How to inspect a used car - illustrated used car checklist

Updated: September 25, 2013
Looking under the oil filler cup

Used car buying process is always tricky, as a used car can have some hidden problems that aren't obvious when you test-drive it. I hope this guide will help you recognise signs of potential problems and make more informed decision.
Before finalizing the deal, have the vehicle inspected by a knowledgeable mechanic. There are so many things that can only be properly inspected when the car is lifted on a hoist. If it's possible, find a mechanic that is closely familiar with that particular brand. For example, many used car buyers arrange to have the used car to be brought to another dealer specialized in that brand for an inspection before buying.

• What to look for in a used car
• Research common problems
• What you may need when checking a used car
• First step: quick overview
• Exterior
• Checking the windshield
• Check body panels
• Tires
• Check the vehicle manufacturer's label
• Interior
• Electrical features
• Heater and air-conditioner
• Signs of flood damage
• Engine
• Automatic Transmission
• Manual Transmission
• Test-drive

What to look for in a used car

When inspecting a used car, you are looking for two things: signs of major problems that should tell you to avoid the car and any minor issues that need to be taken care of or that you can use in negotiations. If you found any evidence of a major problem in a car, there is no point to inspect it further, move on to the next car. Major problems include substantial rust damage, potential engine and transmission problems, previous serious accidents, flood damage, and signs that the car has been abused or neglected by previous owners. Minor issues are the ones that can be easily corrected, including worn tires, minor suspension and brakes problems as well as minor appearance flaws like dents, scratches, etc.

Research common problems

Almost any vehicle has some problems or weak spots that are common for this particular make and model. With the amount of internet resources available, it doesn't take much to do a little research. Before going for a test-drive, research reliability and common problems for the car you are interested in. We've done some research on a number of cars and SUVs that you can find in our used car reviews section. Our site is easily accessible from a mobile device. You also can check other websites with owner reviews, dedicated forums, NHTSA complaints database and other sources. Once you know common problems, you will have much better idea what to look for. This will also help you to avoid "trouble" cars.

What you may need when checking a used car

You need something to take notes and a flashlight but with the technology available, your smartphone with a camera and a built-in flashlight will work just fine. If you have a small magnet, it might be helpful in detecting repaired corrosion spots. You also need a paper towel to check engine oil and a CD disc or iPod to check the CD player and audio system. If you will be using a child seat, it's good idea to take one with you, so you can check if it fits easily. What's most important, you need a knowledgeable friend who can help you weigh the pros and cons and make informed decision.

First step: quick overview

Interior overview

During a quick overview, you want to find out if it's worth to check the car further or should you avoid it? Start with the quick walk-around. Major rust spots like this one should tell you to avoid this car. Check the interior. How does the steering wheel, driver's seat and the inner door handle look like? Any smells? Tobacco and other strong odors are difficult to get rid of, especially in cloth interiors. Can you find a comfortable driving position? Is there enough legroom and headroom? How is the visibility? Check if the car has the features that are important for you, such as the cruise control or a USB port.
The easiest way to detect engine problems is to start it cold, after the car was sitting for a while. Ask the seller or salesperson to start the engine; is there any smoke from the exhaust? Car smoke Does the engine run rough or rattle loud when started? If the engine runs rough or makes loud noise at startup or if there is a blue smoke or white smoke that smells like antifreeze from the exhaust, avoid the car. The engine should start easily and run smoothly. If you think that this car is worth to check further, start from the exterior. If you are planning to inspect several cars, it might be a good idea to take photos of each car (if the seller or salesperson allows) including flaws and features so you can review them later when weighing pros and cons of each vehicle.

Exterior

Mismatched color

It's difficult to check the car when it's parked in a tight spot; ask the sales person to park it in an open area, so you can have a better access to all sides. Have a look at the car from a distance; this way it's easier to spot if the color of some panels doesn't match. Colors certainly don't match in this photo; this red Toyota have gone through some body repair. Walk around the car and mark (or take photos if allowed) all the dents, scratches and other flaws.

Check the windshield

Chip in the windshield

Look carefully at the windshield. Note any chips, scratches or other damage. Some chips and star cracks, if large enough, can cause the vehicle to fail a safety inspection. Replacing the windshield costs #250-$400.

Scratched windshield

This scratch was made by the metal part of the broken windshield wiper. This scratch will produce a glare when driving at night. Similar scratches can be made by sand caught under the wiper blades.

Inspect body panels

checking car

Look at the reflection from the body panels; it's easy to spot difference in the paint texture and unevenness that could be possible signs of previous body repairs. The side of this car looks like it has never been damaged. Click on the image for larger view.

Paint texture of the repainted door

If you look closely at this photo (click to enlarge), you can see that texture of the paint appears rough and the door is not very straight. It looks like there was some body repair here. It could be something minor, but at least, this area needs to be further investigated.

signs of body repair

This car has been rear-ended. Even after the repair, you can see that the rear fender still doesn't look very straight. Click to see the larger view, look closely at the reflection.

Rusted spot on a car

This car is badly rusted and we would recommend to avoid it, as the rust can be repaired only temporarily. If you suspect a rust repair, try to to place your magnet at the suspected area, if there is no metal under the paint, the magnet won't stick.


Try to open and close all the doors; they should close easily. Open the driver's door and try to lift it on hinges; there shouldn't be any freeplay. Does the car have a trailer hitch? Does it show signs of excessive use? If the car was regularly used to tow, the transmission could be worn excessively. Read more: How to inspect a car body

Check the tires

Cut on the side of the tire

Check the tires. Do they look worn out? Do they have cuts or other damage like this one in the photo? This tire will need to be replaced. Are the tires of a reputable brand? All 4 tires should be of the same brand. Does it appear that tires worn out unevenly (e.g. more on the inside)? This would indicate possible wheel alignment issue.

Cut on the side of the tire

This tire has a bulge on the sidewall and must be replaced. A bulge is not repairable and the tire with the damage like this is unsafe to drive.

New tire

New tires have tread depth from 10/32' to 11/32'. This is how the new tire looks like; click on the image to see larger view. New tires like this can last up to 50,000 miles.

Worn tire

This tire is worn out (it's about 2/32'), which means this car needs new tires. A set of tires, depending on the size and brand costs from $400 to $1200. You can look up the price at TireRack.com.