Digging Into the Deal: How to Perform a DIY Used Vehicle Inspection Before You Buy

How To's

Between browsing online dealers, used car websites and local dealerships, it’s easy to feel lost when finding a pre-owned ride. If you’re like most drivers, you have important questions. How much mileage should my used car have upon purchase? Will my car retain its value? What about the vehicle’s warranty?

Buying a new car can easily turn into a Poker game. Fortunately, today’s used car venders need to meet industry regulations to succeed in the business—more so than ever before. You can trust your dealer, but don’t hesitate to take matters into your own hands.

The Used Car Problem has a Solution

Used car lots inspect their vehicles. Many use websites like Carfax.com and KellyBlueBook.com to uphold safety and service standards, too. While a number of systems are in place to assure quality control, clunkers still show up from time to time.

What’s the deal? Why are lemons being sold next to diamonds?

Vehicle Sources

Some vehicles were owned by commercial fleets. If they were, they’ve likely received monthly checkups and routine maintenance. Businesses take good care of their vehicles, and they promptly amend any mechanical issues present within their rides.

For this reason, checking your soon-to-be vehicle’s ownership is important. While your chances of finding a great deal from a pre-owned fleet car, buying used from local drivers is a little more dangerous.

Recalls

Whether you’re buying a two-year-old car or an eight-year-old car, you should check for recalls. Manufacturers make mistakes, and annual models may need extra servicing. Sometimes, a pre-owned vehicle’s owner may not have capitalized on their recalls. Even worse: They may not have listed it on the vehicle’s service life and maintenance reports.

Before the Inspection

So, you’ve browsed a number of cars. After narrowing down your perfect ride, you’ve stopped by a few dealerships. Or, perhaps you’ve shopped at a used car lot—or even a scrapyard. Regardless of your purchase location, you’ll need to prep yourself for a solid vehicle inspection.

Step One: Check for Well-Known Issues

Before you consider test-driving the car you’re eyeing, do some research. Many vehicles, especially in the eyes of enthusiasts, have trouble areas. When you arrive at the lot—or before you head there—research your future car online. What recalls has it had? What are consumer reports saying? Take a look at your vehicle’s most experienced breakdowns.

Step Two: Ask for the Title

When you’re on the lot, ask to see your future car’s title. Many salvaged cars—those which have been totaled, fixed up or even flooded—have these “salvage” titles. In most cases, salvage cars aren’t a good investment. Despite having seen heavy damage, they’re also less likely to have detailed service history reports.

Step Three: Ask for the Service History

Speaking of service histories, ask for them. A good service history will indicate a well-maintained car. It’ll also list a car’s correct mileage. Ask for the car’s history on either AutoCheck or Carfax. In general: Stay away from any used vehicle with no verifiable service history.

Examining the Exterior

Once you’ve gathered the paperwork, you’ll be ready to conduct an inspection yourself. You can pay for a professional used car inspection, but it isn’t critical. Regardless, you should conduct your own inspection whether you get a formal one or not.

Step One: Examine the Body

The easiest way to determine a vehicle’s quality is by checking its body for damage. Examine each body panel. Examine the roof. Does the vehicle have any dents? What about rust spots, or scratches? Check out the car’s panel gaps—between its doors and fenders. Are they uneven? If so, they might’ve been assembled badly.

Next, check out the paint. If a vehicle has been poorly repaired, you’ll notice its flaws in the paint color. Make sure every panel has the same paint and finish. If the panels are mismatched, it may reveal subpar repairs.

Step Two: Examine the Lights

Next, make sure the vehicle’s lights and pointers work. Double-check the hazards. Use a mirror to view the lights as you work the car’s brakes. Or, bring a friend with you to the lot—and ask them to check for you. Your car’s fog lights, danger lights and interior indicators must all work.

Step Three: Examine the Tires

Take a look at the vehicle’s tires. Do they match? Sometimes, a used car’s front wheels may be different than its back wheels. If this is the case, check the car’s service history. It may be due for a new set—which could cost you money.

