How to inspect a used car - illustrated used car checklist
Buying a used car is always tricky, as it can have some hidden problems that aren't obvious when you test-drive a car. I hope this guide will help you to make more informed decision when shopping for a second-hand vehicle.
Remember, a used car can have minor problems that can be fixed or major problems that should make you consider another vehicle. Mark down minor problems to use them when negotiating the deal, but if you see any major issues, consider another car. Before finalizing the deal, have the vehicle inspected by a knowledgeable mechanic.
• Research common problems
• What to take with you for a used car inspection
• Checking the car body
• Checking the windshield
• Check the vehicle manufacturer's label
• Electrical features
• Heater and air-conditioner
• Signs of flood damage
• Automatic Transmission
• Manual Transmission
Check the used car history records
Check the used car history report. Even though it will not give you a 100 percent guarantee that the car is perfect, it's well worth the money spent. The history report can help you uncover problems the car might have in the past, such as reported accidents, flood damage, rolled back odometer, rental use, etc.
Visit How to check used car history to learn more.
Research common problems
Almost any vehicle has some problems or weak spots specific to that make and model. Before going for a test-drive, research common problems and complaints. You can check owner reviews, forums dedicated to a car model you want to buy, NHTSA website and other sources. Check our used car reviews for thing to look for. This will give you a good idea what other owners are having problems with and what to pay particular attention to during a test-drive.
What you may need to take with you for a used car inspection
1. A paper and a pen - Make notes about every car you check, writing down the VIN number, asking price, mileage, car features, what you like and what you don't like. These notes will help you in the selection process as well as in the final deal negotiation.
2. Printed copy of Used car checklist or the same copy in pdf. format:
3. Small flashlight - A flashlight could be very handy when checking under the hood or looking for leaks and corrosion underneath.
4. Small magnet - The magnet can help you to find hidden repaired corrosion spots.
5. Paper towel - To check engine oil or transmission fluid.
6. CD disc - To check the CD-player and stereo.
First step - checking the car body
First, take a walk around the car and look at an overall appearance. Look from all sides, does the car sit level or one side looks lower? Often if the vehicle was often driven with a full load, the rear springs sag over time. Do the wheels appear vertically straight? Over time, the wheel alignment can change, as the suspension parts wear out and in some cars you can actually see the wheels are tilted in towards the top, which means tires will wear faster.
Mark down any issues you find: cracks on the windshield, scratches, dents, corrosion spots, broken lenses, faded mirrors, worn wipers, missing wheel covers (hubcaps), etc. Later you may ask the dealer to fix this type of problems as a part of the deal or use them to negotiate the price down.
Look for signs of previous accidents or corrosion. I don't recommend to buy a car that has been involved in a serious accident, even if otherwise it seems to be in good condition. All sorts of problems may arise later as a result of a previous accident: excessive tire wear, problems with the air conditioner, premature corrosion, alignment problems, noisy wheel bearings, etc.
The same is true about badly corroded cars; even if repaired, the rust will reappear again later.
Take your time; it takes 20-30 minutes to inspect an entire car body.
Check the windshield for cracks, chips, scratches and other damage. Some scratches, chips and star cracks, if large enough, can cause the vehicle to fail a safety inspection and the windshield is quite expensive to replace. Often, even a very small crack can expand later.
Look for scratches made by the sand caught under the wiper blades. Sometimes when the wiper rubber blades disintegrate, the metal part of the wiper can scratch the windshield too. Scratches on the windshield will produce annoying glare at night.
The sidewall of this tire has a damage
Have a close look at the tires. Are they of well-known reputable brand like Michelin, Goodyear, Bridgestone, or a "no-name" kind of product? Are they all the same or different? Look at the tread wear. The new tires for a passenger car have original tread depth about 10/32 inch (8 mm). When only 2/32 inch (1.5 mm) of the tread depth left, the tire must be replaced. In addition, the tire must be replaced if there is any mechanical damage like cuts (see the picture), bubbles, cracks, etc. Look at the wear pattern. Irregular tire wear when one side (e.g. inner) is worn more than the other could indicate wheel alignment or suspension problems.
