What Should You Check When Buying A Used Car

So, you decided it’s time to buy a used car, but you are not sure how to inspect the car and see if there are major issues with the vehicle. No worries. Here is what you should check when buying a used car:

  • Engine: The most important part of the car. Get beneath the vehicle and check for any oil and fuel leaks and rust.
  • Exterior: Look for any dents, damages, and rust especially above the wheels.
  • Interior: Check the condition of the seats, door panels, steering wheel, and dashboard.
After reading this article not only you’re gonna be more comfortable with going to check a used car, but you’re gonna know exactly what to
look for so you don’t get stuck with a bad car.

How To Check The Engine When Buying A Used Car

The most expensive part in a car is the engine. So, you should know how to inspect an engine in a used car so you don’t buy a car with a bad engine.
  1. Insert the key into the ignition. See if there are any lights coming on the dashboard. Look for the check engine light. This light turns on for about 10 problems with the vehicle’s engine.
  2. The best way to check an engine is with OBD Scanner. This is a universal scanner that you connect with the car’s scan port(under the steering wheel) and you get a detailed overview of the condition of the engine on your mobile phone. This scanner will show you if there are any issues, or errors and will send you an Alert. If you get a lot of errors, don’t waste your time with this car and move on. Look out for the AP1000 code. This code means that someone cleared the check engine light. If you get this code, you might want to ask the owner about it.
  3. The next thing you should look at is the engine compartment. Pop the hood and you want to make sure that the hood struts could support the hood. Take a look under the hood. Check the overall cleanliness. If the engine is overly detailed, this could mean that the owner is trying to hide some issue like leaking oil. I am not saying that the engine should look dirty, but it should have the look for its mileage.
  4. Look for any obvious damage. Check the frames on the side of the engine. Make sure they are straight. One of the hardest things for a body shop to do is make sure that the frames are perfectly straight. After an accident, the frames bend and are almost impossible to be repaired. Also, check the fender and the front core support and make sure they are also straight. If there is any damage on the front core support, investigate a little bit. See if the engine sits right, the transmission sits right, and check the radiator for some damage. If you are unsure about the frame damage, walk away. It is not worth the hassle down the road.
  5. Grab a flashlight and start inspecting for leaks. Instead of spending most of your time on the top the engine, go underneath the car. The reason why you should look underneath the vehicle is that leaks drip downwards and this is the quickest way to check for any major leaks. Scan the area, look for any leaks, any drips. Check the transmission and the cooling system. You want to open the cap to inspect. Make sure the engine is cold. Now, cars use different types of coolant but make sure it’s a bright color. You don’t want to see any oil or brown sludge when you open the cooling system cap, because that could indicate there may be a head gasket leak.
  6. The next thing you should look at is the brake master cylinder and see the fluid through the plastic and check that the fluid is above the minimum line.
  7. The next thing to check is the power steering reservoir. You want to check the fluid color and you don’t want to see dark fluid or specks of black. Check if it’s filled to the proper level. Follow the power steering lines to the pump and check for any leaks.
  8. The next thing I like to do is check the oil. Take the oil fill cap off and look underneath. Sometimes you’ll be able to tell if a car has a head gasket leak by looking at underneath the car. If there is a leak you’ll see like a frothy white oil almost like a milkshake or something like that. You also want to look inside the engine and you don’t want to see any froth or any sludge in there. What sludge is gonna look like, it’s gonna look like chocolate syrup.
  9. Check the oil dipstick and make sure the oil is filled all the way. Make sure the car is parked on a leveled road. The other thing is to make sure it’s not frothy, make sure there’s no metal to make specks. If you see any of this, just walk away. It’s not worth it. Find another car because it could mean that you have a head gasket leak or your engine is worn out pretty good.
  10. After checking the oil, the other thing you want to do is you want to find the transmission dipstick and check the transmission fluid. Some cars have a sealed system and you won’t be able to check the fluid, but if there is a dipstick you will be able to check it.
  11. The last things you want to inspect are the hoses and the belts. Go around the engine compartment and make sure that the hoses aren’t bulging, they’re not cracked, and they’re not brittle. Just go around and inspect the different hoses, vacuum hoses, coolant hoses and check all of them. Check the condition of the belt. The belt won’t look shiny, it won’t have frayed edges, it won’t have any cracks on it, and when you press on it with your finger it’ll be pretty tight.
  12. It’s time to Start the engine. Make sure you watch the exhaust as it starts. If you see blue smoke, that could mean that your valve seals are leaking into the combustion chamber. If the car starts puffing white smoke, that could mean you have a head gasket leak.
  13. If you have another person with you, make him turn on the car and you watch the engine. If the engine swings a lot as you start the car, that could mean that the engine mounts are worn out.
  14. Check for any leaks again now that the engine is running. Everything is under pressure now. Look at the master cylinder, check out the engine and the hoses, the water pump, and power steering.
  15. Another thing that many people don’t know about is to remove the oil cap while the engine is running. After you remove it, if you see a lot of oil splashing outside, that means that the engine is worn out and has serious problems.