It’s also a good idea to check each tire’s tread. If a tire is worn down, you might be looking at a dangerous car. Or, the car’s owner might not have taken very good care of it. Any unusual bumps, worn spots or discolored rubber are warning signs. While people replace tires often, tires can be expensive to fix. It’s better to know your budget up front.

A Look Under the Hood

Once you’ve checked out the vehicle’s exterior, lights and tires, you’ll dive into the internals. Cosmetics and mechanics are different ballgames, so it’s a good idea to bring a gearhead friend capable of checking wires and hoses. Make sure they’re not corroded, loose or stripped. Then, you’ll be ready to examine the specifics.

Step One: Check the Battery

How old is the used vehicle’s battery? Are its terminals corroded? Does it have acid damage? When was it last swapped out? Some used cars are prone to battery issues due to internal electronics and wiring. Thus, it’s important to make sure any battery issues aren’t symptomatic of deeper issues.

Step Two: Check the Fluids

Once you’ve examined the battery, you should check the vehicle’s oil and brake fluids. If its oil is dark, cloudy or clumpy, it hasn’t been changed. In the used car business, this is bad. If a vehicle hasn’t been serviced properly, and if it hasn’t been driven often, there’s no telling what engine issues might bob up. Needless to say, it’s a good idea to check the oil filter while you’re at it.

Step Three: Check the Steering Alignment

A used car that veers to the side when driven is no good. Still, steering misalignments are easy to miss. When test-driving the used car, make sure it doesn’t drift. If its alignment is off, it’ll wear down its tires. You can also check for misaligned steering by examining tire exteriors for uneven wear and tear.

Step Four: Check for Pops and Groans

A used car’s internals can be examined on the road. As you’re driving, listen for pops, moans and groans. Popping noises are associated with damaged CV joints. Meanwhile, other strained noises may reveal suspension issues.

Step Five: Test the Brakes

While accelerating and turning can give you a good feel for your ride’s engine integrity, you shouldn’t overlook the importance of a solid break test. Pump the breaks a few times, and at different low speeds. If you hear any squealing or grabbing, you may have break pad issues—or even mechanical issues.

Step Six: Appreciate the Ride

We’re not kidding. While a smooth ride should be a priority, a safe ride is a necessity. Is your car soundproof? If you’re hearing outside noises, are you hearing them from specific parts of the car? What about internal groans? If your car makes a lot of noise, it may suffer from engine trouble.

Checking the Interior

As you’re driving, take a few minutes to sweep the interior. Start with the windshield, too, as a bad windscreen should be a deal-breaker if the issue is critical. Test the wipers for breaks and chips.

Are there lines on the wiper blade paths? If so, the vehicle’s previous owner may not have swapped the blades out—which can indicate a lack of care for other maintenance areas. Once you’ve looked over the essentials, it’ll be time to see just how cozy your potential purchase really is.

Step One: Legroom

Can you move around freely? How much legroom do you have beneath the steering wheel? Sometimes, a car’s make and model just doesn’t offer enough comfort. Still, a tight squeeze can be dangerous if you drive your car around town. Foot maneuverability is a must-have quality in any vehicle—used or not.

Step Two: Seats and Carpet

While a car’s seats and carpet can be cleaned, repair or replacement can cost extra money. A waterlogged carpet may even harbor hidden mold and mildew. Check the seats for stains, rips and tears—and remember to check the seat cracks for hidden problems.

Step Three: Check the Dash and Center Console

Finally, take a close look at your car’s dash area. Is its material cracked or faded? If so, the previous owner didn’t protect it with a foil sunshield. There’s a good chance they’ve neglected other parts of the car, too.

That’s it! You’re good to go. Before you consider the DIY-inspected car to be a clean purchase, take a final moment to test its radio, Bluetooth and auxiliary ports. Then, compare its price to similar options. Before you know it, you’ll have found something with real value.