Appraising Your Car

In our Personal Inspection Techniques checklist, we outlined, in detail, the steps you should take to inspect a used car prior to purchase. While this section talks about appraising a used car to determine its fair market value, there are several similarities between the used-car inspection process described earlier and the used-car appraisal process we'll outline in this article.

There are a number of things you should consider when determining your vehicle's value. From its condition and mileage to its desirability in the marketplace, this article will guide you step-by-step through the appraisal process to help you determine just how much your used car is actually worth.

Assess your vehicle's condition by examining the following:

Exterior Condition
First, examine your vehicle's paint. Does the paint look faded or worn? Does it have major chips or scratches in the surface? Does it show visible signs of wear and tear? Be on the lookout for deep scratches, dings, gouges or rust. Have you had the vehicle painted and if so, does the paint match from panel to panel? Is the finish glossy or dull?

Has the vehicle had any body work? If so, was it done properly (are there noticeable signs of bond-o, sand marks, putty or panel or door misalignment?) Are the panels straight and tight? Do the doors hang straight, do the door fasteners align and do they operate smoothly when opened and closed? Do the doors seal well to prevent noise and the outside elements from entering the vehicle?

Next, examine your vehicle's windshield and windows. Does the windshield have any cracks, pits, holes or scratches? Do the windows operate properly? Do they open and close without sticking or grinding? Are they scratched or cracked? Windshields and windows are costly to replace; if there are any noticeable cosmetic or operational problems, it could reduce the amount of your car's value.

Your car's headlights, taillights and mirrors are also an important part of the exterior appraisal. Be sure to examine these features closely. If there are any cracks in the lenses or the housings around the lights, you might consider having the lights replaced prior to selling or trading in the vehicle. Do the lights work properly? Are the vehicle's mirrors attached to the car snugly and, if so, are you able to position them either automatically (by a lever inside the car) or manually by physically positioning them with your hand?

Do the front and back bumpers have any significant dings, dents or scratches? Your car's trim (including body side moldings and door-edge guards) should be in good condition. Is there any molding or trim that is missing or incomplete? If the trim is rubber or vinyl, is it faded by the sun or discolored in any way? Is the trim loose or securely fastened? Be sure to polish any chrome bumpers or molding to enhance your vehicle's curb appeal.

Take a good look at the tires. Is the tread worn evenly? Is there adequate tread on the tires? Excessive wear on both the outer edges or in the center of the tread suggests over-inflation. Additionally, any cupping or dipping of certain tread sections could indicate a wheel misalignment or suspension problem. If your tires exhibit any of these problems, you might consider taking the vehicle to a certified technician for inspection prior to selling the vehicle. Additionally, be sure to examine the wheels. If there is significant scuffing or scraping on the outer part of the rims, you might consider replacing the wheels to enhance the vehicle's curb appeal and, ultimately, increase its value.

Finally, make sure your car is equipped with a jack and a spare tire that's in good condition.

Interior Condition
Check your carpets and mats. Are they worn, stained, ripped or faded? Do they show wear in relation to the age of the vehicle? Does the carpet need to be cleaned? Do the mats need to be replaced? Are the seats clean and in good condition or are they worn and dirty? Have they been burned by a cigarette or stained by food or coffee?

Be sure to examine the tachometer, the odometer, the radio, air conditioning, windshield wipers and washer system, seat adjustments, gas gauge, warning lights and other components. If there are defects or problems with the vehicle's controls, be sure to consider these imperfections when assessing the car's worth.

Make sure your car's seats are functional (including the ability to adjust and tilt forward and backward) and be sure the seat belts are working. We strongly suggest having a technician inspect the safety belts prior to selling to be sure everything is in proper working order.

Mechanical Soundness
Start your car and listen to the engine. Do you hear any unusual noises, such as whistling or ticking sounds? Are there popping or rumbling noises when the car is idling? Does it ping, knock or backfire? Be sure to listen closely for any unusual noises.

Be sure to look under the front and back of the car to see if there are any fresh fluid drips on the garage floor or the driveway, and don't forget to check under the hood for signs of leaks around the engine seams and hose connectors.

Take your car for a spin around the block and put yourself in a prospective buyer's shoes. Does the car accelerate smoothly or does it surge or jerk forward when you give it the gas? Does it respond quickly to a turn of the steering wheel or do you have to turn the steering wheel more than a few inches to get the car to respond? Does the car pull to the left or the right while driving? Does the car make any unusual noises? A mechanically sound vehicle should respond quickly, smoothly and easily to virtually every driving condition it's exposed to.

Do the brakes squeak or grind when you come to a stop? Does the vehicle pull to one side when you brake? Is there a lot of play when you apply the brake pedal? A vehicle's brakes and rotors are an expensive proposition and, if they need to be replaced or fixed, could decrease your vehicle's overall value.