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Carmarket’s Used Car Pre-Purchase Inspection Guidelines

Making Sure You Choose the Right Car – Without a Mechanic

Here is the situation. After seemingly endless hours researching your options and analyzing your financial situation, you find exactly the car you want. It is owned by Mr. Smith in the neighboring community, and he is as eager for you to take a look at the car as you are. So you arrange a meeting time to look at and test-drive the vehicle. You pull up that night precisely at the appointed time to find Mr. Smith standing next to the gleaming automobile. You greet Mr. Smith and he shows you the car, assuring you that everything is operating perfectly and that all of the maintenance records are in the glove compartment. So here you are, standing there, dying to drive the car home.

Unfortunately, you feel hopelessly uneducated as to what to do next. Kick the tires? Raise the hood and peek around? How in the world are you supposed to know whether this car was a mangled wreck just a few short weeks ago? Carmarket’s guide to checking out your used car before the purchase will answer these and many other questions, helping you feel comfortable and confident while thoroughly inspecting your vehicle.

First of all, if you find yourself in the situation mentioned above, you have already broken several important rules. It is important to view the car during daylight hours, preferably in the morning time. In the morning you will be able to see the car in natural sunlight, getting a true sense of its appearance from every angle. In addition, you want to test drive the car after it has been sitting overnight, to see how it starts up after being idle for a while. Finally, show up early rather than right at the appointment time. You may find the owner repairing damage or touching up scratches prior to your arrival. It will make it difficult for them to dispute if you catch them red-handed. Assuming everything is fine initially, it is now time to begin your inspection. A thorough inspection of the car will take a while; leave yourself and the owner a minimum of twenty or thirty minutes to check it out. Definitely do not feel rushed or pressured because the owner is in a hurry.


Where should I start?

Resist the urge to jump right in and start driving. Begin your inspection with the car’s exterior, more specifically the body. Make sure that all of the seams are even and straight, especially where the doors and fenders meet and where the hood and trunk meet. New paint is also indicative of repaired damage. Look for signs of spray paint on moldings, as well as differences in color between panels and at the edges of the doors, hood and trunk. Finally, take a small magnet with you and make sure that it sticks to all steel panels. If a magnet does not cling, suspect that a filler was used to repair damage or severe rust.

Next come the tires. You want to make sure that all of the tires are the exact same size. It is also preferable for them to all be of the same brand, as well. Are they all worn equally as far as the tread goes? Finally, make certain that there is an inflated spare tire, car jack, and lug wrench in the trunk (or somewhere). If the car’s hubcaps lock, make sure that the key is available to remove them.

Next, check out the frame of the vehicle. This is where you may start to get dirty. You will need to look inside the trunk, under the hood, and inside the wheel wells. If any of these areas look as if they have been crumpled and straightened, suspect once again that the car has been in an accident. Another way to tell if the car has been crashed is to look under the car, just inside the edge on either side, and find the row of holes in the frame. Mechanics will straighten the frame after a wreck using these holes, so if they appear scratched or cleaner than the rest of the metal, chances are these holes have been used for this purpose. While you are examining the wheel wells, make sure that the automobile sits level. Bounce each corner of the car individually to make sure that they all respond the same. The corners should bounce once or twice, silently, before they stop. If they creak, this could be signaling more serious suspension problems.

Last stop before you get inside of the car is to make sure that there is a gas cap that locks and unlocks properly (if applicable) and fits correctly. Remove the gas cap so that you can see into the filler neck. Most states require a fuel-nozzle restructure to make sure you do not accidentally add leaded fuel.

Finally it is time to step foot in to the vehicle in order to examine the interior. Look for tears, stains, and burns anywhere that the car is upholstered. Check the dashboard and headliner as well for signs of cracking or other wear. Make sure that the seats adjust easily to a comfortable driving position. Try opening and shutting every door, as well as rolling the windows up and down. This way you will know if any glass, buttons, handles, or cranks are missing. Turn all of the interior lights and dash settings to make sure they are operational. This is also a great opportunity to test out the accessories. Test out the heater, A/C, stereo, alarm, and any other electronic features. Lastly, make sure there are no odd odors before you start the car. If it smells like stale water or mildew, then the car probably leaks or has flood damage and you definitely want to reevaluate. Either way, look under the dash at the top of the carpet for stains that are indicative of heater core or air conditioner leakage.

Now for the big test, the engine. Start it up, paying attention to any strange noises or movements. The start should be smooth and effortless. Open the hood, get out of the vehicle, and look in the engine compartment. Are there signs of oil or other fluid leaks? If there are any odd smells, try and find out where they are originating. It is probably some sort of fluid leaking on to a hot component. As the engine idles, there should be no noises except for the humming of belts and fans. Under no circumstances should there be metallic or hissing sounds. Look for super shiny areas where parts may have been removed. Check under the vehicle, as well. Look again for leaking fluids. Green fluid is antifreeze, red is transmission, brown or black is oil or brake fluid. The only loose part should be the exhaust, because they are held by intentionally flexible rubber parts. Make sure that all of the bolts, clamps, and cables appear to be in place. If the bottom of the car has large scrapes, the car has probably bottomed out one or more times on rocks or asphalt. Look at the exhaust coming out while the car is running. You should not see anything except for a small amount of steam (only in cold weather). Any white or blue smoke means that the engine is having difficulty and is unacceptable.


Everything looks fine, what now?

Now it is time to drive! Drive slowly down an uncrowded street at first, just to make sure that the car idles smoothly at a good speed and does not stall. Does the engine hesitate at all or seem to lack power? This is also a good time to test out hazard lights. Now stop the car, anywhere really, and turn off the engine. It should die immediately, not continue to stutter or rattle.

Turn the car back on and continue driving, a little faster now. If the car is equipped with cruise control, make sure that it is operational. Test the transmission and clutch. An automatic should shift smoothly and at appropriate times, without hesitation. With a manual transmission, release the clutch and accelerate hard in lower gears or while going uphill. If the clutch slips at all it is worn and will probably need replacing in the near future. Also try to slow down by downshifting. It should shift easily, without grinding.

To test the brakes, apply them with varying intensity at various speeds. Also try to slam on the brakes once. It should stop evenly, without pulling to one side or another. If the car is equipped with antilock brakes, make sure that the wheels do not in fact lock up (a pulsing pedal is normal). Finally, test the parking brake on a hill. The brake should hold very firmly and release completely when disengaged.

As far as steering goes, you should be able to tell if the vehicle pulls to one side while driving along normally. The steering wheel should obviously be centered while you are driving down a straight road. Steering should not be difficult at any speed, and the wheel should not shake or vibrate while you are driving. Try it out on the highway to test this. Lastly, turn the car as sharply as possible in both directions. If you hear any strange noises or feel any rubbing, you will know something is not right.


Is that it?

Almost. If you are driving a 4WD vehicle, make sure that you engage and disengage the 4WD to make sure that it is fully operational. Make sure that you test it only on approved surfaces, and try switching from drive to reverse. The vehicle should still operate free from any noises or glitches in the steering.

Everyone needs to make sure that the owners’ manual is in the car, as well as operating instructions for accessories and any applicable warranty information. Also ask for any previous repair and service records. It is always a good sign when the owner has complete records for the history of the car, but do not count on getting all of the information all of the time.

Once you have completed your inspection and are satisfied that everything is in the expected condition, you are ready to make your purchase. Do not stop here, however. Unless you are trained in automotive repair, still insist on having the car checked out by a professional mechanic, and make any purchase contingent on the mechanic’s approval.

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