Getting a new car is exciting, but it can be a stressful experience if that car is used and you can’t be sure of its history. The best way to be confident that you aren’t investing in a lemon is to do the research, ask the right questions and know how to conduct a solid car inspection. If you’re well prepared and armed with the right knowledge, you’ll be in the best position possible going into the purchase.
Know Before You Go
Do the research to figure out what you want out of the vehicle. Make sure you know its make, model, year and value, as well as whether there’s a chance of negotiation. Also, search out any weak points or common problems for the model so you can look for them specifically during your inspection. Gather a few supplies before heading out too, such as a flashlight, rag, OBD II scanner, checklist, pen, safety goggles and gloves.
Ask the seller to provide the maintenance records to prove good upkeep. Ask how many owners the vehicle has had too — the fewer the better. Was the vehicle mostly used to commute? Were the drives mostly long and on highways (ideal) or short, through city traffic? How a vehicle was driven and taken care of can have a huge impact on its condition, so this conversation should give you some insight into the owner’s level of care.
On the Exterior
Start your inspection by looking closely at the body of the car. You’re looking for signs of prior major accident damage, which might exist despite a clean title. Open and close the hood and check that the seams are level, and do the same with the doors. Everything should close smoothly, with all panels sitting flush with the others. Also, look for any paint or panels that don’t quite match, indicating replacement after an accident. Finally, take a good look at the tires for dry rot, bubbles and tread depth. Uneven tread wear can indicate a problem with alignment or suspension components, and new tires aren’t cheap.
Under the Hood
Around the engine, check the transmission fluid for level and smell. A burnt smell is a bad sign. Check the engine oil for level and color as well. You’re looking for a straw to brown color. A black and sludgy color can indicate an issue or just plain neglect. Check the coolant for level too, but only if the engine is cool, and make sure there’s no oil mixed in, which would indicate leaks in the engine seals. Low brake fluid indicates the brakes are probably worn and will need a change soon. Look at the condition of the belts, and inspect for evidence of corrosion or rust on the engine.
On the Undercarriage
Next, get down on the ground and look for any obvious leaks. While you’re down there, look for severe rust and try to take in the condition of the suspension components. This is to identify any accident damage or bigger problems, and also to see if anything will need to be replaced soon. Any repairs you’ll have to make shortly after the purchase should be accounted for as part of your buy.
The Best Part
Now for the test drive. Watch for any strange noises, smells and feelings as you travel down the road. Notice how the vehicle steers, brakes, accelerates and corners. Drive on both highway and city streets using every gear and the whole rev range of the engine to ensure it always runs smoothly. Check out any additional electrical components, such as power windows and mirrors, seat motors, remote starters — really every knob and button you care about — for functionality. Lastly, run an OBD II scan to check for codes. These will usually be indicated by a light on the dashboard. Sellers can clear these, but you may be able to see through such a scheme with your own scanner.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of everything you should do when you’re looking to buy a used car, but it is a good starting point to help you avoid buying an unreliable vehicle. In the end, the more thorough your car inspection is before you buy, the better positioned you’ll be to buy a car that meets your expectations. While you shouldn’t hold your breath for a flawless used vehicle, knowing how to identify problems can help you decide when to negotiate and when to walk away.
Check out all the automotive tools and equipment available on NAPA Online, or trust one of our 17,000 NAPA AutoCare locations for routine maintenance and repairs. For more information on how to perform a car inspection, chat with a knowledgeable expert at your local NAPA AUTO PARTS store.
Photo courtesy of Freeimages.
Blair Lampe is a New York-based professional mechanic, blogger, theater technician, and speechwriter. In her downtime she enjoys backpacking wherever her boots will carry her, rock climbing, experimental theatre, a crisp rosé , and showering love on her 2001 Sierra truck.