Used Car Buying Tips - Part 3: How To Inspect A Used Car

by golbguru on July 20, 2007

The motivation for this series of posts comes from our recent car buying adventures. You can brush up some background material on this subject in Part 1: Classic Confusions and Part 2: Understanding Vehicle History Reports.

At this time, I have a fair idea of how this series will proceed, so let me lay this out for you:

  • Part 3: How to Inspect a Used Vehicle - [this post].
  • Part 7: Practical Tips and Summary

It’s not arranged in a chronological fashion, but I will work on that later when I summarize all the topics at once.

In this part of the series, let’s discuss some simple things you can do to inspect a vehicle without much efforts. This is not meant to replace an expert examination by an experienced mechanic, but it will save you a few bucks (between $40 ~ $100) before you take a lemon to a mechanic.

Also, this cursory inspection should come AFTER you have ascertained that the vehicle is clean with respect to the CARFAX report. If the vehicle appears to be “bad” on the CARFAX report (stolen record, accident record, etc.), then you should reject it outright; there is no point in spending your time and money in having such a vehicle inspected.

So let’s start without further ado.

Tools required:

  1. A skeptical friend.
  2. A penny, with Lincoln’s head clearly visible.
  3. A small magnet (stuff like this that costs less than 50 cents).
  4. An audio CD if you are looking for a car with a CD player.
  5. A small notebook to note down things that are broken (or need attention).

Let’s divide the inspections into three categories:

  1. Before the test drive.
  2. During the test drive.
  3. After the test drive.

1. Before the test drive

  • Color: Look for consistency in color. All panels of the car must be of same color and shade. It helps to observe this in the sun and in the shade. With the glossy paints that most cars use these days, color difference is a bit difficult to observe when things are shining and hurting your eyes.
  • Symmetry: This is one of the simplest checks to find things that are not right. Look for the headlight lenses, tail light lenses, mirrors, door hinges, and gaps between panels - and compare the driver’s side features with the passenger’s side features. Generally, after an accident, aftermarket parts are used to replace damaged original equipment manufacturer parts (OEM parts) [this is because most insurance companies do not cover the cost of OEM parts - which are much more expensive than the corresponding aftermarket versions]. So, if a car has taken a hit on the passenger-side headlights, it is quite possible that the replacement headlight lens (which won’t be OEM in most cases) looks different than the original headlight lens on the driver side.
  • Texture: The car should have a uniform smooth texture all over. Sometimes, for minor damages, instead of changing panels, some shops simply reshape the dented area (with methods like using dry ice, suction cups, and such). If there hasn’t been any permanent deformation of the panel metal, the dents vanish almost completely with such basic techniques (this also means that the damage was not extensive in the first place, so it’s not too much of a worry). However, in most accidents, there is some permanent deformation and simple methods will not hide the dent completely - you will see some ups and downs in the affected area. Sometimes, such texture changes are hard to see when you are standing right in front of the affected area - it’s easier to spot them if you look at the car from different angles. Here is an example of such a damage (this stuff looks different than small door dings which could be forgiven at times):

    body damage and the resulting texture

  • VIN: Every vehicle is identified by a unique VIN (Vehicle Identification Number) [this is true for vehicles manufactured after 1981 - VIN's existed prior to 1981, but were not standard]. The VIN traces a car’s history since it hits the road for the first time. The VIN on all panels MUST match with the VIN on your CARFAX report. A different VIN means the panel comes from another car - which means the car you are looking at was in a crash at some point of time. A few typical locations of VIN are shown below. The locations may differ for different makes and models (read this for details).

vin numbers

  • Look under the hood: Check for missing parts like caps of fluid containers (for example, containers for brake fluid, windshield washer fluid, etc.). Look out for broken parts and cracked rubber hoses - feel free to bend and squint a bit if required. The image below is an example of a broken fan cover. It was only visible from the angle in which the photograph was taken; when I looked at it from the front side, it was hidden under some other part. The presence of broken/missing parts is an indication of a car that has not been looked after properly - sometimes, also an indication that it has been in a crash. By the way, if stuff appears “clean” (especially when you are at a dealership), it does not mean it’s not broken. Usually, dealers will do some detailing under the hood before putting out a car for sale.

    broken parts under the hood

  • Check the glass: Check front and rear windshields and windows for cracks. With the windshields, pay special attention to the corners. I know at least one person who has bought a car from a dealer with a windshield cracked near the lower corner on the passenger side.
  • Check the tires: Tires require special mention - because it’s expensive to replace them all, and because worn out tires pose a major safety problem [safety measures such as ABS (antilock braking system) are essentially useless without good tires]. According to Goodyear Tires, here is how you can determine whether the tires are still OK (it’s a pretty popular - almost cliched - method):

    One easy way is the penny test. Simply insert a penny into your tire’s tread groove with Lincoln’s head upside down and facing you. If you can see all of Lincoln’s head, it’s time to replace your tires.

