When it is time to buy a new car, you can be sure that nobody else besides the dealership has had it before you. You do not need to worry about its condition, how it has been treated, or if will have any hidden mechanical defects. A used car is different. Even a vehicle history report and full inspection may not uncover some of the deepest secrets hiding within a used car’s past.
In order to do everything possible to avoid a used car buying nightmare, you should conduct a thorough inspection of any used car yourself. Your own used car inspection checklist will help you methodically work through the ins and outs of any pre-owned vehicle so you can have relative confidence that what you are buying is worth the asking price.
A used car checklist is especially important when buying a used vehicle from a private seller, but even a pre-owned vehicle offered by a dealership can have hidden issues. Certified pre-owned vehicles often have to pass their own inspection checklist to become certified, but you can always ask to see what is on that checklist. It never hurts to conduct another inspection yourself.
Do the Prep Work:
Before ever stepping foot at the dealership or meeting a private seller in person, you should do some prep work on the used vehicle in question. This part of the inspection is often overlooked. It can be tedious, but it is arguably one of the most important parts of any used car inspection checklist.
Examine the Listing:
One of the first and easiest parts of the prep work is to look at the listing for the vehicle. Many dealerships will have a comprehensive set of photos and often have a complimentary vehicle history report included in the listing.
If you are looking at a private listing, the amount of information they provide will often tell you much about the vehicle in question. If they provide a ton of details and pictures, it usually means they are serious about selling the vehicle and that they have nothing to hide. Some will note in the advertisement to ask if you want more details.
Any listing with only a few pictures or low-quality pictures should raise red flags. For listings that do have pictures, you can begin to get an idea of the vehicle’s condition. Sellers that are hesitant to provide details like the odometer reading or vehicle identification number, and those selling a vehicle “as-is” should garner extra caution.
Vehicle History Report:
If a dealership or private seller does not provide a vehicle history report, you should always use the vehicle’s VIN to get one yourself. They can cost anywhere between $25 and $100, but they are worth it. They show events reported to the previous owner’s insurance company.
These reports are not always perfect, though. Having one is infinitely better than not having one, but contrary to what many believe, a vehicle history report may not show every single historical event in any given vehicle’s past.
Carfax and Autocheck are the two premier vehicle history reporting services available, but there are some other free VIN checking resources available that can give some basic historical information. When looking through Carfax and Autocheck reports, look for things like odometer reports, service records, reported title events, and accident records.
Vehicle Research and Info:
Another step you should take is to research the make and model of the vehicle you are looking to purchase. There is a myriad of sites that review vehicles, including Autolist. You can see what experts say about them, how they are expected to operate, and what they should feel like. Every vehicle will eventually have its issues. Knowing what to expect will help you plan accordingly.
Resources like Consumer Reports and Car Complaints are helpful for showing problematic makes, models, brands, and model years. The IIHS and NHTSA will provide safety and recall information. You can even use the free VINCheck database from the National Insurance Crime Bureau to see reported thefts or salvage titles.
Things to Bring:
Lastly, you will want to gather a few things to bring with you when you finally inspect a potential used vehicle. A pen and notebook are always helpful.
You should also carry a flashlight, a magnet, and a cloth or paper towel. A flashlight and magnet will help you find hidden damage and hard-to-see areas of the vehicle. A cloth will come in handy when it is time to check the oil. An OBD scan tool is helpful if you have one.
The Pre-Inspection Details:
You have now arrived in person to inspect the vehicle in question. Before you get started, you should get a few more details from the current seller that might not be answered in the vehicle history report or reviews you have read.
Questions for the seller about how the vehicle has been used in the past, their own opinion on the condition of the vehicle, confirmation of the asking price, confirmation of regular oil changes, how many previous owners have had the vehicle, and how the vehicle is currently operating can provide confirmation or raise red flags about the vehicle.
The more that lines up with your research so far, the better off you are likely to be.
