Learn what to look for when buying a used car so that you don’t end up with a lemon.
Good used cars don’t grow on trees, nor does finding one come down to luck. While there are plenty of used cars on the market, far too many are lemons.
Avoiding the bad heaps of metal involves applying sound research practices and good investigative skills, which is to say you need to inspect the car you’re considering before even thinking about buying it.
This guide provides a comprehensive list of things to look for when buying a used car from a dealership or private seller.
Do Your Used Car Research
Don’t want a problematic vehicle? Research! Research! Research!
To reduce your risk of buying a lemon, you need to narrow down your options to models with good reliability. While Toyota and Honda have a reputation for solid build quality, they are by no means the only automakers that make reliable cars.
Annual dependability surveys such as the ones provided by Consumer Reports and J.D. Power, as well as data aggregation sites like Repair Pal and Reliability Index, provide real-world reliability information that can be used to narrow down your options.
Make sure to read the reliability history of each model and not just the results for one year.
Why Vehicle Inspection Is Important
If you think you’ve found a used car that ticks all the right boxes, your next step is to get in touch with the dealer or private seller to see the car in person, ask questions about its condition, perform a preliminary inspection, and give it a test-drive.
A vehicle inspection is especially important as it will help you identify potential problems that the seller may or may not have disclosed and determine just how reliable the vehicle will be down the road.
Not only will the results help you determine whether you’ve found the right ride, but you may even uncover some details that can be used as leverage in your negotiations.
NOTE: Never buy a used car that hasn’t undergone a pre-purchase inspection by a mechanic. In addition to carrying out your own inspection, have the vehicle inspected by an independent mechanic or technician.
What To Look For When Buying A Used Car
This is your checklist for performing a preliminary inspection of the car. It is not a substitute for a pre-purchase inspection, which you should have an independent mechanic perform if you’re not a technician or mechanic yourself.
Our checklist of things to look for when buying a used car requires you to first give the car the customary walkaround in search of dents, dings, rust, and other issues.
Check the body panels, roof, and lines of the doors and fenders for rust, scratches, dents, chips, and unusual gaps or misalignment. The body panels should also have the same paint color and finish.
The car might have several cosmetic issues that, although insignificant by themselves, can add up to become a deal-breaker. Rust, in particular, should never be taken lightly.
Check the outer body, wheel wells, rocker panels, and door bottoms for blistered paint or rust. A flashlight can prove useful for spotting issues.
Doors, Hood, Trunk
In addition to checking the hood, trunk/liftgate, and doors for scratches, dents, and misalignment, you must also ensure that they function properly.
Open and close them to see if there are any loose or broken hinges. Gently lift and release their handles to assess their structural integrity.
Inspect the rubber seals around the door and trunk/liftgate for tearing or rot.
Carefully inspect the windshield and windows for cracks and chips. A small chip is usually not a cause for alarm, but you can use it as a bargaining chip in your negotiations.
Cracks, no matter how small, are always a big deal, however. Extreme temperatures cause glass to expand or contract, causing even the tiniest crack to become bigger over time.
Headlights and taillights are two of the most important aspects of a car. They allow you to see and be seen in limited visibility conditions such as nighttime and signal to other motorists your intentions.
Check that all turn signals, high beams, low beams, and brake lights work well. Make sure the lenses are not cracked, discolored, or fogged.
To check the suspension, bounce each corner of the car up and down. If the shock absorbers work properly, the car will rebound only once and not bob around.
Test the wheel bearings and suspension joints by grabbing the top of each front tire and tugging it back and forth. A clunking or ticking sound may indicate that either of those components is shot.
You’d want to check the tires for wear. For them to be legal, each one needs to have a minimum tread depth as specified by your state or province.
Consider how even the wear is across all four tires and whether there are any scuffing and cracks on their sidewalls. If some have greater wear and tear than others, there might be a mechanical or alignment issue.
Finally, inspect the rims for cracks and dents, and ensure that the spare tire (if there is one) is in good condition and comes with all necessary components.
Considering that most of your time will be spent inside the car, you need to give the interior a very thorough inspection.
Smell the interior for any unpleasant odors. A moldy, musty, or mildew-like smell could indicate water leakage, while an acrid smell is a good sign that the car has been smoked in.
If the former, remove the floor mats and check the carpet for wet spots; if the latter, inspect the car’s lighter and ashtray for clues.
Don’t take this lightly. Odors such as mold and cigarette smoke can be very difficult to remove, and you may never be able to get a truly clean smell back into the vehicle.
Check the upholstery seats, dashboard, and doors for stains, tears, loose stitching, or other defects. If the owner is a smoker, there might even be burn marks.
The upholstery shouldn’t be badly worn or ripped, especially if the car has low mileage
Not only should the seats work properly, but they should also be comfortable. Test all the seats, even the ones you won’t normally use, making sure their adjustments work as intended and that the driver’s seat provides a good driving position.
Check that all the warning lights are properly illuminated in the instrument cluster, and turn on the air conditioning, heating, blowers, and other applicable climate control functions to their highest setting to see how quickly and effectively they work.
