With the high price of new cars, it comes as no surprise that used vehicles can cost enough to cause sticker shock every bit as severe as their newer cousins. Yet you, as a buyer, have a few more protections when you purchase new that you don’t always have when you buy a used car. To survive the experience and insure that the used car you buy is worth your time and money, you need to give that vehicle a strong inspection before you ever agree on a price.
I want to give you, the car buyer, with the information that will allow you to inspect and test drive a car with confidence. The information I provide is for everyone, whether you know a lot, or absolutely nothing about cars. You can never be too thorough when buying a used car, but I will outline the major and most important things here.
Inspect the exterior of the car
When you first arrive, walk around the car and inspect the outside.
Check to see if all of the body panels – fenders, door panels, etc. – match. If a panel does not match, it could indicate that it was replaced, possibly because of an accident. Ask the seller if you notice this.
Inspect the windows and windshield for cracks or chips. A cracked windshield will require replacement.
Inspect the door locks for signs of tampering, which could indicate a past break-in.
Keep an eye out for any rust which will most likely be located around the wheels and wheel wells, but may be found anywhere. A tiny bit of rust won’t hurt an older car, but moderate or worse rust will probably want to be passed on.
Inspect the tires for wear
Look to see if the tire tread has been worn evenly. If the tread appears to be more worn on the inside edge or the outside edge, this indicates that the wheel is out of alignment and will need to be repaired, and the tires replaced.
Check the depth of the tread to make sure the tires still have enough life in them. You can do this buy placing a quarter in the groove of the tread. Turn the quarter upside down with the head side facing you. If the tread comes up to the tip of the head or farther, the tires are acceptable. If the tread doesn’t reach the head, the tires are worn out. Generally you want to replace tires if the tread gets worn down to 1/16 of an inch or less.
Inspect the undercarriage of the car
Kneel down and take a peek underneath the car. Take some time to look over all of the parts for any rust, corrosion, or grimy/greasy buildup that might be apparent. An average car may have some moderate build up of grime and dirt, and that’s ok. Anything more than a little bit of rust and any sort of dripping fluids like oil want to be avoided entirely. Keep your nose keen to any odor of oil or gasoline that might be present.
Pop the hood and inspect the engine
Ask the seller to pop the hood so that you can see the engine, before you start it up.
Get close to the engine and smell for an odor of oil or gasoline. Anything more than a faint oily odor is to be avoided, and any sort of gasoline smell is a bad thing.
Look for dried stains on the brake fluid reservoir (on the driver side), around the radiator cap, and the coolant reservoir (next to the radiator). If you notice a stain, this means that a leak occurred. Ask the seller if it has been fixed.
Every engine with more than a few years on it may be dirty and a little grimy, so look for large buildups of grime and grease in specific places. This probably indicates an oil leak in the location of the buildup. If it’s anything more than a minor leak, you probably want to pass.
Also look for any obvious defects like disconnected hoses, wires, or connectors. If you notice something, tell the seller.
Check the fluid levels and condition
You’ll want to check a few things here, as the fluids will indicate the condition of the inside of the engine and transmission.
Check the oil. The oil should be at the worst a medium brown color, but not dark brown or black. Run your finger over the dipstick and rub the oil between your fingers. It should seem dark but transparent, never milky or cloudy. Milky oil generally indicates a blown head gasket; a major problem. If the engine is cold, the oil level may show a little low, but that’s ok.
Also check the oil filler cap. The underside should be brown or black and dry. If there is any sort of white, foamy buildup, pass on the car. This also indicates a blown head gasket.
Check the coolant level- you can do this by looking into the coolant reservoir on the side of the radiator instead of the radiator itself. The coolant may be a little dirty with brownish dirt, but should not be oily looking. If no fluid is present, there should be, so tell the seller.
If the car is equipped with an automatic transmission, locate the transmission dipstick (usually in the back of the engine) and check it. As long as the fluid is visible on the dipstick, the level is probably ok. Look at the fluid and smell it. It should appear anywhere from pinkish to a deep red in color, but never brown. It will smell sweet, not burnt. If it is brown and smells burnt, the transmission has overheated and could indicate a very expensive problem.
Start up the car
Start the car. It shouldn’t take more than a few cranks to get it started, with no pumping of the gas pedal. The car should start strong and then level out to a healthy, smooth.
Look to see if the car smokes at all when it starts. The smoke will be blue, black, or white. All colors indicate serious problems and should be avoided.
The car should idle smoothly with no shaking, sputtering, or hard vibration. The engine should sound monotonous, not up and down.
Rev the engine, it should respond immediately to pedal pressure and sound strong.
Close the hood and go for a drive
Now you’re ready for the test drive. After you get acclimated with the controls, take the car out of park and start driving.
Acceleration should be smooth and seem-less. You should not have any hesitation or “dead spots” while accelerating, as these indicate a problem. Rev the car fairly high and accelerate to a good rate of speed sometime during the drive in order to test for these problems, with the seller’s permission.
Take notice of the ease of shifting, as the transmission should shift smoothly into all of the gears. If the car is an automatic, you should not notice any jerking, and the transmission should stay in gear at all times. If the car is a manual shift, the gears should not grind when shifting into them, and may make the same faint noise in all gears. Any abnormal noises or noises confined to certain gears should be perceived as warning signs of possible transmission problems.
On a rather empty stretch of straight, level road, take your hands off the wheel. Keep your hands ready to grasp the wheel if needed, but hold them off for a few moments and notice if the car veers to either side at all. If it does more than a little bit, this indicates that the wheels need an alignment.
Finally, make sure that the car brakes smoothly and effectively. Pressing on the brake pedal firmly should bring the car to a quick stop. The pedal should not feel overly soft or squishy. When pressing on the brake pedal with normal pressure, it should not vibrate or pulsate. If it does this could mean that the brake rotors are warped. The brakes should not make any scraping or loud whining sounds when applied, however a little bit of brake squealing is normal and should not be a concern.
After the Test Drive
After the test drive is complete, you should fell pretty good about your perception of the car. Take a look over the car again and make sure you didn’t forget anything. Don’t hesitate to ask the seller any questions you have, including clarifying the answers to the questions that you asked over the phone. Ask to see the records and receipts they have for the vehicle, and discuss any specific work the car has had done.
You may want to ask the seller if they would mind if you took the car to a mechanic before you buy it. Taking the car to a trusted mechanic for an inspection can cost very little, but can potentially save you a lot of money and anguish later. If the car is newer and looks stellar after your careful inspection following this guide, and the seller seems very personable and genuine, it is probably ok to make a deal. If you have any doubts or uncertainties, or if you would rather play it safe, don’t hesitate to take the car to a mechanic.