A used car is, by its very name, used. Its been owned, driven and cared for by someone else. Because of this uncertainty, would-be used car buyers tend to find the used car shopping process, well, downright challenging.
There are several things you can do to help alleviate some of these fears. First, you can perform a personal inspection of the vehicle using our detailed personal inspection checklist as well as the information contained in our tips and advice section below. Additionally, we recommend you have the vehicle inspected by a certified mechanic before you purchase someone who is capable of accurately pinpointing existing problems, as well as potential problems, with the vehicle. We suggest you solicit the help of someone you know and trust. Click on the links below to learn more about how you can successfully perform your own personal inspection.
The condition and comfort of a vehicle's interior is just as important as its mechanical operation and its outward appearance. Following is a list of interior components you should examine closely during the vehicle's personal inspection.
- Carpets and Mats: Check the vehicle's carpets and mats for stains, excessive wear and tear, cigarette burns or rips and tears. Does it look like food or drink was spilled on the carpets? Are there excessive stains or burns, are some or all of the floor mats missing? Replacing a vehicle's carpeting is an expensive proposition, so be sure you examine these components carefully to avoid additional costs.
- Comfort: Sit in the driver's seat. Is the seat comfortable? Is there plenty of legroom and headroom? Can you successfully reach all the controls? Is the headrest comfortable? Can you see clearly out the windshield above the dash, is the armrest in a comfortable position? Can you read all the gauges on the instrument panel? Now sit in the passenger's seat. Are you able to enter and exit the car easily, is there plenty of leg, shoulder and headroom, are there reading lights on the passenger's side of the car, how does the seatbelt operate, is the headrest and seat comfortable? Since you spend a majority of your time driving and transporting other people in your vehicle, the interior analysis is very important. Certain cars simply aren't good fits for some people, so be sure you feel as comfortable as possible inside the car.
- Features: Most vehicles on the market today have a variety of interior features, including mirror controls, stereo systems, navigation systems, special heating, air conditioning and ventilation controls for both the driver and the passenger, a variety of seat adjustment options and steering wheel positions, trunk and fuel-door releases, wiper and washer systems, rear defoggers, visor vanity lights and more. Be sure to examine each of these features carefully. Do they work properly? Are they easy or difficult to use? Can you reach the controls easily? Do you like or dislike some of the features? Is a feature you want incomplete or missing altogether? Check the emergency brake. Too much play indicates a problem.
- Headliner: The headliner of a car is the interior fabric adhered to the roof of the vehicle. Examine it closely for rips, tears or sagging. Headliners are typically difficult and costly to replace, so be sure to look at it closely for any signs of damage.
- Instruments: A vehicle's instruments are located on the instrument panel directly in front of the driver (and directly behind the steering wheel) and/or on the center console. Turn the key to the on position. Do the components work properly, including the gas gauge, the tachometer, the speedometer, the warning lights? Be sure to evaluate the instruments during your test drive to be sure everything is in proper working order.
- Lights: Check both the vehicle's interior and exterior lights. Turn the headlights on and off. Do they work properly? Does the dimmer switch work? Are the vehicle's interior lights functioning properly? Does the visor vanity lights operate properly? Does the overhead light turn on and off when the vehicle's doors are opened and closed? Check the dashboard lights, the headlights (low and high beams), lights in the glove compartment, the trunk light, hazards, map and back-up lights, fog lights, parking lights and turn signals. If you'd like, ask the seller to sit in the driver's seat and turn the exterior lights on and off while you check them from the outside.
- Pedals: A good sign of a vehicle's wear and tear is the condition of the rubber on the floor pedals. If the rubber's worn and smooth, especially on the brake pedal, chances are the car has seen a lot of stop-and-go driving.
- Seats and Seatbelts: Make sure the vehicle's seats adjust easily and properly. Slide them forward and backward several times. Front seats should slide back and forth easily. When applicable, tilt the seats up and back. If the seats have covers, lift the covers and examine the upholstery for excessive wear and tear. And be sure to check the driver's seat for comfort. Does it need new padding? If so, be sure to factor this expense into the purchase price of the car. Do all the seatbelts work? Do they fit properly? Be sure to ask the seller about any existing seatbelt problems.
- Bumpers and Trim: Take a close look at the car's bumpers and trim. Does the front and back bumpers have any significant dings, dents or scratches? Your car's trim (including body side moldings and door-edge guards) should be in good condition. Is there any molding or trim that is missing or incomplete? If the trim is rubber or vinyl, is it faded by the sun or discolored in any way? Is the trim loose or securely fastened?
