How To Inspect A Used Car

Used Car


The information I am about to reveal to you may help save you thousands of dollars and quite possibly alot of grief. Over 16 million used cars will be sold this year and some will be good, dependable vehicles while others will be real “LEMONS.” If you want to know how to tell the difference read this article carefully.

Your Automotive I.Q.


Let’s face it, unless you are mechanically inclined, you probably know (1) very little about cars in general and (2) probably nothing about how to thoroughly inspect a used car. But hopefully through this article you can easily learn. Without getting technical, this article will show you, step-by-step, how to use your eyes to judge whether a used car is in reasonably good condition, or whether it may need costly repairs.
Don’t buy a used car on impulse. Just because it’s your favorite color, has a nice stereo system, a myriad of power gadgets – or really looks great, you should stop and think. Carefully inspect the car inside and out before you sign the purchase contract.
Actually, it is well worth spending a few dollars to have a qualified mechanic check out the car after your own initial inspection. If you do not know a good mechanic, ask a friend or even your insurance agent for a recommendation.
NOTE: If the seller doesn’t want your mechanic to check the car – walk away. this person obviously has something to hide.
Wear some old clothing like old jeans or slacks when you go to look at a used car. Then, you will feel comfortable getting down on your hands and knees to look under the car. Also, take along a clean rag, a pair of pliers and a flashlight; I will explain why later.
Practice what we are discussing here
After studying this article, practice your inspection on the car you currently have or a friends car to familiarize yourself with all the things that need checking. This will also save you the embarrassment of having to ask the seller where “this or that” is located. The key to shopping for a used car is being prepared and being confident. The sellers have already done their homework.
Throughout this article, I will try to warn you of some danger signs – signs that the car you are looking at might have serious problems and may need costly repairs.
STEP #1 – Inspect the exterior
First, walk around the car slowly to look it over from top to bottom. Don’t be too concerned with a few nicks and scratches – after all, no car is going to be perfect.
Check the paint – Does the color match on all panels around the car? Is the paint badly faded? Are there small craters on the hood, roof or trunk? These may indicate hail damage. The repairs may be costly.
Signs of Repainting – Repainting isn’t always a sign of previous damage. Some owners have their cars repainted for cosmetic reasons, especially if it’s an older model. However, a paint job can indicate the repair of a serious accident with extensive damage. If you’re not sure whether the car has been repainted – simply ask the seller. If you do not get a satisfactory answer, look for these tell-tale signs: paint over spray inside the door jambs; inside the gas – filler cap; around the front and rear glass; on exterior moldings; inside the wheel wells; on bumpers. “Wavy” doors indicate repair and repainting.
Check the alignment –Stand at the front of the car and look down each side to determine if the car is “sitting straight.” Repeat the process from the rear of the car. If there are “sagging” areas, uneven lines or ripples the car has probably had body work done. Look at spaces around door openings. Also, hood and trunk lid openings. If the space is not uniform this could indicate a previous accident. Also, check for ease of openings and closing doors. This may indicate mis-alignment from damage repair.
Test the shock absorbers – There’s one over each wheel under the car. If they’re badly worn, you will feel every bump in the road along with a host of other problems. To test the shocks, stand at each corner of the car – front and rear – and push the car’s bumper up and down until the car bounces. If the car continues bouncing, more than a couple of times, its a sure sign the shocks are bad. Also, look under the car at the shocks, you might need your flash light, for signs of fresh leakage. If the car is front wheel drive, look above the front axles for large deposits of black grease which could mean serious trouble.
Examine all the tires –Turn the steering wheel to give you a full view of the front tires. Check and compare the treads. Are all tires worn evenly? If not this could indicate several things; a minor or major alignment problem; bad shocks; wheel balancing or improper tire pressure. Also, check the wheels for damage – and of course, check the spare tire.
Checking the frame –First – glance examination can be difficult to assess serious damage. However, there are tell – tale signs: uneven body lines; door, hood and trunk misalignment can indicate frame damage. These things may however, indicate no more than misalignment during a simple repair. Be sure your mechanic checks the frame.
Vinyl roof – Is the vinyl in good shape? Is the color faded? Is there “bubbling” anywhere underneath which probably indicates rust – that would be a serious problem.
Check for rust everywhere –It’s a car’s worst enemy. Although a little surface rust – around things like exterior screws is generally not considered serious – check all rust carefully. Inspect any “add – on” side moldings, base of doors, wheel wells, window trim, headlight compartments – try to spot any rust under the car. Inside – try to examine under both front and rear carpets. Look inside the trunk under the trunk mat or carpet. If you see serious rust walk away.
