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#206768 - 14th Feb 2008 4:10pm How to inspect a used car before buying it. *****
Civic_Coupe_Sean Offline
Forum Master

Registered: 12th Oct 2006
Posts: 2667
Loc: Wirral
Check the car history records

Check the used car History report - even though it will not give you a 100% guarantee that the car is perfect, it's well worth the money spent. The car may turn out to be not even worth a look. A History report can help you to uncover problems the car might have in the past such as accidents, flood damage, rolled back odometer, etc.

What you may need to take with you for a car inspection

1. Paper and a pen - Make notes about every car marking down the VIN number, asking price, mileage, car features, what you like, and what you don't like. These notes will help you in the selection process as well as in the final deal negotiation.
2. Printed copy of Used car checklist
3. Small flashlight - Whether it's looking underneath the car to check for leaks and corrosion or when looking under the engine oil cap to see the condition of internal engine parts, a small flashlight will be very handy.
4. Small magnet - The magnet can help you to find hidden repaired corrosion spots.
5. Paper towel - To check the engine oil.
6. CD-disk and tape - To check the stereo.

First Step - checking the car body

First, take a walk around the car and look for general appearance that is an indication of how well the car was taken care of. Mark down any defects you find: cracks on the windshield, scratches, dents, corrosion spots, broken lenses, faded mirrors, worn wipers, missing wheel covers (hubcaps), etc. Later you may ask the dealer to fix these problems as a part of the deal or negotiate the price down accordingly.
Look for signs of previous accidents or corrosion. I don't recommend to buy a car that has been involved in a serious accident, even if otherwise it seems to be in good condition. All sorts of problems may arise later as a result of previous accident - excessive tire wear, problems with the air conditioner, premature corrosion, alignment problems, noisy wheel bearings, etc.
The same is true about badly corroded cars; even if repaired, the rust will reappear again later.
Take your time; normally it takes 30 - 40 minutes to inspect a whole car body all around.
Look alongside of the car. The lines of the car body should be perfectly straight. Look at the top image, this Mercedes-Benz hasn't been in an accident, and you can see the body lines are perfectly straight. Look at the reflection: it is perfect, no ripples and paint quality of all panels looks the same. Try to check the entire car this way. Ripples indicate possible body repair - check the second image, the rear fender of this Toyota has ripples because it was repaired after a rear-end accident.
Look at the paint from a distance and from different angles. Does the color of different panels match? Look at the picture - the driver's door of this red Corolla is repainted. You can tell that by the difference in color of the door and the front fender.
Check the paint quality. Does one of the panels (door or fender) look shinier than the rest of the car? - Then it might be freshly painted.
Check all the gaps between the body panels. All gaps should be of the same width and even along the entire length. If any gap seems too narrow or too wide, go to another side of the vehicle and compare. Is it notable different? - Then it's possible the car has been involved in an accident like this white Mazda in the picture. Does the car have lots of rusty spots like the on the image? - I wouldn't even look any further. Even if you repair these spots, the corrosion will reappear later. Plus, it's probably even worse underneath; brake lines, fuel lines and many other components might be badly corroded making the car unsafe to drive. To discover repaired corrosion spots try to stick the magnet at the most common places where the corrosion starts - around wheel arches, lower door panels, etc. If the magnet won't stick - there is no metal under the paint, only the body filler. Open the driver's door and try to lift it up on the hinges. The hinges should not have excessive free play.
Look for the trailer hitch. If the car was using for towing a heavy trailer, the engine and transmission may be excessively worn.


Have a close look at the tires. Are they of well known reputable brand like Michelin, Goodyear, Bridgestone, or "no-name" kind of product? Are they all the same or different? Look at the tread wear. The new tires for a passenger car have original tread depth about 10/32 inch (8 mm). When only 2/32 inch (1.5 mm) of the tread depth left, the tire must be replaced. Also the tire must be replaced if there is any mechanical damage like cuts (see the picture), bubbles, cracks, etc. Look at the wear pattern, irregular wear when one side (e.g inner) is worn more than the other could mean alignment or suspension problems.

Check vehicle manufacturer's label

Check the manufacturer's label, which is usually located on the driver's door or door jamb. Are there any signs of altering? Check the VIN number. Also check the exact date (highlighted in the photo) when the vehicle was manufactured. A car advertized as 2004 model could be manufactured, for example, in August 2003 or July 2004 which is almost a year difference. As you can see in this photo, this vehicle was manufactured in August 1996 but it's sold as 97 model.


