A used car is, by its very name, used. Its been owned, driven and cared for by someone else. Because of this uncertainty, would-be used car buyers tend to find the used car shopping process, well, downright challenging.
There are several things you can do to help alleviate some of these fears. First, you can perform a personal inspection of the vehicle using our detailed personal inspection checklist as well as the information contained in our tips and advice section below. Additionally, we recommend you have the vehicle inspected by a certified mechanic before you purchase someone who is capable of accurately pinpointing existing problems, as well as potential problems, with the vehicle. We suggest you solicit the help of someone you know and trust. Click on the links below to learn more about how you can successfully perform your own personal inspection.
Alignment: Stand at the front and rear of the car and look down at each side to see if the car is sitting straight. If you notice sagging or rippling areas, uneven lines, uneven body moldings or crooked trim pieces, the car may have had body work at some point. Examine the vehicle's exterior body components to make sure everything fits snugly. Be sure to look at the openings around the doors, hood and trunk to see if the space around the openings is uniform in size. If you notice fresh rust proofing underneath, it could be an indicator that recently repaired damage is trying to be camouflaged. If you notice unevenness, the car may have been previously repaired or involved in an accident.
Doors: Open and shut the vehicle's doors. Do they operate smoothly? Do the door fasteners align or does it appear they've been readjusted from their original positions? If they've been readjusted, it could be a sign the vehicle was involved in an accident or the doors have been replaced due to some type of body work. Make sure the doors seal well when they are closed to prevent wind and other elements from entering the vehicle.
Lights: Check the car's headlights to see if there are cracks or damage to the housing or the lenses of the lights. Halogen bulbs are expensive to replace, so be sure to examine the lights closely for any signs of damage. Be sure to check the taillights, brake lights and turn signals as well to see if they function properly. It might be a good idea to solicit the help of a family member or friend who can stand at the front and the back of the car while you test the headlights, taillights and turn signals to make sure they're operating correctly.
Mirrors: Does the vehicle have both side mirrors (one on either side of the car)?Are they cracked or damaged in any way? Is there rust around the perimeter of the mirrors? Are they solidly secured to the outside of the vehicle or are they hanging loosely? Be sure the mirrors can be adjusted properly (either automatically or manually).
Paint: Examining the vehicle's paint is one of the most important exterior assessments you can perform. Does the paint look faded? Does it have major chips or scratches in the surface? Most used vehicles will show some signs of wear and tear, but significant damage to the paint in the form of deep scratches, dings or gouges can cost significant money in repair costs. Check for body rust and be concerned if there is significant rust in the wheel wells, under the doors, around the windows, around the headlight housings or in the trunk. Be sure the paint colors match from panel to panel and carefully look for paint over-spray inside the door jams. If you notice mismatched colors or paint over-spray, the vehicle may have had a paint job. Not all paint jobs are an indication of body damage or repair, however. Some people simply like to change their vehicle's exterior appearance by giving it new color. If you notice these signs, be sure to ask the previous owner or the dealer from which you're purchasing the vehicle why the car was repainted.
Panels: A vehicle's panels (the front and rear fender areas) should be straight and tight. In certain situations, loose or uneven panels indicate accident damage or a car that's been regularly driven over rough terrain. Panels are extremely vulnerable to rust, so check around and under each panel to determine if there is significant rust damage. Again, check to make sure the paint matches from panel to panel. If you notice mismatched colors, it could indicate the vehicle has been painted due to damage or bodywork of some kind.
Shocks: On older vehicles, there are four shock absorbers one under each wheel. Stand at each corner of the car and push the bumper up and down until the vehicle starts to bounce, then abruptly stop pushing. If the vehicle continues to bounce more than once or twice, it may be an indication that the shocks need to be replaced. Most newer cars have struts. Be sure to examine the strut canister in the wheel well (located in the same position as a shock), and see if there is any leaking around the canister which indicates the strut is bad and needs to be replaced.
Tires: Before you examine the tires, you might want to turn the steering wheel to give you a full view of the front set. Is the tread on the tires worn evenly? Misalignment, faulty shock absorbers, unbalanced wheels or inadequate tire pressure can cause tires to wear unevenly. Be sure there is adequate tread on the tires thin tread can lead to tire blowouts which can ultimately lead to accidents. You can purchase a tread depth gauge from a local automotive parts store to determine if you need to replace the tires or you could do a simple penny test. If you use a tread depth gauge, be sure the tires have at least 1/16th of an inch of tread or more; this is the minimum amount of tread allowed by law. If you perform the penny test, simply insert a penny into the tread groove with Lincoln's face showing. If you are able to see all of Lincoln's head, the tire needs to be replaced. Perform this test on all four tires to be sure the tread is acceptable for each. Make sure there aren't mismatched brands of tires or sizes of tires on the same axle. Are the sidewalls cracking? Look for nails or screws embedded into the tread that could cause a slow leak.