- Trunk: Be sure to open the trunk and examine it closely. Are there signs of water damage? Does it have a mildew smell? Look for rust in the bottom of the wells. If a spare tire is present, make sure it's in good condition, with good tread and no leaks. Is there a jack and tools inside (for example, a tire iron) to change a tire should you need to replace it with the spare? Lift the carpet and examine the floor of the trunk for rust or evidence of previous body repair.
- Upholstery: Your vehicle's upholstery is an important factor to assess. Look at the seats. Are there rips, tears, burn marks, stains? Does the upholstery have a foul or musty smell? If so, the vehicle may have suffered flood damage in the past. Are there sags in the fabric or leather? Sit in both the front and back seats and be sure to examine all areas that are upholstered for signs of damage or excessive wear and tear.
When it comes to inspecting a used car's engine, don't worry if you're not mechanically inclined. Most people aren't. You'd be surprised, however, at the tools you can use to assess the mechanical soundness of a car's engine. We're not talking about the tools you find in your garage. We're referring to the tools you were born with. Believe it or not, your eyes, your ears and your sense of smell can successfully guide you through this portion of the personal inspection process.
- Appearance: Take a look under the hood and examine the engine (be sure it's cool before you begin). A clean-looking motor is great, but just because an engine's dirty doesn't mean there's a problem. What could be problematic, however, are fresh signs of shiny oil or other wet spots on the engine indicating an oil or fluid leak. Cracks in the belts and hoses (look for).
- Battery: Now let's take a look at the battery. If the battery cables appear corroded or coated with a white powdery residue, chances are you'll need to replace it. If it's not a sealed battery, remove the caps and check the fluid levels (always be sure to wear eye protection during this part of the inspection). If they're low, the battery probably needs to be replaced as well. A new battery is not a huge expense, but if you need to replace one, it's an expense nonetheless.
- Exhaust: With the car in park, turn on the engine and walk to the back of the vehicle to inspect the exhaust pipe. You might want to ask the seller to sit in the driver's seat and rev the engine during this part of the inspection. If you barely notice any smoke or if the exhaust is emitting a small amount of white smoke for a short period of time, don't worry. This is normal. In some cases, dark gray or black smoke might be an indication that the engine needs a tune-up. Be concerned, however, if you notice blue or blue-white smoke, this may be a sign that the car is burning oil and as a result, it might need a costly valve repair.
- Fluids: If you know where to locate the oil and transmission dipsticks as well as the radiator cap, you can check the vehicle's major fluids to be sure everything looks o.k. If you're not sure where to look, the seller might be able to assist you in the process or you can wait and have a certified technician inspect the fluids when they perform a professional inspection prior to purchase. However, if you're able to locate the oil dipstick, pull it out, wipe it with a clean rag, reinsert the stick all the way back into its container and pull it out again. The level should read somewhere near or immediately below full. Normal, clean oil should be light brown in color, dark black and thick oil is dirty. If the oil is milky-colored, there might be water in the oil, which is virtually always a sign of serious engine problems. Be sure to smell the dipstick as well. Oil should not smell burnt. Pull out the transmission dipstick and observe the color of the fluid. Normal, clean transmission fluid should be pinkish to pale red in color. If the fluid looks brown or smells burnt, there might be a transmission problem. (And finally, never open the radiator cap while hot and look at the color of the coolant. A layer of milky film or rust particles may indicate a problem.)
- Idling: Listen to the car as it idles. The car should idle smoothly with no hesitation upon acceleration. The engine shouldn't pop or rumble and when you accelerate or rev the engine, it shouldn't ping, knock or backfire.
- Leaks: Be sure to look under the front and back of the car to see if there are any fresh fluid drips on the pavement and don't forget to lift the hood and check the motor for signs of leaks around the engine seams and hose connectors. Another test you can perform happens when you're done with your test drive. When you return, shut down the engine and place a clean newspaper on the ground under the motor. If you notice new fluid drips on the paper, chances are you've got a leak somewhere in the engine which could indicate a serious problem. Be sure to examine the water pump (located at the front of the engine), the valve covers, the head gasket (located between the head and the engine block), high pressure hoses, including power steering and AC hoses to be sure there aren't any leaks.
- Noise: Loud engine noises or knocking could mean worn bearings or other serious problems. A purring motor that operates quietly is preferred.
- Warning Lights: When you start the engine, be sure to check the instrument panel for any warning lights that might appear. Cars are smart these days and usually, if oil pressure is low or a standard component isn't operating properly, your car will tell you. Sometimes, however, warning lights can become visible even when there isn't a problem (due to a malfunction with the light itself), but be sure to check the instrument panel anyway to ensure there isn't an apparent problem. A common warning light is the Check Engine light that detects multiple vehicle functions. If you notice the Check Engine light, you might need to have the vehicle placed on a diagnostic machine to determine if there is a significant engine problem. Sometimes, it's an indication of a minor problem other times, it could mean a major engine problem.