The condition of the vehicle interior is another good indicator of how the vehicle was taken care of.
Look at the driver's seat, is it excessively worn like the one in the picture?
Check all the seat belts paying particular attention to the one at the driver's seat.
Test all doors, are they open and close freely? Try to lock and unlock the driver's and passenger's doors and the trunk with the key.
Be alerted if you notice excessive use of the air freshener, it could be used to block some bad odor, and some of them are hard to get rid of. Open the trunk, does it have musty odor? Then it's possible water is leaking somewhere. Check the spare tire, wheel wrench and the jack. If the spare tire is located under the car, check if the holding mechanism is working properly, often it gets corroded and seizes up. If the car has wheel locks installed make sure there is the key available.
Check the instrument panel: Do all the gauges work? Any warning lights such as "check engine", "airbag", "ABS" stay on after the engine started? If the car has "check engine" or flushing "overdrive light" or any other warning light coming on while driving, have the proper diagnostic done before deciding to buy it; in some cases the problem could be very costly to repair.

Electrical features

Check all the electrical accessories: test operation of power windows locks and other features. Test wipers and windshield washer function. The rear wiper is the part that often fails. If the seats are heated try if they are working - many cars have problems with heated seats. Try seat adjustments. If the car has a sunroof, test all its functions. If the car has an alarm system ask to demonstrate how it works. Test all remote control functions. Try the stereo functions. The CD-player often has some problems and it's quite expensive to fix; try if it plays your CD.

Heater and air conditioner

It's very important to check operation of the heater and the air conditioner. To do so, start the engine and let it warm up for a few minutes. Turn the A/C on. Unless it's very cold outside, the air conditioner should start working immediately after you switch it ON. Within a few seconds you should be able to feel really cold air blowing from vents. If this is not happening, very possible the air conditioner doesn't work. Be aware, besides the fact that the A/C problem might be quite expensive to fix, this also may indicate that the car possible has been involved in a frontal collision.
Check the heater. Try if all heater fan speeds work. One of the possible problems with the heater may be a leaking heater core that is very expensive to repair. If you feel moist air is coming from the vents with antifreeze smell, and windows become foggy when the heater is turned ON, that may indicate leaking heater core. If the car has rear air-conditioning unit test its operation.

Look for signs of flood damage

If a car has been flooded in the past, even if it looks and runs good now, it will develop many expensive-to-fix problems later. This is because water gets inside many components where it shouldn't be and eventually, the corrosion will cause a component to fail later.
Look for mildew smell, water stains on the seats, roof liner and door covers. Inspect door covers and trunk covers for possible signs of water level. If it's possible, look for moisture under the carpet. Check lower edges of the door covers for water damage, look for corrosion and water debris in the spare tire well. look for badly corroded metal parts under seats. Check all door speakers - water could damage the speaker diaphragm. Coffee-with-milk color of the engine oil or transmission fluid may indicate presence of water. History report can also reveal flood. Be suspicious if the History report indicates that the car came from another state or province.


It's very important to verify that the oil changes were done regularly. Why is this so important? - it's a fact that if the oil was not changed regularly, the engine, even the most reliable one, won't last long.
For example, I saw the three-year old Nissan Maxima in need of serious engine repair at 35,000 miles (56,000 km). This, despite the fact that the Maxima's 3.5L VQ engine is one of the most reliable in its class. The reason was simple - the owner drove 12,000 miles (19,000 km) without an oil change. One way to verify that the car was properly maintained is to check its service records, although they are not always available.
There are also few things under the hood that may indicate that the car was maintained poorly:
Extremely dirty engine (like on the upper image), burnt oil smell under the hood, badly corroded battery terminals, oil leaks, are all signs of poor maintenance, though if the engine looks clean and shiny, it doesn't yet mean it was well maintained; dealers almost always shampoo the engine before showing the car to the potential buyers.
With the engine off, open the oil filler cap and look at the internal side of the cap and inside the engine. If the oil cap and the parts you see in the oil filler neck covered with thick black deposits, it may be an indication that the engine wasn't maintained regularly.
Check the engine oil. Unless it was changed recently, the oil condition is an indication of the engine shape. To check the oil level, the car should be on a level spot with the engine OFF. Locate the engine oil dipstick (usually it has a bright color handle saying "Engine oil").
Pull the dipstick out, wipe it off and insert it back fully in place. Pull it out again and check the oil level. The dipstick usually has two marks on it or simply a crossed area (about 1 inch). Upper mark indicates "FULL", lower mark stands for "LOW". Normally, the oil level should be between "LOW" and "FULL" marks on the dipstick. If the oil level is lower than "LOW" mark and the oil appears very dirty, like in the left picture, it's a really bad sign; the car may have excessive oil consumption or the oil hasn't been changed for a long time.
Look at the dipstick itself. If the part of the dipstick that goes inside the engine is dirty and covered with black deposits, this may also indicate that the engine was maintained poorly.
Look for a smoke from the exhaust - the blue smokes indicates that the engine is worn and consumes oil. Black smoke means excessive fuel consumption. For more details,

