How to Inspect a Used Car Before Buying

You'll want to get a professional inspection every time, but first, there's a lot you can do yourself to assess a used car's condition – and hopefully score a deal.

under the hood inspect your car
Editor's Note: In this limited series, Under the Hood, we'll share do-it-yourself tips from drivers who want to wrench their own cars, no matter their skill level.

Given how fraught the car market is right now, buying a new car is more expensive than it’s been in a long time. If you can even find the car you want, you’d be hard pressed to drive away from the dealership having paid MSRP or under – current demand is so high that people have been buying cars sight-unseen, even at huge premiums. Long story short, if you have some mechanical know-how and want to avoid crazy prices, your best option is to go the used car route.

But before you shake hands and drive away with that Craigslist find or the "gem" tucked into a corner of the dealer’s used inventory lot, know what issues to look for – and maybe avoid major service bills after purchase. Moreover, you'll be able to negotiate a better price if you can speak to the car's condition with authority.

Find a Car With a Good Reputation

For starters, unless you're specifically looking for a challenge, it's always best to look for a model (and brand) with a good reputation for reliability. Typical go-tos in the "perennially reliable used cars" segment are Toyota and Honda, with late-model Hyundais and Kias beginning to earn the reputation as well. (Though remember that no rule of this sort is without exception – there are plenty of great used-car candidates from other brands.) Beyond simple brand preference, check reliability surveys from past years to help inform your decision. Sites like Consumer Reports, Kelley Blue Book and J.D. Power and Associates will have the information you need.

Evaluate Exterior Condition

under the hood inspect your car

The obvious place to start any vehicle inspection is the exterior. Check all of the body panels for the condition of the paint job; namely, see that every panel is the same color, and note any scratches, dings, dents or rust. Visible rust should trigger a deeper inspection, particularly inside the doors and the wheel wells, to find any more damage. Check window/windshield glass for any chips or scratches. Note any trim that is damaged or missing.

Kick the Tires – (Almost) Literally

Tire condition is a good indication of the overall status of the car. Check to see that the wear is evenly distributed across the treads. If it’s a relatively new car, it should have its original tires. If not, ask why.

Also, ask the seller to see if the tires have been rotated recently. If they don't know, a good indication of un-rotated tires is increased wear on the driven tires (e.g., if it’s a rear-wheel drive car, the rear tires will be more worn than those in front). When examining tires, a literal cheap trick is to insert a penny into the tire tread with Lincoln's head facing down. If the tire covers the top of his head, the tires are still usable.

Look Under the Hood

First, a visual inspection: check for any evidence of leaks, ensure hoses are in good condition and connected properly, then poke around for any obviously damaged or broken components. Next, check the car’s fluids. Remove and inspect the oil dipstick – brand new oil is usually a perfectly clear amber color, and it gets darker with use. If the oil is dark, it hasn’t been changed in a while; if there’s any substance in the oil, like sediment, grit or even a hint of anything metallic, the engine may have a problem. Also, check other fluids, like power steering and radiator coolant, to make sure that they’re clean and at safe levels.

Climb Inside

under the hood inspect your car

Before hitting the road for your test drive, thoroughly check the interior for any issues – from every seat. Note the condition of the upholstery on the seats, the headliner and even in the trunk. Check for any odors. Poke and prod every component and control to see if anything is loose, broken or missing. Next, turn the key but don’t start the engine to test for warning lights or non-functioning components.

Once you have the engine running, test out the center stack controls for the radio, climate settings and anything else to ensure those are working properly. Run the air conditioning to check for cold air. Send a friend in front and back of the car as you test brake lights, headlights, turn signals, hazard lights and reverse lights. Operate the windshield wipers and any power mirrors/windows/locks.

Then take it for a spin. Make sure to mix neighborhood, city, and highway driving. Listen for any concerning sounds and to feel for vibrations. When you're away from other motorists and pedestrians, firmly test the brakes and accelerator. Check that the cruise control works.

Always Get a Second Opinion

under the hood inspect your car

If you've checked over all these elements and still want to buy the car, you should get a second opinion. Whether you're buying from a professional dealer that just told you it was serviced or a private owner with detailed service records, you’ll want to take it to a mechanic for a pre-purchase inspection. Dealers and sellers should expect you to do this, so if they put up a fight or disallow it completely, it may be a red flag. No matter how much car DIY you’re capable of, a professional mechanic can identify problems that you might not have caught during your inspection, plus give you a ballpark estimate of repair costs.

Mechanics charge for this service, but it's worth it every time. But that doesn't reduce the importance of your own initial inspection – you're the customer, after all.

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