    In our case, you should see very little of Lincoln’s head if you want to avoid a major expense within a 5~10 thousand miles of buying a used car. Plus, uneven tire wear (like inner side of a tire is more worn out than the outer side) is not a good sign.

  • Use a magnet: I mentioned the magnet earlier; go ahead and use it to see if there has been some major body work done on the car. If you look at the instructions on repairing a dent here, you will notice that in point #4, it talks about using a “filler” - these fillers are resin materials (generally in combination with some hardener) and are essentially *non-magnetic*. If you have a small plastic coated magnet, just run it across the length of the car slowly, and see if it sticks consistently to the metal body of the car. If there has been some major body work - it will be (most of the times) marked by the presence of some kind of a filler and the magnet won’t stick well to that area. If the layer of filler is very thin, there will be some attraction between the magnet and the underlying metal, but it won’t be very strong and you will notice the change. Tip: use ONLY plastic coated magnets, or else you are going to scratch the car and the salesman will make you pay for it. By the way, magnets won’t stick to the front bumper, back bumper, and the mirror housings, so don’t worry about those areas.
  • Observe the interiors: Pay attention to the condition of the carpet/upholstery. Usually, just looking at a carpet is not very enlightening, but if you compare your car’s carpet with another car of same make and model, you will very quickly notice the difference. Lift up the mats and look under them (most people miss this one). Also, if you are looking to buy a older model (say something like 1997) and if the carpet appears “brand new”, then it means something traumatic happened to the previous one - car floor carpets are expensive (upwards of $125) plus the installation, so people don’t do it for fun.
  • Check the lights: Before you take the car out for a drive, check if all the lights (headlights, brake/stop lights, turn signals, reverse lights, marker lights, and emergency flashers) are working. Lamps are generally not very expensive (most bulbs probably cost less than $10), and you could replace them yourselves without worrying too much, so don’t freak out if one of the bulbs is not working.
  • Check all the buttons and electronics: Start the car and check if the AC works (check the heater too while you are at it); if your car has power windows/sunroof etc., use all those buttons and see if they work. I mentioned an audio CD earlier - use it and see if the CD player works.
  • Start the car and let it idle for a while: Start the AC , and wait for a few ON/OFF cycles of the compressor. Minor fluctuations in the engine RPM are expected (because the AC draws power from the engine), but if things are not in good shape, the RPM may drop like crazy and the car might give a nasty instantaneous shudder before things go back to normal. This happened frequently with our Nissan, so watch out for this particular problem in used cars. This happens only when during idling, so if you are in a hurry you are definitely going to miss it.

2. During the test drive

  • Slow drive: Drive it at about 20~25 mph and check if you feel any vibrations at the steering wheel. Shut off the AC/fan, radio/CD player and see if you notice any other sound (creaking, rattling, etc); check the brakes for screeching noises when everything else is off - I am stressing on turning off the AC/fan while you do this because, sometimes, the steady humming from the AC sort of masks all other noises. By the way, if the brakes don’t feel *solid* - your test drive should end here.
  • Drive on the freeway: My old Nissan had a peculiar steering wheel vibration at about 60 mph ~ probably the engine mounts were going bad or something. So see if you car does something like that at high speeds. Check the cruise control if your car has it. Again, turn off the AC and listen for unexpected noises. When the road is clear, check if your car veers towards the left or the right (you will have to leave the steering wheel for this, so a *clear road* is a must) ~ it might need some wheel alignment/balancing work if it does veer.
  • Check shifting into reverse gear: Again, our Nissan had this problem - it used to vibrate a lot when shifted into reverse gear (whereas things went smoothly when shifting to the drive gear). Vibrations are probably indicative of problems with transmission mounts (or some other serious issue with the transmission). So make sure you check on it sometime when you take it out for a drive.

