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3 Crucial Used Car Inspection Tips

Used Cars

A used car inspection can save you a lot of grief down the road. Vehicle history reports are helpful, but investing some time and money in a trusted mechanic to check over a potential purchase can pay off big time. If you don’t have access to a mechanic, however, there are some things you can look for on your own before buying that will help you determine if the car or truck in question is worth your hard-earned dollars. So grab a flashlight and put on your detective hat to see what your potential used  car purchase may be telling you.

1. Rust Is an Enemy

Perhaps more than any other issue during a used car inspection, rust is a surefire signal that it’s time to walk away. On an older car, some surface rust might be considered normal, but on a recent model, rust may be indicative that the vehicle was driven in harsh winter weather and not properly cared for in terms of corrosion protection. Road salt and brine have a nasty habit of making their way into deep recesses where they attack and metal that isn’t protected. It may also show that the vehicle was involved in an accident and repairs were not made properly.

Don’t just look at the shiny painted parts, take your flashlight and get a good look underneath the vehicle. Use your finger to tap on any areas that look crusty. Anything that looks like rusty metal flakes is bad.

Rust is expensive to fix, and it is a progressive concern — over time, it will definitely get worse — so it’s better to find the cleanest, corrosion-free car you can afford rather than accept rust while searching for a bargain.

2. Dents, Scratches, Missing Pieces
Damaged car

You can tell a lot about how a car was treated simply by how it looks — and in this case, it’s fine to judge a book by its cover. An owner who didn’t care enough to avoid getting the car scratched or dented, or who never replaced missing trim pieces, side mirrors or interior parts, also likely avoided regular oil changes and other crucial maintenance.

We’re not saying a good-looking car guarantees a trouble-free purchase, but we’re confident that an automobile that looks like it has been through a lot will likely hit your wallet hard down the road when it comes to repair costs and other hassles.

3. Smoke or Unusual Noises

Our quick and dirty used car inspection process instantly eliminates any vehicle that smokes from the tail pipe. White smoke may indicate a bad head gasket, which could leak coolant into the combustion chamber, while dark smoke can indicate the car is running rich (which could result from a bad oxygen sensor, spark plugs or wires) or that it’s burning oil. Ask the seller to not crank the vehicle until you get there so you can observe a  “cold start” situation. A “cold start” will reveal other exhaust smoke causing leaks that may disappear once an engine is warmed up. Very loud clicking or knocking is another indicator that something is amiss with the car, and if it’s leaking any fluids — to the point where you can see it in action on the pavement below — it’s time to walk away.

Inspecting a used car thoroughly can save you money down the road. Follow our guide and you’ll be in a better position when you’re ready to make your purchase.

Check out all the maintenance parts available on NAPA Online or trust one of our 17,000 NAPA AutoCare locations for routine maintenance and repairs. For more information on used car inspection, chat with a knowledgeable expert at your local NAPA AUTO PARTS store.

Photo courtesy of MorgueFile.

Benjamin Hunting View All

Having been bitten by the car bug at a young age, I spent my formative years surrounded by Studebakers at car shows across Quebec and the northeastern United States. Over ten years of racing, restoring, and obsessing over automobiles lead me to balance science writing and automotive journalism full time.  I currently contribute as an editor to several online and print automotive publications, and I also write and consult for the pharmaceutical and medical device industry.

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