Updated: Apr 1, 2020
When inspecting a used vehicle, take your time. Expect the evaluation of each vehicle to take 1-2 hours, at least, and accept that you might have to go through it with multiple vehicles before you find the right deal. If you’re in a hurry to get through it, you could very well miss out on a something important. Make sure you schedule enough time when you set up the appointment, and don’t let the seller rush you by talking about needing to make an appointment. Simply schedule a time window IE 6pm to 7pm, rather than just a start time.
Check the warranty (if the vehicle is still under warranty) and read the fine print.
Inspect in broad daylight whenever possible. Even the brightest parking lot lights might hide defects in the paint and body, and might make the car look much shinier than it is.
Request a report on the vehicle’s history from CARFAX. Dealerships may offer these as a courtesy to their customers. For a privately sold vehicle, you’ll have to dig it up yourself, unless the seller has to taken it upon themselves to get one. Go to carfax.com to get started.
All of the items below add up to give you, as the buyer, a rough idea of how well the car has been maintained, how hard it has been driven. Hopefully, all of the deductions you’re able to make line up with the story the seller is telling you about the car.
Body: Does the paint match on all panels? If not, it indicates that something has been replaced, which indicates the body was damaged. You can bring a small magnet, too; the magnet will not stick to body filler, so you can test suspicious areas to see if they have been filled in and painted over.
Exterior Lights Check: All of the exterior lights: front and back turn signals, low beams, high beams, running lights, brake lights. If you don’t have a friend with you, you can ask the seller to operate the lights while you stand outside and check them.
Suspension: Yank the top of each tire. Suspension in good shape will allow for zero clicks and zero play. Bounce each corner of the car. Good suspension will only bounce once and come to a rest. Bad suspension will eventually need to be replaced, and should be factored into your decision to buy.
Tires: Wear should be fairly even across the tire, and look similar on all four tires. More wear on the outside indicates aggressive driving, which lends some insight into how hard the car has been driven.
Interior: Check for odor. Check for stains, wear and tear in the carpet, seats and headliner. Check all electronics:radio, AC, heat, interior lights, seat adjustment controls, windows, and locks.
Hood Compartment: Check the fill level of all the fluids: transmission (transmission fill level should be checked with the motor idling), motor oil, power steering, brake fluid. Look around for residual oil, other fluids, and grease. Check hoses and belts for crack, brittleness, and abnormal softness.
Trunk: Make sure the trunk lever works. Make sure there's a spare, lug, and jack.
Undercarriage: Grease, oil, holes,rust. What else can you learn from underneath?
Tailpipe: A black greasy residue indicates burnt oil. It should be gray and mostly dry if perfectly healthy. Of course, burning oil is common in older cars, and not necessarily a red flag. But is the seller forthcoming about the fact that it burns oil?
Finally, you can have the car inspected by a qualified third party. If you're in the Des Moines area, you can bring in a used vehicle to ABC Auto Repair for a pre-purchase inspection, including a compression check and a thorough visual inspection. The process takes 90 minutes and is available for $125. Call (206) 395 5300