How To Check The Interior When Buying A Used Car

The interior is one of the nicest things in a car. It’s very lush, it’s very comfortable, but on any vehicle, the interior is where you’re going to spend most of your time. So, you want to really thoroughly inspect it and make sure that you’re going to be comfortable driving this car every day.
  1. The first thing I like to do is, you’re going to be sitting in these seats every day. It’s what holds you into the car. So you are going to be looking for any rips any tears, any worn-out parts of the leather. Look for any marks of wear and tear.
  2. Another thing you want to check to make sure that the power seats work in all directions because if you can’t adjust your seat when you’re driving, then you’re going to have trouble driving the car. A lot of times these power seats are expensive to fix, so that’s just another thing you want to check.
  3. Next, inspect the seats on the driver side, but also go to the passenger side, and finally, you want to go to the back and inspect the back seats. You just want to take a look around on the interior and check all the seats.
  4. The next thing I like to do is check out down by the floor mats. The floor mat area gives you a lot of information. The first thing you want to do is you want to remove the floor mat and you want to inspect the condition underneath the floor mats. Feel around for any water and feel for any soft spots. If you can, you could also go underneath the car and look up and make sure that there’s no rust. A lot of times if there’s a leak, water could accumulate in between the carpet in the metal and cause rust and then your floorboards are all rusty.
  5. Next, look at the brake pedal and the gas pedal. This will help you tell if the car’s odometer has been rolled back. Now, it’s not a definitive way to tell, but it’ll help give you clues. What you do is you look at the rubber on the brake pedal and you want to see how worn out it is. If the pedals are all worn out, and the odometer says it has 40,000 miles, then you might want to look deeper into this issue.
  6. Under the dash on the passenger side, you have the heater core. If there’s a heater core leak, you have to rip out the whole dash just to get to it. So, one thing you want to do is you want to go underneath both floor mats and you just want to feel for any wet spots. It should be completely dry. That’s one thing I see a lot of people miss. They’ll go check the heat and make sure the heat works and heat will be working, but they don’t check for any leaks.
  7. The next thing we want to do is check out the trunk. Now, surprisingly enough you can learn a lot from looking at the trunk. Look for any water spots indicating that there are any leaks. Feel around and make sure that you don’t feel any leaks anywhere. Another place water likes to collect is down in the spare tire. Since you’re down at the spare tire, you can make sure that the spare tire is filled with air and pumped up.
  8. Make sure that the car will lock and unlock when you hit the buttons, and the hood pops.
  9. Check out the dashboard. Put the key in the ignition, turn it to the run position but don’t start the car. The check engine light, airbag light, and abs light should all come up. You could do this a few times to make sure. You also want to make sure that any lights such as the brake light, seatbelt light, the oil light are not coming on.
  10. Start the car. There are tons of buttons and stuff that you should be checking. Make sure all your lights work. Make sure all the windows roll up and down and then go to the navigation screen. Make sure you check everything. Start by turning on the heated seats(if you have any), make sure that they work. Turn up the volume, make sure none of the speakers are crackling and that sounds good. Just go through and just hit all the buttons, literally hit everything, make sure everything is working. Test the climate control. Make sure you put it on completely cold so that you know if the air conditioning is working. Check the compressor. Make sure the compressor kicks on. Air conditioning stuff could get expensive so if you want to have air conditioning. Turn the heat up all the way and you just want to make sure you could feel the heat.
  11. Another thing to remember your options like the sunroof the sunroof. Press the buttons and see if it works. Inspect around the edge of the sunroof and make sure that you don’t see anything indicating that there are leaks.
  12. Put the car in neutral and then check the handbrake to make sure the handbrake is working.

How To Check The Exterior When Buying A Used Car

Here are a few extra little tips and tricks on how to check the exterior.
  1. One little trick that you want to do is you want to check the panel gaps. You want to run your finger down the panel gaps and feel for any uneven panel gap. So, when you start up it should feel the same as when you end up down the gap should not change size. Check on all the doors. Even check up above the door, because if you have a sagging door, the panel gap will get wider.
  2. Check for any exterior damages like scratches, dents, and rust.
  3. Another tip I have is with one of the fridge magnets. Anywhere there are metal body panels, and you think there’s been body work body filler like Bondo is not magnetic. So, perform a little test and see if there was anybody work done. Don’t rub the magnet against the car, you don’t wanna scratch the paint, but do a test to make sure that the magnet is sticking.
  4. Open the door and right where the door closes what you want to do is you want to check the seam. What you’re looking for a hard tape line, because when your car gets damaged, and they have to respray it, they’re going to put a piece of tape on the inside so you don’t spray the inside of the car.
  5. Go to each corner of the car and bounce the car up and down. This is going to check the suspension. It should be firm and it should be hard to bounce. Now, if your car bounces around a lot and it’s easy to move your shocks are bad. It shouldn’t be like driving on a trampoline, it should be nice and firm.
  6. There should be no squeaks or clunking either because squeaks and clunking sounds mean their bushings or ball joints are bad. You’ll feel all of this and listen for all this on the test-drive.
  7. Check the front suspension with the engine running. Turn the steering wheel and this will give you good access so you can inspect the front end. Take a look at the strut at the top. While you’re inspecting the strut if you see rust on these coil springs that means it’s bad. Also, if you see any oil leaking out of the strut itself that also means it’s bad.
  8. Next, look at the axle boot. See if the axle looks nice and straight and the boot isn’t leaking anything. Look for any grease.
  9. Check the brake caliper and make sure that you don’t see any leaks, any brake fluid.
  10. Before you go for the test drive, check the tire alignment. You want to take a look down the car and see if the tires are tilted inwards or outwards. Go to the back of the car and see if the tires are sticking out of the body line. While you are at the tires, check the depth.

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Hi there. I am a certified Automotive Service Excellence (ASE) mechanic since 2018 and a car detailer for 10 years.

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