Check windshields and all windows – Pits, cracks, holes or serious scratches call for glass replacements. Mention this when negotiating a price.
STEP #2 – The Interior
Take a good look at the overall condition of the car. Is it clean or exceptionally dirty? Is the head liner torn? Are there rips in the upholstery? Is the carpet worn? How about the rubber on the pedals? Sometimes this is a good indication the car’s had a lot of heavy wear-and-tear. Also, check the dash for any cracks.
Check the seats –Front seats should slide back and forth easily. Seat positions should be easily adjustable. Be sure the seat belts work properly. If the seats have covers-examine underneath for excessive wear. Check the drivers seat for comfort. Does it need re-padding?
Check the pedals – Accelerator, brake and clutch pedals will show some signs of wear. However, if the brake pedal shows excessive wear this could mean the car has seen a lot of stop-and-go driving which is hard on the engine. Remember to keep this in mind.
Check all the gauges – Be sure all gauges, knobs and gadgets are in the proper place and working. If you see :things missing” ask what was there and why they were removed. Turn the ignition to “on” and not start, to see if all gauges and warning lights are operating properly.
Test everything –The radio – stereo-tape deck or CD deck, all speakers and the antenna; heater, air conditioner; remote-control mirrors;defroster, horn; mirror adjustments; cigarette lighter; clock; tachometer; tilt steering wheel; windshield washer and wiper; all door and window locks (power or manual); and all releases – hood, trunk and gas cap. Tkae extra care testing the windows. Be sure they roll all the way up and all the way down, easily. if they do not it could mean body damage inside the doors. Also test the emergency brake – too much “play” indicates a problem.
Check all the lights, too –There could be as many as 15 lights, but check them all. these include the dashboard lights; headlights; (low, normal, and high beam); glove compartment light; ceiling (dome) light; trunk light; hazard light; map light; backup light; fog light; parking lights; side lights; brake lights; license plate light; and turn signals. If you don’t have a friend with you ask the seller to sit in the driver’s seat and turn the exterior lights on and off while you check them from outside.
STEP #3 – Check under the hood
But first, check the ground under the car for any fresh-looking fluids. If you see any – beware.
Check the engine –Most likely the engine will be dirty, but that’s normal. Ignore ordinary road grime – concentrate on looking for fresh oil. (it glistens). An oil-covered engine can mean big trouble. Also, look for wet spots or fresh oil on the water pump, radiator, hoses and gaskets. Your mechanic will also check for leaks of all kinds.
Check the coolant –Unscrew the radiator cap slowly to check coolant level and color – Green means it’s fresh; pinkish or a rusty shade means the coolant needs changing. Caution: Do not attempt to remove the radiator cap while the engine is hot.
The cooling system indicates the fan, fan belts and hoses that connect the radiator to the engine. Inspect them all. The belts should not look cracked or frayed; the hoses should feel firm. if they are soft they will need changing.
Check the oil –Pull out the dipstick, wipe it clean with a clean rag then, push it all the way back in the hole and pull it out again. Look at the dipstick-the level should be at or perhaps a hair below full. The oil should be relatively clean. Note: check oil with engine off.
Check the transmission fluid –First, start the engine and let it warm up. Then pull out the automatic transmission dipstick-check the fluid level and the color. It should be reddish pink. If it looks brown or orange this could mean transmission trouble, which would be expensive to fix. As a further test, sniff the dipstick-if it has a burned odor, you are smelling trouble.
Check the brake fluid –It is in the brake’s master cylinder on the driver’s side of the engine. If the fluid is lower than 1/2 inch from the full mark this could indicate a leak in the brake system.
Check the battery –Does it look corroded? (white-powdery substance) if it’s not a sealed-type battery – remove the caps and check the fluid level. If they are low, the battery probably needs replacement. Although this is not a major expense, it is a point to bring up when negotiating price.
Check the air filter –It is located on top – near the center of the engine. You might need your pliers to unscrew the wingnut. Remove the top, take out the filter and hold it up to the light. Expect to see some dirt, but if the dirt looks packed-or you see signs of oil this could mean worn piston rings or valve problems – and this would be a major expense.
STEP #4 – Now check the engine
This is perhaps the most critical test. Be alert. Use your eyes and ears. Be sure the radio is off. You don’t want any distractions. Is there a grinding noise in the starter? A “slow-start.” this could indicate a bad starter or merely a bad battery.
Before the engine warms up – Have your friend or seller, sit in the drivers seat and “rev” the engine while you stand at the rear of the car to check the exhaust pipe. If the smoke is barely visible or just a little “white” that’s normal. All black smoke can indicate the need for a minor mixture adjustment. Dark gray to black indicates the engine is running “too rich” and needs adjustment. But, a lot of blue or blue-white smoke means the car is burning oil and may need a costly valve job.
