Used Cars - How To Inspect Used Cars

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Arrive 20 Minutes Early to a Used Car Inspection

Woman in car lot looking at cars
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The first step you should take when doing used car inspections was suggested by a reader: get to your appointment 20 minutes early. The early bid not only catches the worm it might catch a used car seller doing something wormy like adding fluids to make an engine or transmission run smoother.

Most dishonest sellers are going to do that type of move within 20 minutes of showing a car. Doing it earlier could cause a fresh leak in the driveway – and you’ll learn later why it’s important to look for telltale leaks on the driveway.

You could also see other moves like moving a license plate from one car to another. You don’t necessarily need to knock on the door 20 minutes early. Just park where you can see the used car you might be buying.

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Used Cars - Keep It in Park

This 1999 Ford Taurus photographs well (i.e. it has good curb appeal) but has significant flaws that could be deal breakers. Photo © Keith Griffin 2008

Never, ever test drive a used car before completing this used car inspection. It could unearth potential safety and mechanical problems that you wouldn’t want to discover at 65 mph on the highway.

Also, this inspection could simply save you from wasting your time driving an obvious clunker. Another reason to keep the car parked and not driving it before your inspection is it’s easier to inspect a cool engine than one that’s been driving for 20 minutes.

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Walk Around the Car

Normal wear and tear is expected on a used car. Deep scratches could lead to rust problems and other concerns. Photo © Keith Griffin 2008

Make sure everything at this most basic level of the inspection works and looks like it's supposed to. Always take into account a car's age and pedigree. A 1999 Ford Taurus that spent the winters in Kenosha, WI, isn't going to look as nice as a similar model that lived in Sebring, FL.

Make note of any exterior damage just like you would with a rental car. Fresh dents could appear between the time you first inspect it and when it comes time to buy.

Open the doors and see if they shut snugly. Doors that are out of whack might have gotten that way from an accident that wasn't fixed well (or at all). Look at the hinges and door latches for signs of rust and damage.

Pop the trunk and unlatch the hood. Inspect the gas cap and see how difficult it is to open.

Inspect the paint from different angles. Flaking should send off warning signals.Check for scratches. Some are normal. Deep scratches signal potential for rust. Scratches on the undercarriage could indicate off-road abuse or accident damage.

Examine the tires for uneven wear, which signals alignment problems. It's an old trick from the Shell answer man, but stick a penny in the treads. You don't want to see too much of Lincoln's head.

Make a note of the tire info on the sidewalls. An unethical person could swap tires on your prior to sale and you would never know it. Plus, make sure the tires match. Mismatched tires can be hazardous.

Turn the headlights on. Click on the turn signals and the hazards. Make sure all the lenses are relatively clear. Cloudy headlight lenses could indicate moisture has gotten inside. Look at the windshield for cracks of any size.

Run your finger along any rubber molding. Dry spots point to bad seals where moisture can get in.

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Be a Kid and Touch Everything

Indulge your inner child and check all of the heating and air conditioning controls, as well as playing with the stereo. Make sure it all works. Photo © Keith Griffin

Channel your inner-child when inspecting the interior. Flip every switch and pore over every inch of the interior. Nothing is too mundane to check. Touch everything and look everywhere.

  • Does the dome light come on? If not, find out why. The problem could be as simple as a blown bulb or it could indicate more complex electrical troubles.
  • Look at the top left part of the windshield for the oil change sticker. See what the expiration date is. If it’s six months older or more, remember to closely inspect the oil on the dipstick when you’re checking out the engine later on.
  • Pretend you’re a four-year old. Test every switch inside the car, including the ignition. See how difficult it is to turn the car on and off. At this point you’re really not focusing on the engine so much, but see if the starter hesitates at all.
  • This tip from a reader: Check the "Check Engine Light" and the "Air Bags Light" and finally the "ABS Light." Do they come on when the key is in the accessory (or right before start) position? Do they all go out after?
  • Test the heat and AC. See how the vents work and if they give off any musty odors.
  • Play the stereo. Pop in a cassette, CD, or MP3 player to make sure they all work.
  • Put the emergency brake on – and click it off. It’s important it engages and disengages with equal ease. A sticky brake creates major headaches down the road.
  • Make sure the seat belts work. Also, look in the back seat and check that the belts and latches aren't buried.
  • Check the driver and passenger seats to make sure they work in all positions.
  • Run your hands over the seats. See how supple the leather is. Feel for cracks in the texture. Do the same with cloth seats.
  • Run your fingers along the sides of the headliner (the fabric on the passenger compartment’s ceiling). See if it’s separating or bulging.
  • Check the dashboard for cracks, too. Don’t believe a car was “always garaged” if there is extensive sun damage here.
  • Stick your head under the front seats. There shouldn’t be rust under here. It most likely indicates some type of water problem.
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Be a Detective

A glove compartment can hold many clues to a used car's condition. Make sure it has at least the owner's manual. Maintenance records are good, too. Photo © Keith Griffin 2008

The glove box can host a treasure chest full of information. Don’t be afraid to explore in here and see what paper trail exists about the vehicle. Consider this About.Com’s version of CSI: Car Stuff Investigation.

