How to Inspect a Used Car
Before you begin, find out if the vehicle is still under warranty. If so, is the warranty transferable? Has the car undergone any serious damage? Ask to see service records or repair bills. Have there been any major repairs or replacement of parts that are under guarantee?
Even if you don't know much about cars, you can do a preliminary inspection and road test to evaluate whether the car is worth considering. It will cost you time and money to have a vehicle inspected by a qualified mechanic, so your preliminary groundwork is well worth the effort. Wear jeans or casual clothes and bring a flashlight.
Use the Inspection Checklist to record your findings. You can print out as many copies of this checklist as you need. It's also a good idea to give one to the mechanic who will be doing your final vehicle inspection for you.
Look at the exterior, interior and engine. If you like what you see, take it for a road test.
Walk around the car slowly and look it over from top to bottom. No used car is going to be perfect, so don't worry about a few little nicks or scratches.
Check the paint. Does the colour match on every panel? Is it dull and faded? Little dents on the hood, roof or trunk could mean hail damage, which is pricey to repair. Ask the seller if the car has been repainted and, if so, why.
Rust is a killer, so be sure to look for it everywhere you can think of--door bottoms, side mouldings, wheel wells, window trim, headlight housings, underneath and inside the car. Try to check under the mats in the front seat, back seat and trunk. A little surface rust isn't the end of the world, but if you see serious rust, walk away.
Check for pitting, holes, cracks or serious scratches that will require replacing the glass.
Check all four tires--turn the steering wheel to give you a full view of the front set. Compare the treads to see if all tires are worn evenly. Uneven wear can signal problems with alignment, shocks, wheel balancing, or air pressure. Check the spare tire.
There are four shock absorbers under the car--one over each wheel. To test them, stand at each of the four corners of the car and push the bumper up and down until the car starts bouncing-- then stop abruptly. If the car keeps on bouncing more than once or twice, it's a good bet the shocks are bad.
It can be hard to tell whether or not the frame has been damaged. Before you buy, make sure your mechanic checks the frame!
Is the interior clean or dirty? Is the upholstery stained or torn? Is the carpet worn or salt-stained? Check the dashboard for cracks.
Front seats should slide back and forth smoothly and seat positions should be easy to adjust. Is the driver's seat comfortable? Do all seat belts work properly?
Accelerator, brake, and clutch pedals will show some signs of wear if the car is a few years old. If the brake pedal is really worn, the vehicle has probably seen lots of stop-and-go driving, which is very hard on the engine.
Make sure all instruments, gauges, knobs, buttons, and other controls are in place and functioning. Ask about anything that seems missing. Turn the ignition to the on position (before the start position) to see if all gauges and instruments on the control panel are working properly.
Check absolutely everything you can think of. The sound system, antenna and speakers. The heater, defrosters, defoggers, air conditioner, power mirrors, door locks, kiddie locks, cigarette lighter, steering wheel positions, horn, on-board computer or electronic systems, emergency brake, and all latch releases (hood, trunk and gas cap). Do the windows go all the way up and down without difficulty?
Don't be dismayed by the number of lights you have to test. Check them all: dashboard, low- and high-beam headlights; parking lights; brake lights; fog lights; glove compartment and map light; dome lights; trunk light; hazard lights; side lights; license plate light and turn signals. If you're shopping alone, ask the seller to sit in the driver's seat and turn the exterior lights on and off while you stand outside and check them.
Look under the front and back of the car to see if there are any fresh-looking fluids on the pavement. This could mean big problems.
Under the Hood
A dirty engine is normal. What's not are signs of fresh, shiny oil or other wet spots.
Check the colour and amount of smoke coming from the exhaust pipe. The smoke should be barely visible or slightly white in appearance. Blue smoke is bad news.
That's about as far as you can go to inspect the engine on your own unless you're knowledgeable about cars. If the car passes your road test and you are interested in buying it, you'll have to depend on your mechanic to check for leaks, malfunctions, damaged or worn-out parts, etc.
Don't skimp on the time and attention you give to your test drive. Turn the radio off and keep conversation to a minimum so you can hear any noises the engine may make and remember them to describe to your mechanic later. Choose a route that includes stop-and-go driving, highway or expressway driving, and a few curves and hills. If the seller is not amenable to a thorough road test, walk away.
With the engine off, pump the brake pedal. Then keep your foot on the brake and start the engine. With power brakes, the pedal should sink a little bit when the engine starts. Next, push the brake pedal down hard for a moment. If it sinks any further, there could be a problem with the brake master cylinder.
When driving, accelerate to about 50 kmph in an area where there's no traffic. Then step hard on the brake pedal and see what happens. Does the car stop quickly and surely? If it swerves to the right or left, or if you have to push the pedal halfway to the floor before it stops, the brakes probably need to be repaired or replaced. This means money.
When you accelerate, does the car move ahead smoothly or does it jerk or hesitate? When it's safe to do so, step hard on the accelerator. If the car bucks or makes any strange sounds, remember to mention this to your mechanic.
How does it handle curves and hills? How does the steering respond? Does the car sway or pull to the left or right if you relax your grip on the wheel? Check the cruise control.
If the car has a standard transmission, put your foot on the brake pedal and shift into reverse. Do you hear any knocking or clunking sounds? Do the gears shift smoothly without grinding?
In a parking lot or other open area, you can test automatic or standard transmissions by driving forward a metre or two, then stopping, shifting into reverse, and driving backward a metre or two. Repeat this a few times and see whether the car shifts smoothly, without hesitation, drag or strange sounds. Report any problems to your mechanic.
When road-testing a vehicle with four-wheel drive, be sure to engage and disengage the front hubs and transfer case (on manual systems) to see if it's a smooth transition. To check whether the four-wheel drive is actually working, slowly drive the car in a tight circle--if all four wheels are driving, the front wheels will hop a little.