Ultimate Guide to Inspect a Used Car

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When you buy a used car it's important to know what you're buying. If you are seriously considering a purchase, use the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) to run a Vehicle History Report on the car to make sure there are no costly hidden problems. You can learn how to find your VIN here. The report will tell you how many owners the car has had, its accident history, and how it was serviced and maintained. If you are buying from a dealership, the Vehicle History Report is often provided to you free of charge.
You will also want to have a mechanic you trust perform an inspection of the car to check the overall condition of the vehicle from the brakes and suspension to the engine, transmission, and to look for any possible future problems that you might have. Mileage and vehicle history of that particular make and model will often alert a mechanic to when components fail such as the water pump, fuel pump, various sensors, the catalytic converter and so forth. Besides having the car's history report and advice from a mechanic, you need to know how to carry out a basic used car inspection yourself. What do you look for around the car and under the hood, and what kinds of things raise a red flag? Let's find out.

The Walk Around

There's an old adage that "how you do one thing, is how you do everything." This is true when you're considering the purchase of a used car. Details of how the previous owner treated the vehicle can be found everywhere. Think of yourself as a Used Car Detective and use your expertise in deduction to ferret out how the vehicle has been treated. Let's start by walking around the car.
  • What is the overall condition? 
  • Does the car look like new with shiny paint and clearcoat?
  • Is it obvious that the owner took good care to keep the vehicle polished?
  • Are the tires in good condition with plenty of tread? 

A car's tire condition tells you a lot about how the owner treated the vehicle. To check the tread wear, insert a penny in the tread with the top of Lincoln's head aimed into the treads. If you can see Lincoln's head touching the tread, it's time for new tires.
Check the fit and finish of all the body work. Do all the door panels, trunk and hood fit properly? Gaps in body panels and uneven paint might mean the car was in an accident and has been repaired. You can spot check the body panels with a small magnet to make sure there is no hidden body filler, a sure indication that a body section has been repaired (never drag a magnet across the body as you can scratch the clearcoat). Speaking of, check the clearcoat for cloudy sections that indicate it is at the end of its life and will need to be replaced.
Are there any cracks in the windshield or in the rubber molding around the windows? Check the entire body for dents, dings, and paint chips. Use a flashlight to look under the car for drips or leaks that could mean there is a gasket leak or a cracked hose, worn clamps or rotted seals. Check for any parts that look rusted including in the wheel wells. Also check to make sure that all the exterior lighting works properly.

Under the Hood

Though you may not be a professional mechanic, there is still much to be learned by looking under the hood. Is the engine compartment clean and rust-free? New paint on the inside of the engine bay might be a sign that the car was repainted after an accident.
Give the motor and all connecting hoses and belts a good look. Are there any signs of gasket leaks, cracked belts, or worn hoses? Are there spider webs under the hood? That's a sign that no one has checked under there in a long time. Check crevices for rodent droppings and evidence of seeds left behind by mice. Pesky critters have been known to get under the hood of a vehicle to find a safe place to have lunch. They often chew on hoses and bite through wiring, causing problems.
Open the coolant reservoir to check for rust inside the radiator. Check the level of the power steering and brake fluid. Check the engine oil dipstick. Do the fluids and oil appear clean and new or has their color turned dark or burnt? Check for any metal particles by feeling the dipstick or the oil fill reservoir. If you feel any metal particles, the engine may have problems.
Check the battery to see if the terminals are clean and tight. Check the engine air filter to see if it needs to be changed. If it is really dirty, that's a sign that the vehicle did not have regular maintenance. Start the car and listen to the engine for any knocking sounds. The motor should run evenly, and the serpentine belt should not make a lot of noise. Ticking or clicking sounds from the engine can be a sign that the oil pressure is low and that leads to worn valvetrain tolerances or "lifter tick" leading to engine damage.
If possible, look under the car as well to check the suspension joints and shock seals for leaks. Look at the condition of the brakes for any fluid leaks and to see how thick the brake pads are. Thin pads are another indication that the car didn't receive tip-top maintenance. While you're under there, check the entire exhaust system to make sure all the pipes and mufflers are tight and free of dents or cracks. Look from the front of the undercarriage to the rear of the car, inspecting any areas where there might be leaks in the engine, transmission, or differential.