Windshield: Replacing a windshield can be costly, so be sure to examine it carefully for cracks, pits, holes or serious scratches.
Windows: Windows are also a costly replacement, so carefully examine them for cracks or serious scratches as well. And be sure the windows operate smoothly. Open and close them several times to be sure they don't stick or grind while operating and make sure they open and close all the way. If they don't, it could be an indication there's a problem inside the door.
The condition and comfort of a vehicle's interior is just as important as its mechanical operation and its outward appearance. Following is a list of interior components you should examine closely during the vehicle's personal inspection.
Carpets and Mats: Check the vehicle's carpets and mats for stains, excessive wear and tear, cigarette burns or rips and tears. Does it look like food or drink was spilled on the carpets? Are there excessive stains or burns, are some or all of the floor mats missing? Replacing a vehicle's carpeting is an expensive proposition, so be sure you examine these components carefully to avoid additional costs.
Comfort: Sit in the driver's seat. Is the seat comfortable? Is there plenty of legroom and headroom? Can you successfully reach all the controls? Is the headrest comfortable? Can you see clearly out the windshield above the dash, is the armrest in a comfortable position? Can you read all the gauges on the instrument panel? Now sit in the passenger's seat. Are you able to enter and exit the car easily, is there plenty of leg, shoulder and headroom, are there reading lights on the passenger's side of the car, how does the seatbelt operate, is the headrest and seat comfortable? Since you spend a majority of your time driving and transporting other people in your vehicle, the interior analysis is very important. Certain cars simply aren't good fits for some people, so be sure you feel as comfortable as possible inside the car.
Features: Most vehicles on the market today have a variety of interior features, including mirror controls, stereo systems, navigation systems, special heating, air conditioning and ventilation controls for both the driver and the passenger, a variety of seat adjustment options and steering wheel positions, trunk and fuel-door releases, wiper and washer systems, rear defoggers, visor vanity lights and more. Be sure to examine each of these features carefully. Do they work properly? Are they easy or difficult to use? Can you reach the controls easily? Do you like or dislike some of the features? Is a feature you want incomplete or missing altogether? Check the emergency brake. Too much play indicates a problem.
Headliner: The headliner of a car is the interior fabric adhered to the roof of the vehicle. Examine it closely for rips, tears or sagging. Headliners are typically difficult and costly to replace, so be sure to look at it closely for any signs of damage.
Instruments: A vehicle's instruments are located on the instrument panel directly in front of the driver (and directly behind the steering wheel) and/or on the center console. Turn the key to the on position. Do the components work properly, including the gas gauge, the tachometer, the speedometer, the warning lights? Be sure to evaluate the instruments during your test drive to be sure everything is in proper working order.
Lights: Check both the vehicle's interior and exterior lights. Turn the headlights on and off. Do they work properly? Does the dimmer switch work? Are the vehicle's interior lights functioning properly? Does the visor vanity lights operate properly? Does the overhead light turn on and off when the vehicle's doors are opened and closed? Check the dashboard lights, the headlights (low and high beams), lights in the glove compartment, the trunk light, hazards, map and back-up lights, fog lights, parking lights and turn signals. If you'd like, ask the seller to sit in the driver's seat and turn the exterior lights on and off while you check them from the outside.
Pedals: A good sign of a vehicle's wear and tear is the condition of the rubber on the floor pedals. If the rubber's worn and smooth, especially on the brake pedal, chances are the car has seen a lot of stop-and-go driving.
Seats and Seatbelts: Make sure the vehicle's seats adjust easily and properly. Slide them forward and backward several times. Front seats should slide back and forth easily. When applicable, tilt the seats up and back. If the seats have covers, lift the covers and examine the upholstery for excessive wear and tear. And be sure to check the driver's seat for comfort. Does it need new padding? If so, be sure to factor this expense into the purchase price of the car. Do all the seatbelts work? Do they fit properly? Be sure to ask the seller about any existing seatbelt problems.
Bumpers and Trim: Take a close look at the car's bumpers and trim. Does 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?
Trunk: Be sure to open the trunk and examine it closely. Are there signs of water damage? Does it have a mildew smell? Look for rust in the bottom of the wells. If a spare tire is present, make sure it's in good condition, with good tread and no leaks. Is there a jack and tools inside (for example, a tire iron) to change a tire should you need to replace it with the spare? Lift the carpet and examine the floor of the trunk for rust or evidence of previous body repair.
