Check out a Used Car Before Buying It

If you are thinking about purchasing a used car, you know how confusing it can be. There are so many things to consider that it can be a daunting experience. This is even more true if you are considering buying a car for the first time. There are many things to look for when purchasing a used car but one important factor is to give the car a physical check before making your final decision.


Checking the car's form

  1. Make sure that the car is on level ground before checking it out. This is to ensure that you will be able to clearly check the tires and to see if there is anything sagging on the car.
  2. Carefully check the paint job of the car, taking note of any rust spots, dents or scratches. The car should be clean so the paint condition is visible. Look at the sides of the car from end-on for waviness; that indicates paint work. Run your finger along the edges of the joints between panels; roughness indicates residue left from masking tape.
  3. Check the trunk of the car to make sure it is still in good condition. It should not show any sign of rust, or water entry due to cracks or holes. Wear inside of the trunk indicates usage of the car.
  4. Check the tires. The tires should be worn evenly and they should match. Look at the surface of the tire for feathering (bad alignment). Bad alignment can be caused by worn steering/suspension components, the pothole down the street or frame damage.
  5. Never buy a frame damaged car. Check the saddle (connects the front fenders and holds the top of the radiator). It may be welded or bolted in. Inspect the bolt heads at the top of the fenders inside the hood; scratch marks indicates that the fenders have been replaced or realigned (after a crash).
  6. Try to get under the car when it is safely raised and inspect the exhaust system or any under-body rust. Look for any black spots on the exhaust system because this can indicate leaking. This is also a good time to inspect for frame or unibody damage.
    • Check the exhaust with your finger. Greasy grime means important problem. Turn the car on. White vapor (not in a cold climate) is a bad sign too.

Checking under the hood

  1. Check under the hood of the car for any indication of dents, damage or rust. These can all be signs that the car was either poorly taken care of or damaged. Each fender, just inside where the hood joins, should have a decal with the VIN (Vehicle Identification Number) of the car. If the decal is not there, it does not necessarily indicate the fender was replaced; the location of the VIN is manufacture-dependent.
  2. Check the hoses and belts. They should not have cracks. The radiator hoses should not be soft.
  3. Inspect the engine for any sort of leaks, or corrosion. On the engine block, look for any dark brown oil stains, this will indicate that there is a leak in a gasket, and could possibly lead to an expensive repair in the future. Check the brake fluid, and reservoir to make sure its is not leaking. The belts should look new (i.e. not have cracks or signs of drying). Old belts can snap, and if you do not know how to replace them, it will cost between $100 – $500 depending on which belt goes bad.
  4. Remove the oil filler cap. A foam residue on the inside indicates a leaking head gasket. Forget that car.
  5. Pull the transmission dipstick; the fluid should be pink or red. An old car may be dark but it should not look or smell burnt. It should also be full (check with the engine running).
  6. Check the timing belt. This is the most important belt in the engine, and is also the most costly to replace. If the car is equipped with a steel timing chain, you don't have to worry about this. Normal lifespan of a timing belt is from 60 – 100+ thousand miles; this depends on the manufacturer.

Checking inside the car

  1. Go inside the car. Check the seats and upholstery of the car for any tears, rips, stains, or other type of damage.
  2. Check to make sure the air-conditioning of the car is working well by turning it on. If air conditioning is a must, buy a car with R134 coolant. Most cars fitted with R134 are 1993 or newer and have a sticker on the AC Condenser.
  3. Check the odometer of the car for the mileage. This is important because the mileage indicates the car’s age. On the average, a normal driver will drive between {{safesubst:#invoke:convert|convert}} a year; however, this depends on many factors. Remember, cars age by time and mileage. Buying a 10 year old car with very low miles is not necessarily a good thing.
  4. Find out if the car has a computer on board. Bring with you an inexpensive computer to check for errors. At any auto store they have inexpensive devices with prices around $150. However, most cheaper generic code readers are fairly limited in what they can access.
    • For a car that has an on board computer, pay attention to the warnings right when you start the car or when you turn the key or the start button.
  5. Verify the lights and all the regular functions of the car when not moving. This includes: any sensors for parking, back parking camera, radio, CD, music installation, etc.

Testing the car while driving

  1. Test drive the car before making any final decisions. This is perhaps one of the best ways to know the condition of the car. Hence, a buyer should make all effort to do a test drive first before coming to any decisions.
  2. Be sure to check the brakes of the car by pressing down hard enough on the brakes to decelerate rapidly, but not enough to slide. Try this going around {{safesubst:#invoke:convert|convert}} in an area without traffic. You should not feel any vibration from the brake pedal, or hear any squealing or strange noises. Brakes that pulsate indicate the need for having the rotors resurfaced or replaced and new pads installed. It should not swerve; this can be caused by a bad brake caliper or worn steering components.
  3. Check for small trepidation at 45 / 55 / 65 / {{safesubst:#invoke:convert|convert}}. Slight trepidation during a small speed interval may mean wear at the direction mechanical parts which may cost between 400 to 1500 to repair. These may include joints / arms etc. This may go together with uneven wear at the front tire(s).
  4. Check for sounds, trepidation or clunking noise when making a 90 degree turn. Do this at low speed. This means again, wear at the front direction level: joints need to be changed.

