and any other equipment you need to test if everything works. Bring the car history report with you to check out any areas reported to have been involved in a crash.

A tire pressure gauge is essential, as well as a penny. Flip the coin upside down, and if the tire tread covers part of Abraham Lincoln's head, it has more than the legal 2/32-inch tread depth. Wear clothes you don't mind getting dirty, as you may be lying on your back in a parking lot.

2: Paperwork

Ask the seller for the title and repair records of the car. Check if the vehicle fits the history report's description, if the title is in the owner's name, and if the service records are comprehensive and up to date.

Proceed with caution if the car is registered to someone else or if the seller cannot produce service records or even give the repair shop's name. 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. Some car dealerships provide this report for free. If the dealer gives you a copy of the report, ensure that it matches the vehicle by double-checking the VIN on the paperwork and the VIN in the lower left-hand corner of the windshield in front of the driver.

Look for title history, mileage inaccuracies, liens held on the car, 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 damage requiring repairs that exceeded the car's value.

While vehicles with salvage titles are usually safe and roadworthy, their value is significantly lower than those with clean titles. While that may get you a significant discount when buying, it might make the car harder to sell later.

3: Exterior

Make sure you view the car during the day and in good lighting. Walk around the vehicle and inspect the body for signs of scratches, dents, and rust. A few minor marks are typical for a used car, but significant dents, severe corrosion, and faded or cracked paint are causes for concern.

Check if the body panels line up evenly and if they are of the same color and shade. If they are not, it could indicate the car was in an accident and poorly repaired.

A magnet will help figure out if the steel body panels have any filler in them, as an agent like Bondo affects those parts' integrity. If the vehicle was damaged and has aluminum panels, look for records that these were repaired by a shop that was qualified to work with that material. Bounce the car from one corner and listen for creaking noises. Unusual noises and uneven tire wear indicate potential suspension problems.

4: Interior

Get inside the car, turn the ignition, and make sure all the gauges are working. Confirming that the speedometer, fuel gauge, temperature gauge, and any auxiliary ones are working saves headaches when the car suddenly breaks down.

Make sure that the mileage reflects the general condition of the car. Worn upholstery or pedals in a vehicle with very low indicated mileage might be a sign of an irregularity with the odometer. While you are still in 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 air conditioning and fan at all speeds. Ensure that the air conditioning blows cold air and that it doesn't cause the engine to lag.

If equipped with a sunroof, be sure it operates smoothly and opens and closes entirely. Have someone else turn on the high beams, reverse lights, and turn signals and check from outside if they are working.

Try the windshield wipers by discharging fluid and wiping at each speed to make sure they work correctly. Open and close the glove box, and any other storage cubbies, ensuring they all operate as intended.

Try the power windows on all sides, using both the main switch and the individual switches. Run them up and down more than once, and do the same with all the door locks.

While you are still inside the car, close the doors and windows and note what the interior smells like. A musty odor indicates there was water in the vehicle at one point. That could be as simple as a small leak in a seal or as severe as a flood-damaged vehicle. Flooded vehicles could have mold, electrical, or rust problems, so find the history and see what kinds of repairs were made.

If you smell a strong detergent, the dealer may have tried to cover up the smell of mold or mildew. Peel the carpet and floor mats to check for stains or other signs of water damage. Use your flashlight to see into dark corners and always look for signs of rust.

Also, make sure all of the seatbelts work and retract as intended, and the airbag light in the instrument panel goes off a few seconds after startup.

5: Underbody

Your used car inspection would be incomplete if you forgot the undercarriage. If you can, ask the seller to jack up the car to inspect the underbody for signs of denting, bending, and corrosion (or you or someone you're with should at least get down on the ground and peer under the car. Use a flashlight to see more clearly.

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 being involved in a severe crash.

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.

While you're under the vehicle, check the exhaust system, including the muffler and tailpipe. Look for signs of holes, cracking, or excessive rust.

6: 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.

The owner's manual — which the seller should have or can access online — can guide you to check the fluids. If any of these fluids is below the minimum level, it could be 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.

The state of the engine oil can also be revealing. If engine oil has water droplets or appears foamy, it may mean a car has a head gasket failure, or other components may be cracked or broken, and you are potentially looking at high repair costs.

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 hood's underside for dried fluid; this can point to a burst hose.

7: 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 ignition system components 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.

Look at the instrument panel and notice any illuminated warning lights that don't go off immediately.

When you take the test drive, try the car at different speeds and on various roads (rough streets and smooth highways). 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. If the vehicle has four-wheel-drive or all-wheel-drive that the driver has to activate manually (with a button, knob, or lever), make sure to take it to an area to engage the transfer case and ensure that everything works smoothly.

The brake pedal should be smooth and responsive. A well-maintained car will not make grinding noises or pull to one side when you apply the brakes. Also, make sure to test the parking brake. The steering wheel should be straight and responsive, not hard to turn, or stuck slightly to one side.

Make sure you put the vehicle in reverse and do a three-point turn. These two simple maneuvers can reveal issues with their respective systems.

Pay attention to how the transmission shifts. If the transmission clunks when you put it into gear or reverse, that's a sign that it may need repair or replacement soon. 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 speed, feel the hood to make sure it's not too hot. Pop the hood again and listen for any sounds or unexplained heat. Walk around the vehicle while it's running and notice if it has any unusual odors or if the smoke coming out of the tailpipe is overly black, white, or has tinges of blue. You shouldn't smell any strong burning odors or strong gas smells.

Wrapping Up:

A used car inspection checklist can help you verify that the vital components 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 vehicle that checks all the boxes and feels right if you keep looking.