5 Steps: What to look for when performing a used car inspection on your own

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5 Steps: What to look for when performing a used car inspection on your own

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Do you want to perform a used car inspection? Following these 5 steps will help you ensure you don’t buy a car with a laundry list of hidden problems.

If you’re thinking about buying a used car, an important step in process is thoroughly inspecting the vehicle before you buy it. This can save you a lot of headaches (and money) down the road. Following these five steps can help you learn what to look for when performing a used car inspection.

Step 1: Inspect the exterior of the car

vehicle inspection

Check the condition of the body

The first thing to do in a used car inspection is to examine each body panel, as well as the roof. Make note of any rust spots, dents, and scratches. Look closely at the gaps between the panels (e.g. between the fenders and the doors). If the gaps are uneven, this usually means they were assembled poorly in the factory, or the vehicle was poorly repaired. Also, ensure the color and finish of the paint are the same on each panel. Next, using a flashlight, take a look inside of the wheel wells for rust. Lastly, open and close all of the doors, as well as the hood and trunk. Inspect all rubber seals around the doors and windows for rot or tearing.

Take a look at the glass

Walk around the vehicle and take a careful look at all the glass to make sure there are no cracks or large, cratered areas. Small chips are nothing to be too worried about, but you may want to use them as a bargaining chip when discussing the final price. Cracks, on the other hand, will only get worse and can require an expensive repair later.

On even ground, check out the suspension

Another essential thing to check in a used car inspection is the suspension. Stand back from the car and see if it’s slumping or sagging anywhere; what you want it to see that it’s standing level. Push down on each corner of the car. If the shock absorbers are in good condition, the car should rebound only once. If the car continues moving up and down, there’s something wrong. Tug on the top of the front tires. Feel for any movement and listen for and clicking sounds. If you feel or hear anything, it could mean a suspension joint or wheel bearing is broken.

Never buy a car with frame damage

One of the most important points to check for in a used car inspection is frame damage. Open the hood and check the saddle (this is the part connecting the front fenders and holding the top of the radiator). This should be bolted into place on either side and never welded. The bolt heads inside the hood, at the top of the fenders, should not have any scratch marks, which can indicate replacement or realignment after a crash. Lastly, check for welds inside of the door jambs. 


Are the lights and lenses in good condition?

Ideally, bring a friend for the used car inspection so that he/she can confirm that all of the lights are working. Be sure to check all lights on the vehicle: lo-beams, high-beams, turn signals, fog lights, brake lights, 3rd brake light, and reverse light. Additionally, ensure that all lenses and reflectors are not damaged, fogged with moisture, or missing altogether.

Tires tell a story of their own

Surprisingly, a lot of information about a car can be gleaned from the tires alone. Anytime you perform a used car inspection, be sure to look closely at tire wear. Often times, a car with less than 20,000 miles on the odometer will still have the original tires installed. If the car has brand new tires and very low-mileage on the clock, this is a good indicator of odometer rollback. Also, all four tires should be the same, as having different tires installed could be a sign that they were replaced.

The wear on the tread should be even across the width of the tire, on both sides of the car. Heavy wear on the outside shoulders of the front tires is a sign that the previous owner is more of an aggressive driver. You can assume the car has been driven relatively hard when you encounter this kind of wear.

Driving on overinflated tires will lend to more wear in the middle than the sides, and vice versa for underinflated tires. If the tire wear is uneven along the circumference of the tread, you may be looking at a vehicle with brake, steering, or suspension problems.

While performing the used car inspection of the tires, be sure the tread meets the minimum legal depth of 1.6mm. You can find a special tread-depth measuring tool at any automotive parts store.

Finally, make sure to check the spare tire is in good condition and that all the tire changing tools are present (e.g. lug wrench, jack, etc.).

If possible, check the exhaust system and underneath the car for rust

When completing a used car inspection, it’s important to check the exhaust system. Check for black spots, which may signify leakage. Run your finger along the exhaust system. Greasy muck is a bad sign. While the engine is running, if it’s not cold outside and there is white vapor, this is also a bad sign.

The final thing to do when performing a used car inspection of the car’s exterior is to check the under body for rust and any signs of frame damage. 

Step 2: Take a look under the hood

Examine the engine for any corrosion or leaks

car inspection

When performing a used car inspection, it’s critical to make sure everything under the hood is in good working condition. A gasket leak will leave dark brown oil stains on the engine block. This may be the cause of an expensive repair in the future. Check all fluid reservoirs for leaks. Make sure all belts have no signs of cracks or drying out. The hoses for the radiator should also not be soft.