Play with the switches, buttons, and levers to ensure they are perfectly intact and work properly.
Do the pedals suit you? Sit as you normally would in the driver’s seat and see how comfortable they are to use.
Take this opportunity to also assess their rubber material for wear and tear. The pedals on a low mileage car shouldn’t show a lot of wear.
Test out the electronics of the car. With the radio, check reception on both AM and FM. If the car has a CD player, bring along a disc and try loading and ejecting it.
Try out the GPS, Bluetooth connectivity, and other electronic features the car comes with to see if everything works as desired.
Check the condition of the headliner. The presence of sagging or stains could be a sign that water is leaking somewhere through the roof, possibly the sunroof or moonroof if there is one.
If the car does have a sunroof/moonroof, make sure it operates properly and seals tightly when shut.
The same goes for convertibles — check that the roof opens, closes, and seals properly. If it’s made of fabric, look for tears.
Inspect the trunk or hatch for damage or unusual smells. Keep your eyes and nose out for stains, wet spots, or unpleasant smells, all of which are signs of water entry or leakage. If possible, lift the carpet and check for rust.
Also pay attention to how easy or difficult it is to operate the trunk or liftgate. It shouldn’t pose a risk to anyone that uses it.
Finally, check that the spare tire is rust-free, in good condition, full of air, and stored properly.
Inspecting a car’s engine compartment can seem overwhelming, but you don’t need to be a mechanic to learn something about the engine and its ancillary parts. Make sure the car is turned off and the engine is cool before conducting your inspection.
Faulty hoses and belts can cause the engine to overheat, the power steering to stop working, and the electrical charging system to fail, so ensure that they are in good working condition.
You can do this by squeezing the rubber hoses that run to the radiator, air conditioner, and other parts, checking that they are firm yet supple, not hard, cracked, or loose. Also inspect the drive belts for fraying.
Using a dipstick when necessary, check the condition of the engine oil, transmission fluid, and brake fluid.
The engine oil should be dark brown or black. If it’s very dark or has a muddy texture, it hasn’t been changed in a while.
The transmission fluid should have a clear reddish or pinkish hue. A burnt smell could be a sign that the transmission overheats, while the presence of metal particles indicates excessive grinding and straining.
Make sure that all fluid levels are within the safe zone.
Look into the plastic reservoir that connects to the radiator and check that the coolant is greenish or orange (not rusty or milky) and that it isn’t covered by a layer of film.
A rusty color is caused by rust, while a layer of film is caused by oil. The latter is usually indicative of a head gasket problem.
Check the battery for any damage, frayed cables, or corrosion.
Some batteries have charge indicators that provide a visual cue of their condition. A green indicator suggests the battery is in good condition, while a yellow or black color usually indicates that it’s dying or dead.
Under The Car
While not as visible or attractive as the car’s exterior, the undercarriage plays a critical role in the operation and performance of a car and needs as much care and attention as any other part. You need to look for signs of leakage and excessive rust.
If possible, see if the area of the floor where the car is normally parked is stained by old puddles of oil, coolant, transmission fluid, or gasoline.
You will want to also check the tailpipe for residue. Tailpipe smudge should be dry and dark gray — black and greasy smudges usually indicate burnt oil.
While it’s normal for the undercarriage and tailpipe to have some rust, heavy or excessive rust could mean the exhaust system needs to be replaced. The wheel wells should be checked for rust, as well.
If you notice a big difference in the condition of different sections of the undercarriage, such as one section having a fresh coat of paint while the other parts are moderately rusty, it’s usually a good sign that that particular section was repaired. Inquire the seller about any accidents.
Used Car Inspection Tips
Here are additional tips to help you make the most of your inspection.
- As the saying goes, “two eyes are better than one.” Bring along a friend or family member to help you identify any red flags throughout the inspection.
- Before inspecting the car, make sure it’s parked on a level surface and hasn’t been driven for at least an hour.
- Never inspect a used vehicle at night. To increase your chances of spotting defects, you need to see the car in the best light possible, which is to say daylight.
- Follow your intuition. If you catch the seller misrepresenting something about the car, you might want to ask yourself what else is being misrepresented.
- Have a little notepad ready to write down any issues you identify and discuss with the seller for subsequent analysis.
- Unless you’re buying from a trusted friend or family member, don’t close the deal on any used car until it has been inspected by a trusted mechanic. If the seller tells you that a pre-purchase inspection isn’t necessary because one has already been performed, insist on having the car inspected anyways.
Buying a second-hand car can be a nerve-wracking experience. With so many things to consider and so many lemons on the market, a minor oversight can end up costing you thousands of your hard-earned money.
Want to minimize the risk of making a mistake and alleviate a lot of the stress? Having a checklist of things to look for when buying a used car will make your pre-purchase inspection easier and more foolproof.
Our guide provided you with such a checklist. Not only should you use it to perform your own inspection, but it’s also important to have the vehicle inspected by an independent mechanic.
Now that you know what to look for when buying a used car from a dealership or private seller, how about learning what to do after buying one?