How to inspect a used car - illustrated used car checklist

Updated: January 18, 2018
Looking under the oil filler cup

Many used cars can have hidden problems that aren't obvious during a test-drive. We hope this guide will help you recognise signs of potential problems and make a more informed decision.

We recommend to have the vehicle inspected by a knowledgeable mechanic before signing the deal. There are many things that can only be properly inspected when the car is lifted on the hoist. For example, many used car buyers arrange to have the pre-purchase inspection done a local dealer specialized in that brand.

What to look for in a used car

When inspecting a used car, look for two things: signs of major problems that should tell you to avoid the car and minor issues that need to be taken care of if you decide to buy a car. These issues can be used while negotiating the price. 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 lack of regular maintenance. 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.

What you may need when checking a used car

A flashlight is very helpful when inspecting a car. If you have a small magnet, it might be useful in detecting repaired corrosion spots. You also need a paper towel to check engine oil and a USB cable or a CD to check the audio system. If you will be using a child seat, it's a good idea to take one with you, so you can check if it fits. What's most important, you need a knowledgeable friend who can help you weigh the pros and cons and make informed decision. Take our printable checklist with you.

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 move on to the next? 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. 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 when started? In either case, avoid the car. The engine should run smooth. If you think that this car is worth checking further, start from the body. If you are planning to inspect several cars, it might be a good idea to take photos of each car (if allowed) including flaws and features so you can review them later.

Exterior

Mismatched color

It's difficult to check the car when it's parked in a tight spot; ask the salesperson 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 from $250 to $800.

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 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.

Check the interior

Worn driver  seat

Test if both key fobs work. Typically a new car comes with two or three keys or key fobs; ask how many come with the car.

Worn driver  seat

Check the condition of the seats, look for burnt marks and other damage. Minor damage can be repaired, ask if the dealer can arrange for the repairs. Check the condition of the seat belts.

Worn driver  seat

Rear wiper is another part that often has problems in older cars. Test all wipers and washer functions.

Check power windows, locks and other accessories

Worn driver  seat

Test power windows, power locks and mirrors. Window regulator problems are common in many older cars. Sometimes a window goes down well, but goes up very slow or crooked.

Worn driver  seat

Problems with heated seats are very common and a heated element could be quite expensive to replace. Test both seats.

Worn driver  seat

Check all the controls, including the audio system. If the car has a CD player or AUX / USB input, check if it works.

Check the heater and air conditioner functions

Worn driver  seat

Make sure to test the air conditioner; air conditioner problems are common in used cars. With the engine running, turn the A/C on. You should feel cold air coming from the vents soon after the A/C is turned on.
Test all the heater fan speed settings; it's a common problem when the heater fan works only at high speed settings. Watch out for musty smell from the vents. A burnt oil smell from the vents indicate possible oil leaks in the engine compartment. An antifreeze smell is a sign of a problem too.

Worn driver  seat

If the vehicle has the rear heater/AC controls, make sure everything works there too.

Check vehicle manufacturer's label

VIN label

Check the manufacturer's label; usually you can find it on the driver's door or on the door jamb. Besides the VIN number that you might need to check the history records, the label contains the manufacturing date. The manufacturing date is different from the model year. For example, the model year of this car is 1997, but as you can see, it was assembled in August 1996. Another 1997 car could be assembled in June 1997, which would be a better choice all else being equal.

Look for signs of flood damage

Flooded car

If a car has been flooded, it's more likely to develop many problems in the future. Modern cars have many electronic components under the carpet and around the foot wells that can get damaged if submerged under water.

This car in the photo has been flooded during a heavy rain. You still can see the water level mark in the speaker cover. Look for signs of moisture under the carpet. Check the trunk and the spare tire well for signs of water damage. A history report can also reveal flood damage. Be suspicious if the history report indicates that the car came from the flood area.

Check spare tire, jack and lug nut wrench

Flooded car

Check if the car has the spare tire and the jack. If the wheels have wheel locks installed, make sure there is the key for the wheel locks.

Visual inspection under the hood

Before checking anything under the hood, make sure the engine is off, the transmission is in Park and the parking brake is applied. A quick look under the hood can tell a lot about the car. What to look for:
• Leaks
• Smell of burnt oil or antifreeze
• Anything that suggests that a car has not been regularly serviced
• Signs of poor quality repairs
• Mods that suggest the car has been raced or otherwise abused
It's worth noting that if the car looks clean and shiny under the hood, it doesn't yet mean that there could be no leaks or other problems. Often dealers shampoo the engine compartment before putting the car up for sale. That's why before buying, you still should arrange for a mechanical inspection by an independent mechanic, so he or she can lift the car and inspect it for leaks and other issues from underneath.

