Buying a used car can be nerve-wracking, but it can also be a great way to get a nice car for less money than buying new. The key is doing your research and thoroughly inspecting any used car you’re considering before handing over your hard-earned cash. Here is a comprehensive guide on how to inspect a used car to help you make an informed buying decision.
Research Common Issues for the Specific Make and Model
Before you even go look at a used car, spend some time researching what types of problems are common for that specific make and model. Learn about things like engine issues, transmission problems, recalls, trouble spots in the exterior and interior, and any other flaws that have frequently surfaced.
You can find this information by searching online forums and automotive websites, talking to mechanics, and checking consumer reports. This will give you an idea of what to focus your inspection on when you go to see the car.
Review the Vehicle History Report
Always get a vehicle history report for a used car based on the VIN number. This will tell you if the car has been in any accidents, if it has sustained flood or hail damage, and if it has any other red flags like being salvaged. Be wary of cars with accidents in their history, as you can’t always see all the damages just by inspecting it.
Online services like Carfax or AutoCheck can provide a comprehensive vehicle history report for a small fee. It’s well worth running this report before making any buying decisions.
Inspect the Exterior of the Vehicle
The exterior condition of a used car gives you a lot of clues about how well it was maintained and any issues it may have. Carefully inspect all sides of the vehicle in daylight looking for any flaws, damage, or inconsistencies. Check that the:
- Paint color and finish match on all panels
- Windshield and other glass have no cracks or damage
- Lights, turn signals, and reflectors are in working order
- Tires show even tread wear without any bald spots or uneven wear patterns
- Body panels fit together well with consistent gaps and no ripples
- Doors, hood, and trunk open and close properly without issues
- No dents, rust spots, or scratches beyond normal wear
Signs of damage or mismatched paint could indicate the car was in an accident. Make note of all exterior flaws so you can negotiate the price if you decide to move forward.
Look Under the Hood
Popping the hood and looking at the engine bay and other components is a must when inspecting any used car. Check the following:
- Engine – Look for leaks, rust, cracks, or replaced parts that don’t match. The engine should look clean without buildup or grime.
- Battery – A battery with corrosion may need to be replaced soon. Make sure the connections are tight.
- Hoses and belts – Look for cracks, frays, and leaks in all the hoses. The belts should have no visible wear and the proper tension.
- Fluids – Make sure the oil, coolant, transmission, brake, and windshield wiper fluids all look fresh and full. Discoloration or sludge indicates lack of maintenance.
Identify anything that looks like it needs to be replaced soon, as this will add to your costs. A very dirty engine bay also hints the car wasn’t maintained properly by previous owners.
Review the Interior Thoroughly
Not only should the interior look nice aesthetically, but you need to ensure all features and functions operate correctly.
- Seats and carpeting should have minimal stains and tears beyond normal wear. Look for musty smells that indicate water leaks.
- Check all knobs, buttons, power windows and locks, and climate controls to verify everything works appropriately.
- Make sure seat belts retract properly and the brake pedal has no issues.
- Examine floor mats and upholstery for excessive wear, stains, or damage.
You want a clean and functional interior space. Be diligent checking all accessories function correctly.
Test Drive the Used Car
The test drive is your chance to experience how the car performs on an actual road driving it as you would normally.
- Did the car start right up without issues? Listen for any squeaks, clunks or noises that seem out of the ordinary.
- Test acceleration and braking. Does the car accelerate smoothly and brake evenly without pulling, vibrating or making noise?
- Any warning lights come on the dashboard? The “check engine” light could indicate problems.
- Does the steering wheel vibrate at any speeds? This often signals alignment issues.
- Do you hear any clunks when going over bumps in the road? Could indicate suspension problems.
- Do the transmission gears shift smoothly through all speeds? Jerky shifting could mean a faulty transmission.
- Make sure headlights, turn signals, A/C and radio all work properly.
If anything doesn’t look, sound or feel right during the test drive, that’s a red flag. Don’t ignore any issues you notice.
Have a Mechanic Inspect the Vehicle
Lastly, before finalizing any used car purchase, have your mechanic do a thorough inspection. They can put the car up on a lift and look at the underside for potential problems. A pre-purchase inspection often costs around $100 but is worth the peace of mind. If the owner objects to having the car inspected, that’s a bad sign.
A mechanic can pinpoint issues like leaks, worn brake pads, joint and bushing wear and other problems that are hard to identify without a shop inspection. Listen carefully to any concerns the mechanic voices about the car.
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Following these inspection steps takes diligence and time. But putting in the effort greatly reduces your chances of buying a used lemon. If you stick to vehicles in good condition based on history reports and your inspection, you can confidently drive away in a solid used car that will last you for years to come.