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Step 7.1 Inspect a used car before buying it


There is no perfect used car because no one will buy a new car, keep it in the garage, and then sell it. Therefore, inspection is an inevitable process. You can either bring a mechanic or a trusted friend who knows about cars to inspect it. A good used car inspection usually costs between $40 and $100. You can learn some of the basic inspection and check the car yourself before bringing a lemon to an experienced mechanic.

As we mentioned in Step 7, a vehicle history report is indeed important. Inspection should come after you have ascertained the car is clean from any bad stuff. If the vehicle history report from either Carfax or AutoCheck shows that the car is stolen, totaled, flooded, or involved in any criminal cases before; do not waste time to check on the car and try to look for another one.

Let’s start the inspection step by step through the checklist here.

1. Preparation

Prepare a penny, a plastic coated magnet, torchlight and a digital camera or a mobile phone with built-in camera. The penny is to check the tire tread, magnet is to check the body, torchlight is to inspect dark zone and camera is to record down what you see to prevent the seller from manipulating the parts. Before inspecting the car, make sure you fill up your stomach. Never view a used car with an empty stomach. Arrange with the seller or dealer to view the car during day time, night time is almost impossible to check a car properly.

2. First look and check the body

Paint and body: Inexperienced buyer may find this hard but you can still see the differences if a car had an accident before. Look for dented area, scratches, or any collisions. Try to observe the body color. If the color is not consistent, this could mean that the body has been repaired before with a new coat of paint. Newer paint indicates that the part has just been recently repaired. Sometimes metallic or pearl 3K paint is hard to notice. You can use the magnet to check for rust and filled areas. Magnet will not stick to the area that has a major repair. Make sure you do not scratch the car with the magnet!

dented and scratches on a car

Body parts: Many parts come in pairs, headlamps, rear lamps, signals, side mirrors, and sport lights. Compare and see if the pairs look alike. If they are not alike, it could mean that the car has been involved in an accident before and one of the parts has been replaced with either new or OEM parts. Open and close all the doors several times. If the doors do not close properly or if it sounds peculiar, the car may have been involved in a collision before. High quality car usually has a pleasing sound when one closes the door. Shake the door and see if there is any sound of a gap. If the car was involved in a serious accident before, the door may loosen. If you are buying an older vehicle, you may need to remove the floor mat and check the floor board (foot board). Sometimes you can find a few holes underneath. Also, look carefully if there is any crack or small holes on windscreen.

Car boot: Open the boot and remove the spare tire. The main thing to look at is the circle where the spare tire sits. It should be nice and perfect. It could mean the rear was hit by some other vehicle if you find it dented. The picture here shows that the car boot has been knocked before.

dented car boot

Odometer mileage: The annual average mileage on a used car should be around 10 to 15K miles (15K to 25K km). You can do your own calculation to judge whether the car is heavily used. A two-year-old car should be between 20 to 30K miles. Think twice about the car if the mileage exceeds a lot more than the annual average mileage.

Tires: Our eye can tell if the tire is in very bad condition like the image below. Otherwise, use a penny to go through the tire tread. If you can see more than half of the penny or Lincoln’s head, it’s time to replace the tires.

tire thread

3. Under the hood

Check the area under the hood. Use a torchlight to check hidden places that are dark. If there is oil, fluid or battery acid spilled around; it could mean that something needs to be replaced. It can be brake hoses, oil seals, or battery. Check carefully for broken parts like cracked rubber hoses, brake hoses, fuel hoses, or radiator fan. Pull out the dipstick and check the oil level. It must be the correct level. Often, most of these things will look perfect after the dealer has fixed it. Therefore, you need to check everything under the hood again after test drive. A well-maintain engine should look clean and tidy.

Request the log book from the seller or dealer, compare the VIN (Vehicle Identification Number) or chassis number and engine number with the report you get from Carfax or AutoCheck. Vehicle that does not have a match VIN number is NOT worth buying.

4. Start the car

Observe several things when you are at the driver seat. The oil warning light should go off after few seconds. Oil warning light symbol usually looks like Aladdin brass lamp. This is one car dashboard symbol for oil warning.

engine oil warning light

Turn on all the buttons and electronics to see if something is not working, for instance, wiper, signals, headlamps, rear heater, air-condition, stereo, central-locking and power window. Observe the smoke color from the exhaust when the car is started. If it is early morning or the car has been sitting in the car park for some time, you may see white smoke. Black smoke or blue smoke indicates burning oil. Bad smell from the smoke could mean the engine is not healthy.

5. Test drive

You may not find out the hidden problems if you love the car too much before buying it. Driving below 20 mph in a housing area will not help to identify problems. Arrange to test drive the car at wider road or speedway if possible. At least drive the car up till 60 mph (100km/h). See if anything in the car is shaking or vibrating, for example, steering wheel, stereo, dashboard, or car seat. Try to listen also if the car is making weird noises. All these are symptoms for an unhealthy car.

Check the transmission. Shift into reverse gear and see if it is working. This step is definitely a must because some cars can only go forward. Try to shift every gear if possible. Some cars, like the latest Honda City, have up to seven gears. Newer car has paddle shift and you should check on that too.

Observe the temperature gauge. If the engine is overheated just after one round of driving, the cooling system is having problem.

6. After test drive

Open the car hood again after the car stops. Do not turn off the engine and monitor for some obvious signs including bad smells, bad smoke, and splattered fluid/oil/coolant. Do not touch anything because it is extremely hot after the drive.

In conclusion, it is no point to waste a few bucks to send the car for inspection if it did not pass your own inspection with these six steps. Try to test drive the same model from different sellers or dealers and it can roughly tell which is the best. Nothing to lose to test drives a few cars before getting the best deal.