• Buying Guides

Used Car Inspection Checklist - What to Look For

By Autolist Staff | March 15, 2019

Buying a used car can be a great way to save money on interest and depreciation during your ownership of a vehicle. However, without a little research, you could end up with a purchase that you'll regret. Buying a used car can sometimes be a gamble, but you can put the odds in your favor by being thorough in your research and inspection. Here’s a checklist of what to go over to ensure peace of mind.

Start With Research

Before you start visiting dealerships or contacting private owners, it's important to do some research (which, if you’re reading this, you’ve already started, so nice job!). If you haven’t already, figure out what type of vehicle you want, then narrow it down to a few different models.

One reason for having a specific type of vehicle in mind early is that researching items on a minivan is going to be different from researching items on an SUV. Furthermore, all vehicles tend to have specific issues isolated by model and even isolated by different years of that model. Knowing exactly what type of issues might be present in your vehicle of choice gives you an excellent starting point in inspecting it for problems.

Also, make sure you have performed a VIN check and ensured there are no open recalls.

Model Research Check List:

  • Common defects and problems
  • Basic maintenance costs and intervals
  • Repair costs
  • Aging price point
  • Features and options

Once you’ve learned a little about these areas of the vehicles you’re interested in, it’s time to test drive. Here’s a quick rundown of things to look for when you go to see a vehicle.

Exterior:

Things to check:

  • Body condition dents, rust, scratches, etc.
  • Look for uneven panels or mismatched paint
  • Doors, hood and trunk easy or difficult to open and close
  • Tire tread condition and wear
  • Same-branded tires
  • Light function and condition

Step 1: Body Condition
When you look at a vehicle that you're considering, it's important to go over it carefully before driving it. Start with checking out the body condition. Walk around the vehicle and look for body surface defects such as scratches, dents or rust. Take note of whether there are any signs of mismatched paint as this could be a sign of a panel being replaced due to an accident. Another clue is whether the body panels line up evenly. Next, open and close all the doors, including the hood and trunk. Does everything close and open easily? Doors that are difficult to close or open might also be a sign of an accident. Check under the vehicle and around its wheel wells for rust; when you’re looking at the vehicle’s paint, look for signs of bubbling, which can indicate rust underneath.

Step 2: Tires
Take a look at the tires of your prospective car. Examine the tread by using the penny test. Place a penny with Lincoln's head side down into the tire grooves. If the head is completely visible, then the tread is badly worn and the seller should replace the tires. Look at the tread again and check to see if it has worn evenly on both sides. Uneven wear could indicate a problem with alignment. Check all the tires to see if they're the same brand; while different brands on one or more wheels isn’t necessarily a bad sign, inquire about the age of all the tires and why they’re a mismatched set. It's also a good idea to ask if the tires have been rotated regularly.

Step 3: Lights
Next up, check all the lights on the vehicle. Have the seller or a friend get into the car and turn on the headlights, running lights, high beams, fog lights if available and all the blinkers. Have them also depress the brake pedal to make sure those lights work. Physically examine all the light housings to look for damage such as cracks, foggy lenses or water. One of the signs of a flood-damaged vehicle is water in the light housings.

Once you’re satisfied with the outside of the vehicle, it’s time to look inside.

Interior:

Things to check:

  • Signs of moisture or water damage
  • Unusual or offensive smells
  • Overly worn or torn upholstery
  • Seat adjustment equipment
  • Instrument cluster function and condition
  • Controls and switches working properly
  • Roof or top condition and signs of leaking

Step 1: Smell
The first thing to notice is the odor in the car. The odor should be neutral or perhaps smell faintly of any air freshener item being used. If it smells like cigarette smoke or an animal, you may want to think twice as those smells are notoriously hard to remove. Another red flag is a musty or moldy smell. This tends to be a sign of either a flood-damaged vehicle or one with some type of leak. If you do smell this odor, make sure to check the interior closely for signs of mold or water damage. Ask about the vehicle’s history and what the reason is for the odor.

Step 2: Seats
Check the seats next. Look at the upholstery and see if it's worn, stained or torn. If you suspect mildew from the first step, examine the seats carefully for signs of water damage. A leaking roof or window seals could also cause this, not just flood damage. Check the controls on the seats, whether manual or power, to make sure they all work properly. Specifically, check the driver's seat adjustments to ensure that you can find a comfortable position. Also make sure all of the seatbelts throughout the vehicle work — strap, buckle and retractor.

Step 3: Instruments and Controls
Switch the car on into accessory mode. All the warning lights should come on for a second before flashing off again. Turn the car on and see if any of the lights stay on. Any light that stays on should be checked out. Complete your instrument check by making sure all the controls work how they should. Check the climate control and make sure the heater and AC if available work properly and switch on the audio system as well.

Step 4: Roof
Investigate the roof by checking the headliner and trim. Check the seals around the windows and make sure any sun or moonroof isn't leaking. If the vehicle has a soft top, convertible or removable hard top, make sure to check that everything fits properly and isn't leaking. On older vehicles, make sure the headliner isn’t sagging or coming undone from the ceiling itself.

Check Under the Hood
The next goal is to check under the hood. Even if you aren't a mechanic, there are a few things to look for. Look at all the belts and hoses to ensure that they aren't overly worn, fraying or loose from their ends. Look at the radiator and make sure it isn't stained or cracked. Check the underside of the hood for signs of fluid dripping off it; if you see this, it could be a sign of a blown gasket or hose that then leaked.

Check all the fluids in the car, including the engine oil, transmission, power steering and brake. Make sure the fluid levels are good and that there's no sign of leaking underneath the car. Oil color should be a warm brown. Dark brown or black suggests that the oil needs to be changed, which might say something about how the car is taken care of. Light brown means it has just been changed. Make sure there are no water droplets on the dipstick or gray, foamy fluid. These could be signs of a blown head gasket or cracked block. Transmission fluid should smell like oil and be pinkish. Brown fluid with a burnt odor could indicate problems.

Test Drive
This is the most crucial part of your inspection. Take the car on both the highway and city streets. Vary your speed and try to climb and descend at least one hill. Make sure there are no unusual vibrations or noises and that the transmission shifts smoothly. Make sure that it accelerates smoothly and doesn't lose power on inclines. Check the brakes in both a gradual and sudden stop situation to see how they perform. Let the car idle at some point as well to make sure it idles smoothly and doesn't drop or lope. While you're doing this, you can also observe the exhaust and ensure that it's not cloudy and white, black or blue-tinged.

Final Steps
The final steps to buying a used car are to have it professionally inspected by a mechanic and get a vehicle history report. Make sure the VIN matches everywhere on the vehicle and that it matches the registration. Another tip is to make sure that the registration and title match the person selling you the car or someone in the household. Also, make sure the seller has the title of the vehicle in hand; be wary of sellers who have a complicated story as to the whereabouts of the physical title.

Final Checklist:

  • Proper fluid levels and condition
  • No signs of leaking
  • Hoses and belts not worn or cracked
  • Test drive for shaking, noises and proper operation
  • Smooth idle
  • No exhaust issues
  • Paperwork checks out
  • Mechanic inspection
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