How to inspect a used car - illustrated used car checklist
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.
• Research common problems
• What you may need when checking a used car
• First step: quick overview
• Checking the windshield
• Check body panels
• Check the vehicle manufacturer's label
• Electrical features
• Heater and air-conditioner
• Signs of flood damage
• Automatic Transmission
• Manual Transmission
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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 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.
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.