Listen to the engine –Do you hear tapping, clinking or clickety-clack sounds? Is the engine running rough? Get outside and listen to the engine with the hood up. Any loud noises or knocking could mean worn bearings or other serious problems.
Check the power steering –Turn the steering wheel full right – then left. It should turn easily with no squeaking. A squeaking sound usually indicates a loose power steering belt. (More power steering during the test drive.)
Check the transmission –With your foot on the brake pedal, shift the car into reverse-any knocking or clunking sounds indicates a problem. Then, shift the gears and listen for a grinding sound. If you hear one, chances are the car needs a clutch plate. Note: Usually the louder the sounds, the bigger the problem. Make a mental note to tell your mechanic about any disturbing or unusual noises you may hear.
STEP #5 –Make the test-drive a real test
Do not settle for a quick spin around the block. this proves only one thing: the car does run – at least for the moment. Remember, if you are going to pay thousands of dollars for this used car, you need to find out how it feels, sounds and handles on the road. Again, if the seller tries to discourage a test drive you should walk away.
OK-Ready –First, be sure the radio is off. If the seller is riding with you, you might politely suggest that you would appriciate minimal conversation so you may concentrate on the job at hand.
* With the engine off, pump the brake pedal. Then, with your foot on the brake, start the engine. With power brakes, the pedal should sink slightly as the engine starts. Then, push the brake pedal down hard for about a minute. If it sinks further this could indicate trouble with the brake master cylinder.
* Another brake test – with no traffic around accelerate to about 30 miles per hour. Then step hard on the brake pedal. Does the car stop quickly and smoothly? Does it stop in a straight line? If the car swerves right or left or you have to push halfway down before the car stops or the brake pedal feels “mushy” the brakes probably need replacing. Remember, if drums or rotors are bad, this can be a costly repair.
* Check the acceleration. Does the car move immediately or does it jerk or hesitate? Now, press hard on the accelerator – does the car accelerate smoothly? If it bucks, surges or you hear any unusual sounds there’s probably a problem.
* On your test-drive, find a route that includes some hills so you may check the car’s response. Also, find a freeway where you can drive the legal speed for about 5 minutes. The car should easily maintain a high speed without overheating (check the gauges) or without unusual noises. If the car has cruise control, check it now.
* Another steering test – turn the wheel slightly – the car should go in that direction easily. If you have to turn the wheel more than just a few inches, this could indicate a variety of problems. The steering can also be too tight, which although probably safe, can be uncomfortable. For the best test, find a large open area and drive the car in a tight figure 8. If the steering responds slowly, this could mean linkage or front suspension trouble. Tell your mechanic.
Check the alignment and suspension –It would be best to check on a rough road. Hear any loud rattles or squeaks? Over bumps, does the car sway, lurch or pull left or right? Now, accelerate to about 20 miles per hour and take your hands off the wheel for a few seconds. Does the car continue in a straight line – or pull to the right or left? Any of these symptoms can indicate bad tires, defective steering linkage, suspension or alignment problems.
Another transmission test –While you are driving, listen for rumbles, whines or grinding sounds. Find an open area where you can drive forward a few feet then stop – shift into reverse and drive backwards a few feet. Do this 4 or 5 times. Whether the car has automatic or manual transmission, it should shift smoothly, with little hesitation and quietly. Any grinding or grating sounds can be a sign of transmission or clutch trouble.
Check the exhaust for smoke – again –Accelerate hard and look through the rear view mirror. If blue smoke bellows out that is big trouble. Accelerate and take your foot off the gas pedal. Look again. If there is blue smoke bellowing from the exhaust – this would spell big trouble and big money. If you are looking at a vehicle that is 4-wheel drive, be sure to engage and disengage the front hubs and transfer case (on manual systems) to see if it is a smooth and easy operation. Then, check whether the 4-wheel drive is actually working – slowly drive the vehicle in a tight circle. The front should hop regardless of the milage on the vehicle. Have your mechanic check the system.
Well, That’s It!
Now that you have thorougly inspected the car inside and out – top to bottom – and road tested it – give it your honest opinion. Remember, no used car is perfect. If the car is in good mechanical condition, you can overlook some of it’s cosmetic faults. Remember, point out the minor faults to the seller – it will help you negotiate a better price. I recommend having a mechanic check out the vehicle before you sign on the dotted line. You could save yourself a lot of headaches and a lot of money.
Good luck and remember, millions of people buy good quality used cars every year and enjoy them for many miles. There are those people who also get stuck with real lemons, so take your time and make a wise decision. Also, remember to check out the website Car Fax at to get more detailed information on the car or truck you plan to purchase.
Well, thats it for now.
God Bless.

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