3. After the test drive

  • Open the hood: As soon as you are done with driving it, open the hood and look for some obvious signs of trouble - smoke, splattered oil/fluid, burning smells, etc. Be careful, don’t touch anything - most of the things under the hood will be *extremely* hot after a drive.
  • Test drive another car of the same make and model (around the same model year): This is an important step that people often miss. You can never know if a car is running well or not if you don’t have another one of the same type to compare with. You can probably figure out if it’s “good” or “bad”, but you won’t be able to figure out whether it’s “better” or “worse” without at least one comparison car. Of course, this option is not available when you are buying a car from a private party; but when you are at a dealer location, make sure you do this.

Now let’s visit some potential *FAQs* that you might have after you are through with the above points.

What happened to the skeptical friend I mentioned earlier?

Well, he/she should be examining the car along with you; in all probability, your friend will find more problems with the car than you ever could. It helps, to let your friend drive the car for a while - people have varying degrees of sensitivity to problem areas like noise, vibration, smell, etc. Plus, if you are looking at a “loaded” car (leather, sunroof, 6-CD changer, etc.,), it is very likely that you will be overwhelmed by all the *goodies*, resulting in bursts of clouded judgment.

If you examine all these things, what’s the need for a checkup from an *experienced* mechanic?

Even with all these things, you still haven’t looked at even half the issues that used cars should be checked for. Certain things like: checking for the quality of engine/transmission oils, signs of frame damage, signs of manually welded parts, etc., are better performed by someone with a trained eye who knows what to look for. Plus, your car needs to go on a hoist to enable examination of parts/issues that are not easily visible otherwise (for example, it is difficult, although not impossible, to check the CV boots without hoisting the car up).

So what’s the purpose of all these tips?

  • If a car does not pass your preliminary inspection, then there is no need to take it to a mechanic for a detailed checkup - it would be a waste of your time and money. I mean, if there are easy ways to detect certain major problems, why spend $100 for an *experienced* mechanic to find those?
  • It helps to be well-informed so that people (the car salesman, or the mechanic who inspects your car) don’t take you for a ride.

Any additional tips?

You will never find any problems if you don’t look for problems. Look at a used car with that attitude, or risk being blinded by things that work.

I am interested in reading more details on this subject, any recommended resources?

Check out these websites:

If you have more tips to share, please feel free to leave your comments.

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{ 25 comments… read them below or add one }

1 anon 07.20.07 at 6:40 am

Hi, thanks again for publishing this series. I’m keeping them for future reference when I start car hunting next year. Anyway, I have two questions:
1) Is taking the car to a mechanic necessary when you’re buying a “Certified Used Vehicle?”

2) If you’re buying from a dealership, will they actually let the car be inspected by an offsite mechanic?

TIA!

2 Tim 07.20.07 at 6:50 am

a couple to add:
1. always do your inspection during daylight hours, preferably on a sunny day.
2. even tread wear is more important than how much tread wear, because it signifies other potential problems like suspension and alignment etc.
3. OEM Parts are not necessarily an indicator of an accident, although a good one. if someone was replacing an item like a windshield, it costs far less to replace using non-oem for exactly the same glass. the same thing for light housings. which leads me to my next point.
4. some cars, the entire light housing needs to be replaced rather than just a bulb. most of these are oem anyways.
5. look at the ground where the car is normally parked. if you see oil stains, etc, that is an indicator you are going to need to do some repairs. also look under the car for fluid and oil leaks. if there is a lot of clumped on dirt and oil, but doesn’t leak, that is still a bad sign because instead of gaskets holding in the fluid, the gunk is.
6. bring one of those $1 telescoping small mirrors. this will help to see stuff under the car if you don’t want to physically get under it. a good sign of a car accident is disfigurement in a frame or added metal braces along the frame. these are very visible.
7. ask for service records and look online for recalls and required service updates. you can go to a website like http://www.mycarstats.com to look up any manufacturer service bulletins for the car.
8. you don’t have to be a mechanic to see if hoses and belts are showing signs of cracking or dry rot.
9. when test driving, ensure there is fuel in the vehicle more than the reserve amount that makes the low fuel indicator turn on.
10. push the front and rear end of the car up and down to check the suspension. if it bounces, that is an indicator that it needs new shocks and/or coils.
11. look at the title in order to see if the title says odometer exempt. that could indicate the odometer stopped working or was replaced. make sure the odometer is actually working when you drive the car.
12. before you drive, you should check all the fluids to ensure that they are gunk free. after the car has warmed up, use a clean white cloth to wipe the dipstick. if there are metal shavings on the cloth, run away.
13. there are common things people ignore like how does the engine sound or how did the engine start. ensure that you look at the car when it is cold. somethings are hidden once a car is warmed up. just feel the hood, if the engine has been on, it will be warm (of course if it was in the sun, it will be too, so open up the hood and feel the radiator hose). when you start the car, turn on everything before you start it (that is, the radio, the a/c, the wipers, etc). this will indicate how good the battery as well as the starter is. then do the same without everything on so you can hear any differences. be very attentive for engine noises as well as smells. if you are getting lots of sulfur smells, that’s not a good sign. take a look at the exhaust, if you are burning black smoke, that ain’t a good sign either.
14. aside from windshield cracks, look for windshield pitting. if there are lots, you probably want to figure in a new windshield.
15. look at all the seals around the doors and windows. if they are drying out, you may get a little wet.
16. when driving, if you feel the steering wheel moving and vibrating around, that ain’t good. if the car drifts, then you are looking at an alignment or worse suspension. if the car keeps bobbing over bumps, then you are looking at suspension problems.