The Visual Inspection:
Before even getting into the vehicle and doing anything, there are plenty of things you can look for to determine its condition. The goal of the visual inspection is to assess the overall condition of the vehicle and look for obvious signs of damage that may not have been previously disclosed.
Dents, scratches, and dings in the bodywork are obvious things to look for, but they can come in all shapes and sizes. Close inspection can reveal dings that the previous owner could have attempted to paint over and hide. Check for rust and bubbling.
Paint condition is another fairly obvious detail to inspect. Paint can be expensive to fix if it is in poor condition. Is the color uniform across the entire vehicle? Is the color duller in one section than in another? Is the clearcoat starting to wear away?
A less obvious detail to inspect is the fitment of body panels. If there are large gaps between the hood, fenders, doors, and bumpers, it could be a sign of a previous accident and subsequent sloppy repairs.
Windows and Windshield Wipers:
While you are looking at the bodywork, you should inspect the windows for cracks and the windshield wipers for obvious damage. You can take care of making sure they work later on when the vehicle is running.
Wheels, Tires, and Suspension:
You will not be able to see every wheel and suspension component from the outside, but you can inspect things like the tire condition, wheel condition, brakes, control arms, and some of the wheel assembly.
Check the tire tread depth, tire wear pattern, whether they will need replacing soon, and what brand each tire is. Mismatched tires can be a bad sign. Cheap tires can be a sign of overall neglect. Uneven tire tread depth and wear can be a sign of an underlying alignment or suspension issue.
Look for overall wheel condition, whether the wheels are aftermarket, and whether they are mismatched. If there is excessive brake dust, corrosion, and staining, it could mean that regular maintenance and washing have been an afterthought.
You can use your flashlight to check for brake pad fitment and condition. It may be difficult to see the brake pad levels and any wheel play without a lift, but you should try to inspect the ball joints, suspension components, and the inside of the wheels for damage or abnormalities.
Next, move to the underside of the vehicle. Your flashlight will come in handy here. Many newer vehicles will have panels underneath to decrease drag, so you may not be able to see much. Even if you cannot see much under lower cars and vans, you should still be able to see if anything is missing, loose, or dangling.
Make sure to check for rust and corrosion, especially on rocker panels, exhaust, and any other exposed part of the frame you can see. Check for damage from bottoming out. In addition to checking for visible underbody leaks, you should also inspect the ground underneath the vehicle for signs of leaking that may not be active or immediately traceable.
Look for signs of gunk buildup and discoloration that can result from leaking.
Pop the hood and look at the engine bay. Is it clean? Are all the hoses and wires attached to something? Does it appear that there are any aftermarket parts?
It can be easy for the engine bay to get dirty, but a clean engine bay is a sign of care. Check to see if there is any dirty or grimy buildup on any of the components which could be a sign of leaking. If there are any disconnected hoses or wires, you should find out why. It could be that an installation went bad or that a part was removed for some reason.
Aftermarket parts should always be met with apprehension and consideration. Vehicles are meant to operate optimally from the factory. If modifications are your thing, they can be great, but they can also push vehicles to perform over their limits and cause reliability issues.
Here, your flashlight will come in handy again. Check hard-to-see places below the engine cover, air filter, and braces for signs of leaking. You may even be able to see the engine mounts and whether they are cracked or worn out.
Check all the doors to make sure they open and shut correctly. Open the trunk and inspect for signs of mold or leaking. You can also check to see if the vehicle has a medical kit, a jack, and a spare tire or puncture kit. Many new vehicles come with a tire puncture repair kit rather than a spare tire, so you may have to note that when you do your initial research.
In some trucks and SUVs, the spare tire is housed underneath the vehicle rather than the trunk, so if it is there, you can inspect the spare tire as you look under the vehicle.
Lastly, move on to the interior. Check the condition of the upholstery. Depending on the age of the vehicle, some seat wear may be normal, but rips, tears, staining, and cracks in the dashboard can be red flags for carelessness or build quality issues. Check under the seats for loose wires, trash, and mold.