Reaching your decision

  1. Check out the car's service history which should give you some information regarding the performances, repairs, and problems of the car. Ideally, the current owner would have kept a record of the times when the car needed servicing and should be willing to show you this information. Some cars do not have maintenance records because they maintained them at home. This should be fine as long as they can prove they maintained the car properly. There are instances where used cars are sold because of past accidents or negative experiences.
  2. Bring someone who knows cars. It is a good idea to bring along a trusted friend with a good background of automotive know-how to check things that you are not sure of. If you do not have a trusted friend in the auto industry you can pay a mechanic to complete an inspection on it for around 75 – 100 bucks. Make sure this mechanic has good reviews so you will not get scammed into thinking the car is a lemon.
  3. Do not pay sticker price. A used car is a negotiable item. Do not feel the need to pay the price they are asking. The dealer bought this car at a low price, and is turning around and selling it for much more than they purchased it with the notion that they might have to lower that sticker price. Depending on the quality of the vehicle, feel free to offer a price. Be sure that it is a reasonable offer. If the dealer is asking $15,000, do not offer $10,000. It is merely an insult by doing this. If the car is over $10,000, try to negotiate at least $1,500 off of the car. You can pre-qualify yourself at your bank or at a Credit Union. That will determine what you can spend for a car. Try to buy a car that is less than they tell you. Most people try to buy more car than they can really afford. Remember, no matter how good that car is today, it is going to require maintenance in the future.
    • Use parts of the car that are unflattering to your advantage. If a car is not the color you are looking for, tell the dealer "I really like the car, but I don't like that it is green, that is the only thing holding me back from buying it." The dealer will see that you want it, and find some way to get you into that car.
  4. Bring a pen, paper and cell phone with you are purchasing from a private sale. As you make your inspection of the car be sure to record all items which are damaged or will require replacement. If needed also remind the buyer that you will be taking the vehicle to your own personal mechanic so they do not think the list is for theirs. After you have collected a list of what you believe the car will require you can telephone auto parts stores to check the price and availability of replacement parts. Once you know how much the car will cost to repair if you buy it you can make an informed decision on what you would like to pay as well as increase the likelihood that the seller may reduce their asking price.
    • Be careful while doing this because some sellers may think it's rude by doing this. He may decide not to sell to you.



  • Use Consumer Reports Buying Guide to check out the general reputation of the car. Don't pay thousands more for a great reputation. Car condition is much more important than the nameplate.
  • Use an independent source to determine the wholesale and retail values of your target vehicle. Is the sellers' price very similar, or is there an unexplained difference in price?
  • Certified cars cost a little more but have some assurances and usually a warranty.
  • Beware of UFOs...Unidentified Funky Odors. It can be very difficult and expensive to get a strange smell out of a used car.
  • Buying a car from your choice service center is the best way to ensure long term satisfaction. If buying from a dealer with no service center have the car checked out by your mechanic!
  • If the car does need work, use it as a haggling point.
  • Vehicle History Reports are inexpensive and can contain very valuable information. Don't read too deep! The important things are: Accidents and Odometer Discrepancies. If you are looking at a car from a dealer have them provide you with a vehicle history report (Carfax). Make sure they give you the last page off the printer.
  • Never inspect a car when it’s raining. Rain will mask paint problem and accident damage. It will also mask any suspension noisy.
  • Compare the condition of the car's interior to the readout on the odometer. A car that ostensibly has {{safesubst:#invoke:convert|convert}} on it will probably not have a driver's seat that looks like it's been savagely beaten with a meat tenderizer. An overly worn passenger compartment coupled with low mileage can be an indication of odometer fraud.
  • Search for the same car you're looking to buy with similar mileage. If the price is around the same as the car you're looking to buy, use this as a bargaining point.


  • If you live somewhere (such as the state of California) that requires a smog or emissions test on most vehicles, be sure to get the car tested before you purchase it. Repairs to the emission control system can be very expensive and any car that fails inspection will usually need to be fixed before it can be registered. Also, cars with serious wear to internal engine components such as piston rings or valve seats may not pass an emissions test; a smog check can be a good way to make sure that a car is both running properly now and does not have major mechanical defects that will cause you trouble down the road. This test can easily be combined with a vehicle inspection by a qualified mechanic. For places where a smog check is not needed, be sure that a mechanic checks the engine's compression which will also help indicate whether there are internal engine wear problems (this is a particular concern for vehicles with more than 50,000 miles).
  • If after doing this preliminary checkup of the car you think you would like to proceed further with the purchase of the car, seek out the professional opinion of a qualified mechanic. This is a good idea if this the first time you are buying a car or if you have little or no experience with cars. The current owner of the car should have no objections to you having the car checked out further by a mechanic; if the owner does have some objections to this, it could be because there may be something to hide, and in which case you will want to look elsewhere for your purchase.
  • If it looks like too good of a deal, it probably is.

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