How To Inspect a Used Car For Purchase

oil cap valve cover

If you are ready to test drive and look at the car, I’m going to assume you already talked about the title (No leins, No salvage) and that you have done your homework on the car (dependability, common problems, major maintenance concerns).  I always want to recommend to people to take a car you are serious about to a good and trusted mechanic, but I know some times you don’t have one or one is not available when you are looking.  These are guidelines and by no means am I to be held responsible for you buying a lemon.  With that said, now it is the time to check the car out for any major mechanical problems.  If you are doing this at night bring a flashlight.

Make sure the car is placed in an open place where you can walk around the vehicle.  If possible make sure the car has not been driven any time recently.  Ask about maintenance records if they have them.  This will help ease concerns during your inspection and let you focus on other items that might not have been taken care of.  If the car is equipped with a timing belt you will want to ask when the last time it was change; they need to be changed every 60,000 to 90,000 miles and can cost a couple hundred dollars to have replaced.

Start at the driver-side wheel.  Inspect the tire tread depth.  A penny is great to use for this by using Lincolns head as a depth gauge.

Inspect the body panels and make sure they are not a different color.  Look for paint over spray on the window and body edges.  This is an indication that the vehicle has been painted and was possibly in an accident.  If you cannot tell or see anything you will want to ask about the accidents and paint.  Look at the hood, wipers, windshield, headlights and lenses and turn signals.  Walk around to the passenger-side front wheel and check the tire.  Do the tires match with the other front tire? Is the tread worn on one side and not the other?  If so you may be looking for tires on the front two wheels and a wheel alignment.

Move along the passenger side of the car noting any body problems, broken glass, and door, door lock and window operation.  Move to the rear of the car and check the operation of the lights.   Inspect the signals, brake lights, and check both the rear tires for good tread.  Move to the driver-side of the vehicle and check everything you did on the passenger-side like doors and windows.

Now, it is time to open the hood and this is why it is important that the car is not warmed up.  Check the oil.  If it is low, it is a good indication of a leak.  If the oil is black or really dark it is a good indication the oil has not been changed recently and possibly not regularly.

Open the oil fill cap on the top of the valve cover and look into the top of the engine.  Look on the backside of the oil cap.  Is there oil burned onto the metal of the valve cover or cylinder head? Is there a black blob of congealed oil sitting in the back of the oil cap or in the valve cover?  These are both good indications that the oil has not been changed regularly.  Be wary, but this doesn’t necessarily keep you from buying the car.

Check the other fluids.  Automatic transmission fluid should be red.  Coolant or Anti-Freeze can be bright green (Most Cars), Orange (Most GM Cars), yellow or gold(2000 and Newer Ford and Chrysler), or Red (Toyota).  If the coolant is rusty, the coolant has not been changed regularly and can cause major mechanical problems in the future.  You may want to steer clear of the car if this is the case.  The power steering fluid should be full with the front wheels straight ahead.  If it is not the Power Steering may have a leak.

Inspect the drive belt(s) on the front of the engine for cracking.  If the belt(s) have cracks they will need to be replaced.  If the engine is cool inspect the radiator hoses by squeezing them gently.  If the hoses feel crunchy when you squeeze or fairly hard they will need to be replaced.  Make a note of that for bargaining.

Now it is time to start the engine.  Leave the driver-side door open while you do this.  Listen for any knocking clattering, or odd noises.  If the oil was low, really black, or congealed and there are noises, it is probably time to walk away.

Next turn the air conditioning on.  (If the temperature outside is less than 70 degrees the A/C is going to be hard to check.)  Put your hand next to the vent in the center of the dashboard.  The air out of the vents should be cold in less than a two minutes of turning the A/C on (This does not mean the car will be cool just the air directly out of the vent will be).  If it is not the A/C system maybe low due to a leak.

Time for the test drive.  Take the car on the freeway if possible.  Cycle every setting on the A/C and heater, every vent control, the radio, cruise control, power mirrors, defroster, headlights, turn signals, and don’t forget the wipers. It is actually a good idea to check the state of the wiper blades before you turn them on. Austin bought a car and picked it up on a rainy day. In spite of the fact that he picked up new blades on the way to pick it up, the seller didn’t notice that they were bad and was kind enough to etch half a circle across his windshield. Check how the vehicle accelerates.  Does is accelerate smooth?  Does it shift gears smooth? Does the clutch seem to hold when shifting gears?  Is there any vibrations?  Note any concerns.  If the automatic transmission is slipping walk away that is a major repair.  If the clutch is slipping negotiate for extra off.  If the gears are grinding on the manual transmission you probably want to walk away unless you know how to rebuild a transmission.

Test the brakes.  Do they operate smoothly? Any vibrations? Squeaks?  Vibrations and squeaks mean you might need to do the brakes on the car soon.  Make sure you mention that when negotiating.

Alright, if everthing looks good now it is time to start bargaining.  Bring up all the problems you found and use those to negociate for a lower price.  When you agree upon a price make sure the title is notorized and you get a bill of sale.  The car is yours go register it a drive away happy.

1 comment so far ↓

#1 C Frederick Wehba on 10.08.14 at 6:57 am

This is a great post of information and surely advantageous to car buyers from different parts of the globe.

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