Automatic transmission

Problems with an automatic transmission are very common and costly to repair. While it's impossible to thoroughly inspect the transmission without taking the car to a professional repair shop, there are few signs that can help you to spot a potential problem:
If the car has the transmission fluid dipstick, check the automatic transmission fluid. If you're not sure how to do this, follow this link: How to check the automatic fluid. The transmission fluid should not have a burnt smell. It should be clean and transparent. Dirty transmission fluid indicates internal problem with the transmission.
Another indication of transmission problem is delayed engagement. It's easier to note delayed engagement after a car was sitting for a while: With the transmission in "P" (Park) start the car. With your foot holding down the brake pedal, shift to the "R" (Reverse) position. Almost immediately the transmission should engage - it feels like the car wants to creep backward. This should happen very smoothly, without a strong jerk or jolt.
Shift to "N" (Neutral), and the transmission should disengage. Now, again holding the brakes, shift to the "D" (Drive) position. Again, the transmission should engage without a delay - you will feel the car wants to creep forward. This also should be without a strong jerk or jolt.
If there is a notable delay (more than 1 seconds) between the moment you shift and the moment the transmission engages, such a transmission is either too worn or has some problem, avoid this car. Similarly, during a test-drive the transmission should shift between gears very smoothly without delays, jolts, slipping or shudder. For more details,

Manual transmission

Try to drive the vehicle in each gear. All gears should shift smoothly and easily without any noises, jerks or shudder. While driving at the second or third gear, try to accelerate suddenly. The clutch should not slip. If you feel slipping (the engine rpm increases but the vehicle speed remains the same), the clutch may need to be replaced. Try to drive with acceleration and deceleration - there should be no whining or humming noise under any condition. All the gears should shift easily and noiselessly. Try to shift into reverse; there should be no grinding noise.


The vehicle should start easily even if it's cold. It shouldn't shake, make excessive noise, or smoke. If you see a cloud of blue smoke (see the picture above) at start-up be ware, it's the first sign of possible engine problem - avoid this car. During a test-drive look for anything irregular such as vibrations, noises, etc. Pay particular attention to check the automatic transmission. How to check the transmission - detailed guide.
Test drive a car for as long as you need to get the feeling, try to drive on bumpy road and if it's possible, take the car on a highway. Try to accelerate - there shouldn't be any hesitations.
Does the engine make any irregular noises? Any smoke?
Is the steering responsive?
Does the car feel stable at a highway speed?
Any shudder, jerks, harsh shifting?
Does it make knocking or creaking noises when driving over bumps?
Is it too "bouncy"?
Does the car hold straight direction or pulls aside? Is the steering out of center?
Any humming noise?


Don't sign a contract and don't give a deposit until you are completely satisfied with the car. If you have any hesitation be prepared to leave, you always can find another car or come back later. Consider to test-drive another vehicle of the same model to have something to compare with.
If you find any problem with the car and the salesperson promises "to take care of it" make sure to discuss in details - what exactly will be done. For example, if the car needs new tires, what kind of tires will be installed - cheapest possible or of reputable brand? If they offer you an extended warranty, thoroughly study the contract first.
While this guide may help you to avoid cars with potential problems, I strongly advise to have the vehicle inspected by a mechanic of your choice prior purchase; there are many components that can only be properly inspected in a professional service facility.


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#206848 - 14th Feb 2008 8:09pm Re: How to inspect a used car before buying it. [Re: Civic_Coupe_Sean]
BMW Joe Offline
Wiki Master

Registered: 30th Apr 2006
Posts: 12369
Loc: Birkenhead
Some very good tips there thumbsup
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