Check vehicle manufacturer's label
Check the manufacturer's label, which is usually located on the driver's door or the door jamb. Are there any signs of altering? Check the VIN number. Also check the exact date (highlighted in the photo) when the vehicle was manufactured. A car advertized as a 2004 model could be manufactured, for example, in August 2003 or July 2004, which is almost a year difference. As you can see in this photo, this vehicle was manufactured in August 1996 but it's sold as a 1997 model.
Worn driver seat
The condition of the vehicle interior is another good indicator of how the vehicle was taken care of. Mark any defects you find: burn marks, scratches, tears in the seat fabric, broken door handles, torn stick shift cover, loose sun visors, etc. Be alerted if you notice excessive use of the air freshener. The air freshener could be used to hide a bad odor and a bad odor in a car could be very hard to get rid of.
Look at the driver's seat; is it excessively worn like the one in the picture?
Check all the seat belts, paying particular attention to the driver's belt.
Test all doors; are they open and close freely? Try to lock and unlock the doors and the trunk with the key.
Open the trunk, does it have musty odor? Is there dampness under the truck's cover? There could be a water leak. Check the spare tire, wheel wrench and the jack. If the car has wheel locks installed, make sure there is a special key.
Check the instrument panel: Do all the gauges work? Any warning lights such as "Check Engine," "Airbag," "ABS" stay on after the engine started? If the car has "Check Engine" or any other warning light coming on or flashing while driving, have the proper diagnostic done before deciding to buy it; in some cases the problem could be very costly to repair.
Check all the electrical accessories. Test operation of power windows, locks and other features. See if the sunroof opens all the way and closes tight. Test wipers and windshield washer function. The rear wiper is the part that often fails. If the seats are heated try if the heating elements are working, many cars have problems with heated seats. Try the power seat adjustments.
If the car has an alarm system, ask to demonstrate how it works. Test all remote control functions. Try the stereo. See if the radio has good reception. A CD-player often has some problems and it's quite expensive to fix; try if it plays your CD. See if the car has the options you need. Does it have a cruise control? Some base-model cars don't have a cruise control and it could be a very valuable feature on a long trip.
Heater and air conditioner
It's very important to check operation of the heater and the air conditioner.
To do so, start the engine and let it warm up for a few minutes. Turn the A/C on.
Unless it's very cold outside, the air conditioner should start working almost immediately after you turn it on.
Within a few seconds, you should be able to feel really cold air blowing from the vents.
If this is not happening, it's very possible the air conditioner doesn't work.
If the air conditioner doesn't work and a salesperson promises to fix it, make sure to inquire about the warranty. I have seen a couple of times when some unscrupulous used car lots just do a quick-fix refill of the A/C system without repairing it properly. This usually means that the air-conditioner will stop working again sometimes in the future.
Check the heater. Try if all heater fan speeds work. One of the possible problems with the heater might be a leaking heater core that is very expensive to repair. If you feel that the air coming from the vents is moist and has an antifreeze smell to it or the windows become foggy when the heater is turned on, that may indicate a leaking heater core.
Some SUVs and minivans have a separate heater and air conditioner controls for the rear seats; try if everything there is working properly.
Look for signs of flood damage
If a car has been flooded in the past, even if it looks and runs good now, it will develop many expensive-to-fix problems later. This is because water gets inside many components where it shouldn't be and eventually, the corrosion will cause a component to fail. A friend of mine got his new Toyota stuck in knee-deep water on a flooded street once; he had all kinds of electrical problems since. Many flooded cars after Katrina and Sandy end up on used car lots, you certainly don't want to buy one of these.
Look for water stains on the seats, roof liner and door covers. Take a flashlight and look under the front seats; if you see a lot of rust, pass on this car. Inspect door and trunk panels for possible signs of water level. If it's possible, look for moisture under the carpet. A strong mildew smell is another indicator that the car might have been flooded. Check the lower edges of the door panels for water damage; look for corrosion and water debris in the spare tire well. Check all the door speakers - water could damage the speaker diaphragms. The coffee-with-milk color of engine oil or transmission fluid may also indicate presence of water.
A history report can also reveal flood damage. Be suspicious if the history report indicates that the car came from the flood area.
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