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Your Must Have Used Car Checklist

Chris Kaiser

Buying a used car can be great for your budget but buying a quality vehicle requires knowing what to look for. Our used car checklist is here to help.

Buying Used, Requires Knowledge

We all know buying a used car can save you money. The downside is the vehicle in question already has miles on it, some miles perhaps harder than others. This means buying a used vehicle requires some knowledge and the diligence to apply it. This check list aims to provide you with the information for the first part and the inspiration for the second part.

The first thing you’ll want to do is some research on all the strengths and weaknesses of the vehicle you’re considering, including any common mechanical issues. You’ll also want to check out the vehicle history report so you’re aware of service work that has been done, any open recalls, and whether the vehicle has been in any accidents. This way you’ll know primary points of concentration when doing your inspection.

Depending on how thorough you’re able to be, you can inspect the vehicle with just a flashlight and some clean rags. If you’re foregoing a professional inspection, you’ll also want a jack, jack stands, and a code reader (they typically cost around $30.00 and can give you trouble codes indicating potential issues).

Exterior

Check for any nicks, chips, or rust on the body
Check for any nicks, chips, or rust on the body

There’s a lot you can tell about a used vehicle from just walking around it and kicking the proverbial tires (there are, in fact, better ways of checking tire condition than kicking them). Below is our list of things to check for, in no particular order.

  1. Body Panels: Check for dents, scratches, pits, tree sap, worn finish, and rust. Look for uneven or off-color panels that may indicate an accident.
  2. Glass: Watch for cracks, scratches, or chips. Even small cracks can become large ones with time and temperature changes.
  3. Tires and Wheels: Check the sidewall for cracks, bulges, scruffs, and uneven wear. Also look for any scratches or damage on the rims or wheels. Make sure all the lug nuts are present. Verify that all the tires are the same brand.
  4. Lights: Look for cracks or cloudiness. Verify that all the lights work, including high beams, break lights, reverse lights, turn signals, and fog lamps.

Interior

Always check the interior for imperfections
Always check the interior for imperfections

The state of the interior isn’t just the condition of the upholstery. Here’s are all the things to look and smell … yes, smell for.

  1. Seats: Check the upholstery for tears and holes and leather for cracking and wear. Also note any stains or deformation of the underlying foam.
  2. Smell: Note any unusual smells; musty or damp odors could indicate water damage, and pet or cigarettes odors are especially difficult to get rid of.
  3. Water Damage: Check under mats, seats, and in the roof lining for signs of mildew or mold and note any associated odor.
  4. Dash and Instrument Cluster: Check all switches, dials, and infotainment systems to ensure they are working properly and all lights and indicators function. Check things like whether the A/C actually pushes out cold air, Bluetooth connectivity, turn signals, and don’t forget those power seats.
  5. Odometer: Does the mileage on the odometer align with the age and condition of the vehicle? Very low mileage could be suspect.
  6. Roof: Look up and ensure the roof isn’t sagging or torn. If you’re looking at a convertible, you’ll also want to check the condition of the top materials and whether the mechanism is working properly.

Engine Bay and Undercarriage

Be sure to inspect the engine and check fluids
Be sure to inspect the engine and check fluids

Things might look great at first glance, but a thorough inspection isn’t complete until you’ve gotten a good look at all the mechanicals. Here’s what to look for in the engine compartment and in the undercarriage.

  1. Leaks: Look under the vehicle and in the engine bay and make sure there are no signs of oil, anti-freeze, or other fluids leaking.
  2. Oil: Pull out the dip stick and look at the oil. Make sure it isn’t black, gray and foamy, watery, or has any debris.
  3. Fluids: Check the levels on all fluid reservoirs.
  4. Transmission Oil: Transmission oil should be pink and smell like oil, brown transmission oil indicates problems.
  5. Radiator: Anti-freeze should either be orange or green in color, not milky or rusty. Check the underside of the radiator for any leaks.
  6. Belts and Hoses: Look for worn or cracked belts, hoses, and plastic components.
  7. Rust: Carefully inspect the frame and all suspension and steering components for rust. Some rust on exhaust parts and brake disc aren’t necessarily cause for concern (depending on severity), but corroded calipers or rusted clamps and exhaust attachments could be trouble.
  8. Brakes: Watch for any fluid on either the bottom of calipers or drum brakes that might indicate leaks.
  9. Fender Shields: Check that all the fender shields are present and have all their screws.
  10. Battery: Check the age and condition of the battery. Is it more than 4-years old? Is it corroded?
  11. Air Filters: Inspect the engine and cabin air filters to see that they don’t need replacing.

Test Drive

Take note of any handling quirks you notice with a test drive
Take note of any handling quirks you notice with a test drive

There’s a lot going on in a used car you won’t be able to evaluate until you get it started and out on the road. Here’s what to look, listen, and feel for.

  1. Ignition: Turn the key over without starting the car to see whether all warning lights are working. Turn over the engine. Does it start easily? Are there any odd noises when idling?
  2. Transmission: Does the automatic transmission clunk when you put the car in drive? In a manual, does the clutch feel stiff?
  3. Turning: Note the handling in corners, is the steering accurate? On sharp turns at slow speeds, can you hear any clunks or creaks?
  4. Brakes: Feel the brakes. Are they squishy? Is there a delay between application and braking? Do they feel grabby, like they engage too hard or quickly? Does the manner of braking change? Does the vehicle pull to either side when braking?
  5. Steering: Does the vehicle drift to either side when you let go of the wheel? Does the vehicle pull to either side or the steering wheel feel like it wobbles?
  6. Shifting: Note whether the automatic transmission shifts smoothly or jerks or slips between gears.
  7. Acceleration: Make sure the vehicle accelerates smoothly rather than jerking or lagging when you apply the throttle.
  8. Sound: Listen to the engine, noting any knocking. Listen to the suspension for creaking. Note any noise from interior components (including trim) that rattle or sound loose.
  9. Vary Roads: Take the vehicle on different roads and drive at different speeds to get a good feel for how it handles, sounds, and behaves under different conditions. Note whether it struggles up hills or to get up to highway speed, or whether it sounds odd at low or high speeds.

Now You Know What to Look For, But You’re Not Done Yet 

A used car shopper inspecting everything he can
A used car shopper inspecting everything he can

Given you’re reading this used car checklist, you’re probably not a mechanic. So even if you’ve gone through this checklist and inspected your prospective purchase, it’s still a good idea to have it looked at by a professional mechanic you trust. Most dealers are happy to allow you to have a third-party mechanic inspect a potential purchase.

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Chris Kaiser
Chris Kaiser

Chris’ greatest passions include topiary, spelunking, and pushing aging compact cars well past 200,000 miles on cross-country road trips. His taste in cars runs from the classic and esoteric to the deeply practical with an abiding affection for VW Things, old Studebakers, and all things hybrid-crossover.

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