Inspecting the Interior

Now let's get behind the wheel. When you open the driver's door, the first thing you should notice is that the door doesn't squeak. A squeaky door is a sign that the previous owner never lubricated the hinges which begs the question, "What else didn't he or she do for the general upkeep of the car?" What smells hit you coming from inside? Hopefully, just the fresh clean smell of a properly maintained interior rather than pet urine, halitosis, or the lingering scent of ancient French fries.
What is the condition of the upholstery? The seats should be free of tears in the fabric or leather. If the car has leather seats, they should appear subtle due to the use of leather conditioner. Move the seats forward and backwards to make sure you can adjust them properly. Is the floor littered with Cheetos under the seat or has the entire interior been properly vacuumed?
The back seats often exhibit less wear but check them anyway. Go ahead and sit in the back seat. Is it comfortable? Does your head touch the interlining fabric? Do your knees hit the front seats? Are there cubbies for storage and cupholders? All good things to know. If there are cupholders, are they tarnished with sticky goo from soft drinks of yesteryear? Once again, how you do one thing is generally how you do everything, and such neglect might suggest the entire vehicle did not receive the loving care it deserves.
  • Check all the seat belts to make sure the harnesses are in working order. Sit in the driver's seat. This is where you'll be spending the vast majority of your time. Adjust the seat and steering wheel to fit you. Adjust the mirrors and make sure you have plenty of visibility. Are there any blind spots? Once the steering wheel has been adjusted, your arms should be slightly bent at the elbow when you lay your wrists on the top rim of the wheel. 
  • Now let's check to make sure everything is functioning properly. Honk the horn. Try the turn signals, the windshield wipers, and the headlights. Put the side windows down and start the car. The warning lights should appear on the dashboard gauge cluster. Watch for them to disappear after a few seconds. If any of the warning icons stay on, take note. A check engine light might just be telling you the oil is low or that the gas cap is loose, or it could mean you have an emissions fault or something worse.
  • Listen to the engine from inside the car. It should idle smoothly. Now put the side windows up and operate the air conditioning or heater to make sure they function. If there is a sunroof, open and close it so you know it performs properly. Make sure that all the buttons and knobs are within easy reach. If the vehicle has an infotainment touchscreen, see that it functions properly. If you are buying from a dealer, they will usually correct any minor issues such as a taillight bulb being out, but a wonky touchscreen is a major expense. Take your time and make sure everything works as it should and that the car is a proper fit for you.

The Test Drive

When taking a test drive, place the car in drive. It should shift smoothly. The accelerator should not stick, and the brake pedal should not depress too far. Take the car out on the road and see how the steering feels. There should be no extra "play" in the wheel. Make sure the vehicle accelerates and brakes smoothly. There should be no "squealing" sounds when you brake. Go over some road bumps and listen for any noise from the suspension. How does the car ride? How does it feel when negotiating a curve? Are you comfortable? Do you feel safe?
If possible, get on the highway. See how it gets up to speed and changes lanes. Check such driver assist features as lane-keep assist and blind spot monitoring. Does this car inspire confidence?
Lastly, don't try the stereo until you are back from the test drive. Sit quietly in the car for a moment. How does it feel to you? Could this be your new ride? Now turn on the stereo. Do the speakers crackle when you turn up the volume? Do all the speakers work? Do you feel as though you are in an orchestra pit? Are you smiling?
Let Lithia Help
Don't forget to check the trunk for storage space and make sure the spare tire and changing tools are in place. If you're buying an SUV, check the cargo space and make sure the rear seats fold properly for more space in the back. Does the vehicle still have its Owner's Manual? You'll want to read it from cover to cover to become fully acquainted with your new car.
If you're looking for a quality used car, let Lithia Motors help. With over 75 years of experience in providing personal transportation solutions for our customers' needs and hundreds of dealerships throughout America, Canada, and the UK, let us get you behind the wheel of your dream car. At Lithia, we've got your back, and want to keep you as a customer for life!