  • Look for the owner’s manual. It’s great if it’s still with the car. (Otherwise, you can always buy one on e-Bay.)
  • If buying from a private owner, see if there are any maintenance records and inspection reports (if your state requires annual inspections). All cars need maintenance at some point in their lives. Just look to see if the same repair has been done over and over again.
  • While inspecting the maintenance records make note of any mileage figures. Question any discrepancy with the odometer readings.
  • Check the registration if it’s there. Be a detective. See if the vehicle identification number here matches the one on the vehicle. Make sure you’re buying the same car you’re looking at.
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Inspect the Trunk

A rusty jack like this is bound to fail you when you need it most. Make sure it's replaced before buying a used car with one like it in the trunk. Photo © Keith Griffin 2008

The trunk is just like your medicine cabinet: it hides a lot of secrets but tells an awful lot about you.

  • Look for signs of moisture. Trunks aren’t air tight but there shouldn’t be excessive water damage inside. If there is, it points to bad trunk seals.
  • Inspect the jack to see if all the parts are there, is in good shape, and make sure you can use it.
  • Check out the spare tire. A flat does you no good. Make the owner replace it (not just repair it) prior to purchase or give you a credit toward replacing it.
  • Speaking of spares, if there are wheel locks on the car’s tires, make sure the owner has the special tool to unlock them. It’s a nightmare if it’s lost.
  • All cars manufactured since 2002 must have an interior trunk release. Give it a quick tug to make sure it’s functioning.
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Make the Car Say ‘Aaaahhhh’

A clean battery is a happy battery. Look at a car's battery to make sure it's free of excessive corrosion. Have your mechanic check it to see how much life is left in it. A battery over 5 years old should be replaced. Photo © Keith Griffin 2008

It's getting more difficult with newer cars to do a visual inspection but there are still things even you as an untrained observer can spot.

  • Open the hood. Start the car. Have the owner accelerate. See if there is sustained vibration in the engine. This could indicate engine mount problems.
  • Look at the various belts for signs of wear. DON'T TOUCH THE BELTS WHEN THE ENGINE IS RUNNING. I can't stress that enough.
  • Have the owner shut the car off. Then, do a visual inspection. Check the battery for excessive corrosion around the terminals on top where the cables connect.
  • Gently poke any hoses you can see. Make sure the connections seem firm.
  • Pull the dipstick. It's a long, thin piece of metal with a round handle at the end. Wipe it off with your handy rag. Put it back in all the way and then pull it out. See if the oil looks clean. Sludgy or dirty oil indicates problems.
  • Make sure the oil is at an acceptable level. A low reading could point to a leak or a lazy owner. An overfull reading could mean the seller just pumped a lot of oil into the vehicle to hide problems for the short-term.
  • If you're the type who likes to do your own oil changes and make minor repairs, see how easy it is to do those things. Changing the headlight, for example, on a 2002 Dodge Neon is a snap (literally) on the right side. It's an absolute bear on the left.
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Get Your Pants Dirty

No muffler looks sparkling and shiny after a few miles but neither should it be pockmarked with rust and perforate easily. Photo © Keith Griffin 2008

Get on your hands and knees and look under the car. Your mechanic will put the car on a lift for an inspection. You’ll flop on the pavement.

The Automotive Aftermarket Suppliers Association says underperformed vehicle maintenance costs in the automotive aftermarket industry add up to more than $50 billion annually. Brakes, shocks and struts and chassis components — all located under the vehicle — are among the most neglected parts and, if not properly maintained, can contribute to wheel alignment problems.

  • Look for rust.
  • Take the hubcaps off.
  • Get down on your belly with a flashlight and look underneath.
  • The only time an exhaust system looks good is when it’s brand new, but even after thousands of miles it shouldn’t have any signs of perforation. Poke at it with a pen. It shouldn’t puncture.
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Second Time's the Charm

Make sure the tires are the same pre- and post-inspection. An unscrupulous owner could swap them out for a false bill of good health. Photo © Keith Griffin 2008

Here are some quick things you can do to make sure the car is still sound – even after a mechanic’s inspection. Something could have gone wrong between the time you looked at it first and your final decision.

  • Give the dipstick another twirl and see if the fuel levels have dropped. They shouldn’t have under normal wear and tear.
  • Check the tires to make sure they haven’t been switched.
  • See if all repairs and replacements you requested (such as a flat spare tire) have been made.
  • Look for any fresh dents since your first inspection. After all, others have probably driven the car since you have.
  • Double check the interior for any stains or rips not present the first time.

Happy Hunting!