Coolant leak

Minor leaks are fairly common in high-mileage cars, but all else being equal, you are better off with the car that has no leaks at all. In addition, leaks (coolant leaks especially) could point to more serious problems. This car, for example, has a coolant leak from a small crack in the radiator. The engine runs fine, however, upon further mechanical inspection, we found that the head gasket started leaking in this car. A head gasket repair is very expensive. Look for leaks under the car; the only thing that should be dripping from under the car is water from the air conditioner drain tube when the A/C is running. The A/C drain tube is typically located under the passenger side of the firewall. Any other leak (coolant, engine oil, transmission fluid, etc.) points to a problem. The smell of burnt oil or antifreeze under the hood is another indication of possible leaks.

Corroded car battery terminal

The battery terminal in this car is badly corroded. Not only this car needs a new battery and probably a new battery cable, this suggests that this car probably hasn't been serviced regularly.

Missing engine mount

Here is another example: this bolt clearly looks out of place in this car (click on the image to see larger view). There supposed to be an engine mount in this place, but it's missing in this Toyota. This obviously doesn't look like a high-quality repair.

Check the engine oil level and condition

Engine oil on the dipstick

If you are uncomfortable with these these tests, leave them for your mechanic. Make sure the engine is off and the parking brake is applied. Find the engine oil dipstick (usually it has a bright handle that says" Engine Oil." Pull the dipstick out and check the oil level and condition. If the oil looks very dirty and the oil level is very low, it means that either the engine consumes oil, or it has been poorly maintained. Check the condition of the dipstick itself; if it's covered with black deposits, it's also a sign of poor maintenance.

Looking under the oil filler cap

With the engine off, open the oil filler cap and look inside the engine; use your flashlight. If the internal engine parts that you can see are covered with thick black deposits, it's also an indication of poor engine condition.

Check transmission fluid

Engine oil on the dipstick

If you can find the transmission fluid dipstick (not all cars have one), check the transmission fluid condition. To see better, drop some fluid on a white paper towel. Transmission fluid should be clean and transparent. Very dirty transmission fluid that has a burnt smell is a sign of excessive transmission wear.

Test drive

Before test driving, make sure the car has a license plate(s) and insurance. Adjust the seat and mirrors, get familiar with controls. The longer you drive, the more chances you have to notice various issues with the car. Often problems become more evident when the vehicle is fully warmed up. For example, an automatic transmission may start acting up only after 20-30 minutes of driving, or the engine may show signs of overheating when driven longer. Some issues (e.g. noisy wheel bearings, drivetrain vibration, alignment issues, noisy tires) are more noticeable when driving on the highway. Suspension and steering noises are easier to notice when driving slow over rough roads. What to watch out for:
With the car standing still:
With the engine idling, when you shift the automatic transmission from Park to Drive, is there a long delay before the transmission engages? (possible transmission issues)
When you shift from Drive to Reverse, do you feel a strong jolt or a clunk? (transmission or driveline issues)
Do you feel excessive engine vibration inside when the car idles in Drive? (possible bad engine mounts)
Around the city: Do you notice any hesitation or stumbling during acceleration?
Does the engine feel smooth and responsive or sluggish and "rough"?
Any smoke?
Any irregular noises or vibration on acceleration or deceleration?
Do you notice a clicking or popping noise when accelerating in turns? (possible bad CV-joints)
Does the transmission shift smoothly on acceleration and deceleration?
Any jolts, slipping or delays when transmission shifts from one gear to another?
Any jolts when coming to a stop? (Transmission or AWD system issues).
When stopped at the red light, is the engine idling smoothly or rpms jumping up and down?
Does the car hold a straight line well or pulls to one side or another? (wheel alignment issues)
Is the steering wheel centered when driving straight? (wheel alignment issues)
Any knocking thumping or rattling noises when driving on rough roads? (suspension or steering issues)
Does the car "bounces" excessively when driving over bumps? (possible bad shock absorbers or struts)
Any noises while braking? Does the car pull aside during braking? Does the brake pedal feel too low or too hard?
Does the hand brake hold the car from rolling on the incline?
On the highway:
Does the car feel stable or drifts to one side? (wheel alignment issues)
Do you feel vibration at higher speeds? (wheels and tires issues)
Any humming or rumbling noises? (possible noisy wheel bearings or cupped tires)
Any whining or noises when accelerating or decelerating? (transmission, AWD system, driveline, etc.)
Does the steering wheel shake during braking? (warped or rusted brake rotors)
Does the cruise control work?

After the test drive

If anything doesn't feel right, consider test driving another car of the same model to compare. Discuss any issues that need to be addressed before signing the contract. For example, if the car needs new tires or brakes and the salesperson promises "to take care of it" make sure to discuss in details what kind of tires or brakes will be installed? Cheapest possible or of the reputable brand? If they offer you an extended warranty, thoroughly study the contract for what is covered and what not.

Research common problems

Any vehicle has problems that are common for this particular make and model. Research reliability and common problems ahead of time, so you know what to look for. We've done some research on a number of cars and SUVs that you can find in our used car reviews section. Print our checklist and take with you when shopping for a used car.