Judge the Condition of a Secondhand Car

Buying a used car can be a money saving option when searching for a vehicle, but you should know how to judge the condition of your purchase before signing on the dotted line.


  1. Choose the type of car you are interested in, then become familiar with its operation, the type of equipment it comes with, and the general history of it. You don't need to research four wheel drive components or diesel engines if you are buying a conventional family car, but buying a four wheel drive or diesel means understanding basic principles of their operation and features.
  2. Check online for customer feedback on the models you are looking for. There are a number of research resources who specialize on accumulating information about problems with automotive products, customer satisfaction, warranty issues, and recalls. Knowing if a particular model has common problems will help you to decide if you are willing to invest in it.
  3. Look for cars that have features you need to suit your purposes. Families may need room for kids, groceries, the soccer team, or travelling with pets, whereas, a single young adult may only need basic transportation on a budget. This may sound like a stereotype, but you should be able to narrow the search down to vehicles that are suitable for your needs before you start shopping.
  4. Check the prices of comparable cars at local used car lots, the want ads in the local newspaper, and any other sources you have. This should give you an idea how much you should be willing to offer when you have found a car you are interested in.
  5. Be model specific when you have chosen a car. It is a fact of life, that cars vary from model to model and manufacturer to manufacturer, so having a particular car in mind, and knowing a little about it will make your job of assessing its condition much easier. Now it is time to look at this specific car.
  6. Learn what you can about the car's history when you go to check it out. If you are dealing with a private seller, this person will have valuable knowledge about the car.
    • How many miles show on the odometer? It is not uncommon for a modern car to be driven over {{safesubst:#invoke:convert|convert}}, but if you are going to drive long distances commuting or travelling, cars over {{safesubst:#invoke:convert|convert}} should be seriously depreciated in value, since you may only expect to get a year or two dependable service out of it with this kind of use.
    • Ask if the car was driven mostly long commutes, or short, in-city driving, since "highway" mileage is not as wearing on the drive train, or hard on the brakes and suspension.
    • Check to see if the previous owners maintained the car properly, changing the oil, oil filter, and air filter at suggested intervals.
    • Find out if the car was driven in steep, hilly terrain, since this type of use will also cause serious drive train wear.
    • Find out if the car was driven in areas where salt is commonly used for highway deicing. Since salt is corrosive, you will at least want to pay attention to the undercarriage to see if it is undercoated or shows signs of rust damage.
  7. Look the outside over. You may be able to see signs of abuse, accidents, or other problems by walking around taking a good close look at the paint and finishes.
    • Look around the lock, if it equipped with a key type lock. If you see a lot of dings, scratches, or scrapes in the paint, you may begin to wonder if the driver has an eye hand coordination problem, or possibly they have been sitting in a bar long enough to have trouble fitting the right key in the keyhole when the bar closes. This doesn't imply you wouldn't buy a car from a drinking person, but it is something to think about.
    • Look closely at the margins where sheet metal surfaces mate up. For instance, there is a space between the hood edge and the upper front fenders and across the grill. The sheet metal here should have an equal space all the way around, and should be a fairly good fit. Gaps, rubbing surfaces, or other unusual fit may indicate some damage has occurred that may not be immediately apparent.
    • Look at the lowest part of the body panels, the quarter panels, rails, running boards (if equipped), fairings under the grill, and along the edge of the wheel wells for signs of corrosion or chrome trim becoming loose.
    • Move a magnet along these same areas if you have any reason to expect plastic body filler has been used to repair sheet-metal damage. Tapping with a plastic pen may also yield clues by the varying sounds it makes, but don't damage the paint by using excessive force or by tapping with a metal object.
    • Change the angle you are viewing wide metal surfaces so that the light reflection or refraction will expose any differences in paint color, gloss, or dents.
    • Test the doors and windows to see that they operate smoothly and easily.
  8. Take a look in the trunk, checking to be sure a usable spare tire, jack, and tire tool are there. If you can, pull up the edges of the carpet and look for rust or peeling paint.
  9. Look under the hood. The engine may be foreign to you, but there are still some things even an inexperienced person can look for without too much trouble.
    • Check the oil. Pull the dipstick and look at the oil. It should be between a light amber color and dark brown, and not too thick and sticky looking. Black, tarry looking oil may be a sign of neglect in servicing an engine. Smell the oil, too. If you smell a burnt odor, it might be a sign valve are not seating tightly, allowing hot combustion gases to leak out and "burn" the oil. Look for milky or foamy blobs or bubbles in the oil. This could be a sign of a blown head gasket, or cracked block or cylinder head.
    • Look at the belts, hoses, and rubber tubes and wire insulation. They should be free of cracks, blistering, and unusual color fading or stains. If the main fan belt is a serpentine belt, and the car has significant mileage, the grooved side of the belt may have small cracks perpendicular to the grooves which are a common sign of wear and normally not a problem.
    • Look for oil, or damp looking stains or dirt on the engine and the rest of the components. Even if you don't see wet engine oil or other fluids, dust will accumulate on even a tiny oil leak, and become damp looking, giving a good indication of a minor leak. The area around the oil filler cap often has some evidence of this type of leak from oil spilled when it is added to the crankcase.
    • Remove the brake fluid reservoir cap, and see if the reservoir is full. The fluid in this reservoir should be a clear to very light amber color, and should have no foam or bubbles in it. Dark or foamy brake fluid may indicate poor maintenance of the brake system.