Look for signs of water damage and for soft spots on the floor as the carpet could hide areas of rust that you cannot see. Any issues with the headliner will usually be obvious as soon as you look inside the car.
The Hands-On Inspection:
After a visual inspection is complete, you can start digging in further. The hands-on inspection will help you dive deeper into the vehicle to find out more about its health and how it is functioning.
Checking the Fluids:
Before turning the vehicle on, you should check its vital fluids. First, you should check both the quality of the oil and the oil level. Fresh oil should be a straw color on the dipstick. Old oil will look dark brown or black and could smell bad. Ensure you cannot see any shiny flecks of metal in the oil as this could be a sign of engine damage.
From there, you should check other fluids like coolant, power steering fluid, transmission fluid, brake fluid, and windshield washer fluid. Ensure that all are filled to the proper levels and that no debris is found floating in each.
Starting the Vehicle:
When you are through checking the fluids, you should start the car. Ideally, it will not be warmed up. This will allow you to see the vehicle get up to temperature and indirectly make sure things like the thermostat, temperature gauge, and cooling systems are working. You should also observe if the vehicle has trouble starting.
Gauges and Warning Lights:
Typically, most gauge warning lights will illuminate briefly upon starting a vehicle. If they do not, you know there is a problem. Likewise, if one or more stay on, you should find out why. Normally, once the ECU performs its system check, the lights will go off after a few seconds.
Make sure to double check the odometer while you are here to see if it matches what is on the vehicle history report and the advertisement for the vehicle.
Check the lights. Turn on the low beams, high beams, turn signals, and hazard lights. Make sure to walk outside and check them yourself as any other person can say they are on when they are not. The only lights you may not be able to see for yourself are the brake lights. You can have another person press the brake pedal while you check them.
You should have seen the dome lights illuminate when checking on the interior of the vehicle earlier, but now is a good time to double-check them.
After the lights, you can start checking things like the power windows, power locks, power mirrors, power seats, sunroof, moonroof, windshield wipers, and the like. Of course, not all vehicles have all of these power accessories, and some have more than this, so what you check will depend on the car.
The vehicle systems that are operated electronically but are more substantial than simple power locks and windows should be checked. Many vehicles within the past decade have started gaining infotainment systems of some kind. Most will come on automatically when the car is turned on, making their basic functionality easy to assess.
Beyond that, you should navigate through the infotainment screens and options on the vehicle. Radio controls can be integrated into the infotainment system, though they are not all the time. You can test it to see if each speaker is working and check the sound quality while you are at it.
The last major vehicle system to check while you are here is the heating, air conditioning, and defrost. Is the heat hot and the air conditioning cold? Does the fan blow at the speed you select?
The harder one to check is the defrost as not every day will provide the opportunity to practically test its functionality. It is best to make sure that it responds appropriately according to how you set it.
You will have to get back out of the car to check the exhaust, but you have to do it while the car is running. Can you see visible exhaust coming out of the tailpipe? Blue exhaust is a sign of burning oil. Black exhaust can signify that the engine is running too richly and burning excessive fuel.
White exhaust could be a sign of burning coolant because of a failed head gasket. This can lead to thousands of dollars in repairs down the road.
When an engine is running correctly, a vehicle’s exhaust should not be noticeable unless it is cold day.
The Three Senses:
As you go through each of these checks, you should be actively using your senses of smell, sight, and hearing. Do any of the power systems sound funny when you are operating them? Does the car smell like it is leaking fuel? Do you feel like the vehicle is idling too roughly or that the engine is surging?
You can deduce all of these things and more by simply sitting in the driver’s seat with the car running. If something does not sound, smell, or look right, it is a red flag. All three of these senses should be used during the next two checklist items as you test drive the car and after you get it back to your meeting location.
The Test Drive:
A test drive is crucial for any vehicle purchase. It shows you how roadworthy the prospective vehicle is, gives you a general feel for the vehicle, and can be instrumental in helping you find potential problems before you commit to a purchase.