Upholstery: Your vehicle's upholstery is an important factor to assess. Look at the seats. Are there rips, tears, burn marks, stains? Does the upholstery have a foul or musty smell? If so, the vehicle may have suffered flood damage in the past. Are there sags in the fabric or leather? Sit in both the front and back seats and be sure to examine all areas that are upholstered for signs of damage or excessive wear and tear.
When it comes to inspecting a used car's engine, don't worry if you're not mechanically inclined. Most people aren't. You'd be surprised, however, at the tools you can use to assess the mechanical soundness of a car's engine. We're not talking about the tools you find in your garage. We're referring to the tools you were born with. Believe it or not, your eyes, your ears and your sense of smell can successfully guide you through this portion of the personal inspection process.
Appearance: Take a look under the hood and examine the engine (be sure it's cool before you begin). A clean-looking motor is great, but just because an engine's dirty doesn't mean there's a problem. What could be problematic, however, are fresh signs of shiny oil or other wet spots on the engine indicating an oil or fluid leak. Cracks in the belts and hoses (look for).
Battery: Now let's take a look at the battery. If the battery cables appear corroded or coated with a white powdery residue, chances are you'll need to replace it. If it's not a sealed battery, remove the caps and check the fluid levels (always be sure to wear eye protection during this part of the inspection). If they're low, the battery probably needs to be replaced as well. A new battery is not a huge expense, but if you need to replace one, it's an expense nonetheless.
Exhaust: With the car in park, turn on the engine and walk to the back of the vehicle to inspect the exhaust pipe. You might want to ask the seller to sit in the driver's seat and rev the engine during this part of the inspection. If you barely notice any smoke or if the exhaust is emitting a small amount of white smoke for a short period of time, don't worry. This is normal. In some cases, dark gray or black smoke might be an indication that the engine needs a tune-up. Be concerned, however, if you notice blue or blue-white smoke, this may be a sign that the car is burning oil and as a result, it might need a costly valve repair.
Fluids: If you know where to locate the oil and transmission dipsticks as well as the radiator cap, you can check the vehicle's major fluids to be sure everything looks o.k. If you're not sure where to look, the seller might be able to assist you in the process or you can wait and have a certified technician inspect the fluids when they perform a professional inspection prior to purchase. However, if you're able to locate the oil dipstick, pull it out, wipe it with a clean rag, reinsert the stick all the way back into its container and pull it out again. The level should read somewhere near or immediately below full. Normal, clean oil should be light brown in color, dark black and thick oil is dirty. If the oil is milky-colored, there might be water in the oil, which is virtually always a sign of serious engine problems. Be sure to smell the dipstick as well. Oil should not smell burnt. Pull out the transmission dipstick and observe the color of the fluid. Normal, clean transmission fluid should be pinkish to pale red in color. If the fluid looks brown or smells burnt, there might be a transmission problem. (And finally, never open the radiator cap while hot and look at the color of the coolant. A layer of milky film or rust particles may indicate a problem.)
Idling: Listen to the car as it idles. The car should idle smoothly with no hesitation upon acceleration. The engine shouldn't pop or rumble and when you accelerate or rev the engine, it shouldn't ping, knock or backfire.
Leaks: Be sure to look under the front and back of the car to see if there are any fresh fluid drips on the pavement and don't forget to lift the hood and check the motor for signs of leaks around the engine seams and hose connectors. Another test you can perform happens when you're done with your test drive. When you return, shut down the engine and place a clean newspaper on the ground under the motor. If you notice new fluid drips on the paper, chances are you've got a leak somewhere in the engine which could indicate a serious problem. Be sure to examine the water pump (located at the front of the engine), the valve covers, the head gasket (located between the head and the engine block), high pressure hoses, including power steering and AC hoses to be sure there aren't any leaks.
Noise: Loud engine noises or knocking could mean worn bearings or other serious problems. A purring motor that operates quietly is preferred.
Warning Lights: When you start the engine, be sure to check the instrument panel for any warning lights that might appear. Cars are smart these days and usually, if oil pressure is low or a standard component isn't operating properly, your car will tell you. Sometimes, however, warning lights can become visible even when there isn't a problem (due to a malfunction with the light itself), but be sure to check the instrument panel anyway to ensure there isn't an apparent problem. A common warning light is the Check Engine light that detects multiple vehicle functions. If you notice the Check Engine light, you might need to have the vehicle placed on a diagnostic machine to determine if there is a significant engine problem. Sometimes, it's an indication of a minor problem other times, it could mean a major engine problem.