January 9, 2020

What to check when buying a used car

Used Car Inspection Checklist

So you're looking at buying a used car and want to make sure it's not a time bomb set to go off in the next 10,000 miles, but don't have the mechanical savvy to check it yourself.  Sure you can take it to a mechanic, but mechanics cost money and how can you tell what cars are even worth looking at without needing a car jack or knowing the intricacies of a carburetor? Here's a basic checklist for what to look for when buying a used car from a private seller or a dealership.

Step One: Before you see the car

  • Get a Carfax for the vehicle. A Carfax will have service records, accident reports, the number of owners the vehicle has had and a slew of other goodies.

  • Be warned though, some accidents, damages and services are not included in a Carfax. A clean Carfax is a good sign, but is not a guarantee of an accident or problem-free car.

  • Ask the current owner to collect any service records and to have the car be left cold when you arrive. Whether the records are receipts or service documents, the more the better. Meticulously maintained records are a sign of a careful owner.
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    Step Two: The walk around

  • Look at the car's body for misaligned panels or miscolored paint. Either can be a sign the car was damaged and repaired poorly or cheaply.

  • Check the body and undercarriage for rust. We have a whole article about rust here. Rust can be particularly bad in areas with harsh winters where road salt is used. If you see it bubbling somewhere on the body, it will only get worse without care. A little bit of rust on the undercarriage is usually okay, but anything more than surface rust can start to eat through components or even the frame, totaling the car.
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  • Look for leaks underneath the car. Ideally the car will have been left to sit for more than 24 hours before you see it to ensure any leaks have had time to well… leak. We won't get too into it, but drips are generally bad. Any color besides clear (which is just A/C condensation) should be looked into before purchase.
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  • Check the wheels for damage. Some scratches are normal, but if every wheel is damaged beyond surface blemishes or some curb rash, that is a sign of a careless or distracted owner.

  • Look at the tires. Unknown tire brands, mismatched sets or tires worn down to their cords can be signs of a cheap owner. If they skimped on tires, who knows what else they skimped on?
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    Step Three: Under the hood

  • Remove the radiator cap (make sure the car is cold) and shine a light inside. If it's brightly colored, that's good, if it's dark, that's bad. Radiator fluid usually starts as a color you might find on the rainbow; over time  coolant can start to absorb mineral deposits, rust or even oil if there's a bigger problem. As the coolant absorbs other materials its effectiveness will begin to decrease.
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  • Check any belts. This is nothing too intensive, just get a flashlight and look them over for any obvious wear and tear. If you see any damage expect to replace them soon.

  • Check the battery's age. Car batteries are stamped with a date code that can be used to determine its date of manufacture. Batteries should be replaced every 3-5 years. If it needs a charge, see how long it needs here.
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  • Check the oil. Make sure the oil is topped off and does not appear too dark. Fresh oil should be an amber color, if it is dark brown or black, figure out when the vehicle's oil was last replaced. If the car is long overdue for a change be careful.

  • Step Four: Inside the car

  • Look at the interior's general condition: cracks in the dash, trim missing etc.
     
  • Smell for mold in the car. An old air-cabin filter or musty carpet can be the culprit.
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  • Turn the ignition on, but don't start the car. Make sure the engine light illuminates, if it doesn't then the light could be on without you realizing it, leading to big potential problems.
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  • Turn on the headlights, interior lights, wipers, radio and any accessories.

  • Roll down all the windows and sunroof (if it has one). The battery should be strong enough to manage a few minutes without the alternator to charge it. If you don't have a multimeter this is a simple way to make sure the battery is able to store some charge.

  • Lock and unlock the car with the key fob and the buttons inside the vehicle. Go outside and make sure each door is properly locked - remember to check the trunk too.

  • Check the spare tire's condition and make sure water has not pooled underneath it. If there is water, there might be a leak and the spare could be rotten.
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  • Look at the brake pedal and check its wear. If the pedal seems too worn for the miles on the car you might have an aggressive owner or incorrect miles listed.
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    Step Five: Start the car, remember to start it cold.

  • Warm engines can hide issues, so request the engine is left cold if possible.

  • Listen to the engine. Any squealing or screeching will likely be a belt that needs to be replaced. If the exhaust is louder than you believe it should be, that might be an exhaust leak.
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  • Check that the A/C and heat work. 

    Step Six: Test drive the car

  • Drive in tight circles in both directions. Do you hear any rubbing from the wheel wells?

  • Do the brakes squeak, is the pedal mushy? Does it change directions when braking? Squeaky brakes mean the brake pads are running thin, a mushy pedal means air is in the brake system and needs to be bled. A car changing directions while braking could be multiple issues. If the car has any of these issues, expect to get it fixed soon.
     
  • Is the steering wheel centered? Is there play in the steering wheel?
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  • Does the car make different sounds as the speed increases?
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  • Get up to highway speeds, are there any strange vibrations?
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  • If so the car's tires are likely out of balance or there is an issue with the brakes affecting the tires' rotation.

  • After your inspection

    If the vehicle passes all - or at least most - of these criteria then you might have a winner. If the car has over 100k miles, you can look at another guide here. We would still recommend taking the vehicle to a trusted mechanic to have it thoroughly checked out, but this list should cover most of your bases. If you need help deciding on a car, read our guide here.
       

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