3 golbguru 07.20.07 at 8:01 am

Anon: I will touch the “certified used topic in a day or two, so just hang on. :)

Generally, dealers do allow vehicles to be taken outside the dealership area to be inspected - I specifically asked this question to about 6 dealerships - and only one of the declined. The rest 5 said they would require a copy of my driver’s license and insurance before they let me do that.

At times, there are independent mechanics (ASE certified) who would be willing to inspect the vehicle on the dealer’s lot (probably at a premium) - you will need to find them though, they are not too common. Here is an example: http://www.autopi.com/ - but those guys operate only around Austin, TX. However, I am sure there are similar companies in other cities/towns as well.

Tim: Thanks for the additional input. That’s very valuable.

4 Super Saver 07.20.07 at 6:04 pm

Golbguru and Tim,

Great post and additional points.

I have to confess I didn’t do all these important steps when I purchased used. In both instances, I bought single owner used cars from private individuals. They provided me the car history information and other details. I then judged whether the owners were being truthful.

Fortunately, in both cases, I judged correctly. I ended up with great cars (a sports convertible and a luxury sedan) which I enjoyed driving for many years.

5 hmmmmmm 07.25.07 at 7:52 am

hmmm, you can be too anal when inspecting a car.

I test drove a brand new car that vibrated a bit on the highway - it just needed an alignment.

dents, broken bits here and there are not necessarily signs the car is a lemon.

6 Chief Family Officer 08.11.07 at 6:59 pm

This is super helpful - and, to be honest, persuading me that we’re the type who’s better off buying new and keeping it for many years!

7 Savage 08.23.07 at 5:00 pm

Tips & Warnings
• As a final precaution, take the car to a mechanic, who should charge a reasonable fee to check over a used car. The seller should agree to this, but may require that you leave a deposit. If the seller won’t let you take the car, offer to meet him or her at a mutually convenient garage.
• If you give the seller a deposit in order to take the car to have it checked, make sure to write out an agreement stating that the deposit will be returned immediately if you decide not to buy the car.
If the vehicle’s mileage appears unusually low, have a mechanic determine whether someone has tampered with the odometer. If so, the seller must refund any money you have paid and may be liable for punitive damages under federal and state odometer laws…
This is how I acquire my Saab vehicle; I inspected all its auto parts from exterior and interior aspect down to its Saab struts and other accessories. By doing so, you could be sure of the quality of vehicle you are getting. Hope this might help…=)

8 Joshua 10.28.08 at 7:59 pm

Thanks for the good info! I am trying to build a similar site to help people make better used car purchases. I just started my website: http://www.TheCollegeCar.com.
-JT

9 Emily 12.04.08 at 3:32 pm

I have been shopping for a good used car and worried I would get screwed. Thank you for the useful information and tips. I am so glad you added pictures! You should also know about the Smart Woman’s Car Guide.
It walks you through, step by step what to look for, and when to walk away from a bad car. It is important to know what you should look for in a car and what is a deal breaker and walk away from.

The website is http://www.smartwomanscarguide.com check it out.
I know it saved me from losing hundreds of dollars in a bad car deal.

I wish I would’ve had this information when I bought my first car –horrible experience.

Emily

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