    • On an automatic transmission equipped vehicle, pull the dipstick and look at the transmission fluid. It is usually a pink or red colored very thin oily liquid. If it is dark brown, black, or smells distinctly burned, there is a serious potential for a transmission problem ahead.
    • Have the car started up with the hood raised, and listen for any knocking, tapping, pinging, or clicking sounds that seem unusual. These noises, especially knocking sounds at the first start-up of the day may indicate wear on the main bearings, and be an indication the engine doesn't have many miles of life left in it. Look for vibration, pulleys which seem to wobble, or fan blades that are not spinning concentrically. Warped or bent components in the alternator, water pump, or air conditioner compressor can lead to repair bills in the near future. Listen for exhaust leaks or smoke coming from the engine vent or the oil filler cap.
    • Listen when the car is shut off. If it sputters or tries to keep running after the switch is turned off, the car may be due for a major tuneup, which can mean some pretty serious money, depending on the model and the specific work required.
  10. Look at the "creature comfort" features inside the car.
    • Look at the headliner. Is it smooth and intact, with no holes, wrinkles, or tears? Wrinkles in a headliner, particularly, may indicate it has been exposed to moisture, and you may also notice mold or mildew on it.
    • Burns, tears, or stains in the flooring and upholstery are another sign of lack of care for the car.
    • Take a deep smell of the interior. If you smell a musty, damp odor, there may be leaks in the floor pan or the windows, doors, or other seams. These are often hard to locate and repair, and long term moisture may cause corrosion problems hidden by carpet or other flooring.
    • Look at and work the seat belts and seat adjustment features. They should be in good working condition to insure you are comfortable with and in them.
    • Start the car again, and check the accessories. Try the radio, CD player, or cassette deck, the cigarette lighter plugs, the horn, windshield wipers, interior lights, and other features. Many of these items can be inexpensive and simple to repair, but knowing about problems before you buy makes the decision whether or not to buy easier to make.
  11. Take a test drive. The best place to start this is on a quiet back street or in a relatively empty parking lot. You will want to try some pretty sharp turns and brisk braking, and you won't want to have to deal with traffic while you pay attention to the results of this testing.
    • Put the car in gear, holding the brakes. Give the car a little gas, and feel for the transmission to push against the brakes. Feel for any vibration, hesitation, or other strange events, and listen for any grunting or grinding.
    • Let off the brake and give the car a good bit of gas, listening for popping or grinding that may indicate worn or damaged universal joints or suspension components.
    • Brake the car sharply when you have reached about {{safesubst:#invoke:convert|convert}}, and observe if it stops quickly and smoothly. Any noises or force felt through the steering column may require further investigation to see if steering, suspension, or brake components are worn or damaged.
  12. Take the car out on a street that will allow you to put it through some paces. You will want to see how it corners, accelerates, and handles in various different conditions. Feel for drift, wobbles, or steering wheel vibrations. While you are doing this, be aware of how the car "fits" you. Chances are, you will be spending a lot of time in the driver's seat, so it the leg room, cabin controls, or operating equipment is not configured in such a way to be comfortable to you, you may want to look for a different model or style.
  13. Bring the car back to the seller's home and park it. Get out, and walk around slowly, smelling for any burning lubricants or fluids which may have leaked out on your test drive.
  14. Look at the tail pipe for water or oil droplets that may have accumulated there, as well as any black, soot material inside the pipe. In cool weather, after a very brief drive, some water may be condensed on the surface of the tail pipe, but it should be clear looking, with no sign of antifreeze or oil in it.
  15. Take a look underneath the car. Using a flashlight, lay down beside the car and look at the transmission, the rear of the engine, beneath the radiator, and for rear wheel drives, the back differential, to see if there are any signs of leaks. It doesn't hurt to park the car in a different place than it was in before the test drive to look in the driveway for any stains caused by fluids leaking out previously.
  16. Look at the results of these inspections, and ask honest questions to the seller, both in terms of your observations and what he or she thinks is the cause of them, and their willingness to work with you to offset the cost of possible repairs in negotiating the price of the car. You have to remember, you are buying a used car, and there will undoubtedly be some wear and tear to the vehicle when you buy it.


  • Use the observations and information you acquire through the steps above to get a general idea of the overall condition of the car you are looking at, and weigh the condition of the vehicle in deciding whether a less expensive car is as good a deal as one in better condition at a significantly higher price for sale elsewhere.
  • If you encounter any serious problems or symptoms of trouble using these guidelines, you may want to consult a reliable mechanic if you are in doubt.
  • Check online car history websites like car fax for records of any accidents the car you are looking at has been in. Vehicle history reports are an inexpensive way to check the track record of any used vehicle. Vehicle history reports provide customers with a detailed record based on the vehicle's serial number (VIN). These reports will indicate items of public record, such as vehicle title branding, lemon law buybacks, odometer fraud and recalls. They may indicate minor/moderate collision damage or improper vehicle maintenance. An attempt to identify vehicles which have been previously owned by hire car rental agencies, police and emergency services or taxi fleets is also made. However, consumers should research vehicles carefully, as these reporting services only report the information to which they have access.
  • Compare prices at new car lots and even used car lots, rather than strictly looking at owner sellers. Car lots usually have mechanics who inspect their vehicles, and often offer warranties on their stock.


  • There are always techniques for hiding serious mechanical problems from a buyer, so choosing a seller you trust is your best bet for a good deal.

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