Check the oil, coolant, and transmission fluid

Make sure the vehicle has enough oil when you pull out the dipstick. Also, if there is a residue of foam inside of the oil filler cap, there may be a leak in the head gasket. If found, this should conclude your used car inspection, as this is a deal breaker. Additionally, the coolant should not be dirty and brown, as this also can indicate a leaking head gasket or simply that it has never been flushed.

Pull the transmission dipstick; the fluid should be pink or red

Upon pulling out the transmission dipstick, you should find the fluid pink or red. An older car may be a darker color, but under no circumstances should it smell or look burnt. Of course, this should also be full.

Now’s a good time to check the timing belt

The most expensive belt to replace also happens to be the most important on in the engine: the timing belt. A vehicle equipped with a steel chain for a timing belt gives you nothing to worry about. Otherwise, the typical life of a timing belt is between 60,000-100,000 miles. Make sure the belt is in good shape before moving on to the next step in the used car inspection.

Step 3: Inspect the inside of the car

Take a look inside of the car

Now that you’ve ensured the exterior and engine compartment are okay, the next step in performing a used car inspection is checking the inside. Look to see if the upholstery has any stains, rips, cigarette burns, or other types of damage. Also check to see if the other materials inside the vehicle (e.g. plastics, woods, metal, etc.) have any scratches, dents, or other damage.

Keeping cool

If the car you’re looking at has an air conditioner, ensure it’s functioning properly. If having an air conditioner is a requirement, make sure to buy a car with R134 coolant. Cars equipped with R134 should have a sticker indicating this on the air conditioner condenser. 


Mileage is a sign of age

Every used car inspection should include a look at the odometer. Normally, low mileage is one of the first things people look for when buying a car. An average person will accumulate between 16,000-24,000 km per year. Keep in mind, there are a lot of variables to consider here. But a car’s age is not only measured by mileage; time is also a factor. A 15-year-old car with relatively few kilometers on the clock doesn’t automatically mean it’s a good thing.

Check all additional functions

Make sure the interior lights are working. When you turn the engine on, look at the display in the dash to ensure all warning lights work as well. Finally, during the used car inspection, you should check all electronics / technology inside: stereo system, navigation, parking sensors, reverse-camera, etc.

Step 4: Take the car for a test drive

Make sure the car is good to drive

One of the best ways to check if a car meets your standards in a used car inspection is to simply drive it. Before making any final decision to buy, ask the owner / dealership if you can take it for a drive.

Brake check

While acceleration and top speed may be more interesting statistics, you want to be able to stop the car too. Be sure to test the breaks before you get up to any real speed (30 mph / 48 kph should suffice). There should also be no serious pedal vibration, strange noises, or squeaking. If the breaks pulsate (grip, let go, grip again), they may need new pads or the rotors may need to be resurfaced. Lastly, the car should not pull to any direction left or right. 


Shaking

There should be no shaking of the body at low speeds. This is a sign of majorly expensive problems. While it can be related to problems with uneven wear on the tires, it may be problems with the steering and suspension components.

Take a 90-degree turn

Make a sharp turn at low speeds. There should be no shaking or loud clunking sounds.

Step 5: Make your final decision

Check out the car's service history

The final step in a used car inspection is to find out the car’s history. Many car owners keep a record of all services, repairs, etc. If they are adept at mechanics, it may be that they have no records because they performed most of the servicing at home. This can be a good sign though, as they should be able to prove the car has been well maintained. Just be aware that sometimes cars are sold because of bad experiences or an accident. 


When in doubt, bring someone who knows cars

In the case that you’re not entirely mechanical skilled, having a friend who is come with can be a big help. Additionally, you can always pay to have a mechanic perform the used car inspection for you. Just be sure to choose one with good reviews, as many mechanics are looking to make more money by identifying problems that simply aren’t there. If you’re convinced your car is a lemon before you even buy it, no one wins.

Check with CARFAX if the car has a US history – for free

In order to avoid buying a used car from the US with a negative history, make sure you make a free Vehicle Identification Number check on carfax.eu. Every month customers contact us because they bought a used car without knowing about its past in the US; many time these cars have a negative history. On the CARFAX website you will first find out—for free—if a history in the US exists. Second, you can buy the Vehicle History Report which will provide you with a wealth of useful information, including whether or not the vehicle has record of odometer manipulation, flood damage, or a salvage title.

Summary

By following these five steps, you should be able to confidently perform a used car inspection. Checking the exterior, under the hood, and interior, as well as taking the car for a test drive and informing yourself about the car’s history will help make sure you don’t buy the wrong car with the wrong history.