The General Feel:
Every vehicle drives a little differently, but you should be able to tell when something is legitimately wrong as you drive it. Use your three senses again to listen for abnormal sounds, look for red flags, and feel how the car drives and responds to your inputs.
What kind of squeaking, rattling, cracking, buzzing, grinding, or scraping do you hear? If you do not hear any of those things, listen for excessive road and wind noise that might signify a leak, hole, or bad seal somewhere. Do the power systems still sound healthy when you use them? Do you hear an exhaust leak? With the exception of some trucks, most vehicles are designed to be quiet and comfortable.
As you drive, do you smell burning or something hot? Is there an oil or fuel smell? Perhaps the smell of exhaust fumes increases the further you drive. All of these things can signify leaks in major vehicle components.
Lastly, do not ignore how the car feels. Is it abnormally sluggish to accelerate compared to its horsepower? Are the brakes firm or squishy? Is there excessive play with the steering wheel? Does the vehicle feel like it is wandering all over the road? Vibrations or pulsing are indicative of wheel alignment issues, faulty wheel bearings, and other suspension issues.
If the vehicle has an automatic transmission, is it shifting promptly or does it hesitate? Vehicles with a manual transmission should be able to be shifted smoothly without grinding, feeling gritty, or slipping.
You might not be an expert mechanic, but you might be surprised how quickly you can spot something that feels off in a vehicle as you drive.
Driving in All Conditions:
Make sure to test drive the vehicle in both stop-and-go traffic and on the highway. This will help give you a taste of whether it overheats easily at traffic lights or if there is a nasty vibration that occurs only when you hit sixty miles per hour or more.
Check the speedometer, tachometer, and odometer as you drive. Do they all work according to how you are driving? The engine temperature gauge may fluctuate slightly as the vehicle warms up, but it should not get excessively hot. If you are looking at a vehicle with a digital gauge cluster, make sure it is working rather than a blank screen.
Now is your opportunity to check the cruise control. You will often be able to check at least some advanced safety systems if you are looking at a vehicle that has them. Lane-keeping assist, adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning, the rearview camera, and even the ABS system if you can do it safely are all great to test.
Systems like automatic emergency braking should probably not be tested to avoid an accident.
After the Test Drive:
When you get back to your original location, you should do a follow-up check on a few more items.
Check the Engine Bay Again:
After turning off the vehicle, open the hood again and check the engine bay. It is best to do a visual inspection of most things since the engine will be hot. Check for leaking or smoking of any of the components. Listen for hissing from any of the hoses, clamps, or other components.
Look for new leaks that have opened up as you have driven the car. Especially check the radiator, oil filter, transmission housing, and valve cover gaskets as these are common areas for leaking.
Warm Start Up:
You can even try starting up the vehicle again after you do your post-test driving inspection. It is not necessary to do a warm start, but it will give you one more checklist item to test and can provide different results than a cold start.
Things to Remember:
You have now made it through the used car checklist, but before you decide whether to buy the car or not, there are a few miscellaneous things to remember.
Our checklist should be tailored to you. Of course, there are important “musts” like checking if the vehicle starts and runs smoothly. There are also items that may not be as important to you. Buying a used car with a few dents and dings can mean a few hundred or thousand dollars off the asking price. Your perfect car may not necessarily need to be in the best condition possible.
If you find one or two things that do not add up, do not feel right, or raise red flags, do not be afraid to keep looking. Just because a used vehicle is still under warranty or an extended warranty from the dealership is optional does not mean that getting something fixed shortly after your purchase will be quick and simple.
Service records and vehicle history reports are great car buying aids, but they still may not tell the whole story of a vehicle’s past. You should never hesitate to have a trusted mechanic do his or her own inspection on a potential vehicle for you before you look to buy or trade in your existing vehicle. If a private seller refuses to allow an inspection, you should search elsewhere.