What should I inspect before buying a used car, truck, or SUV?

Posted Tuesday, May 16, 2017

The used car marketplace can be a scary place. While most car dealers have come a long way since the wild west days of the 1970’s and 80’s, there are still plenty of sellers out there looking to take advantage of unsuspecting buyers. So how can you protect yourself?

The best way to make sure you’re not buying into a car full of problems, is to inform yourself and do at least a basic inspection of important components on the car. Ok, so what should you be looking at?

Start with a vehicle history report like CarFax, or AutoCheck. Read these in depth to see if there are any outstanding recalls on the vehicle, also to see if the car failed an emissions test at any point, or has had an accident.

Next do a basic walk around the vehicle. Inspect the body and paint. What you’re looking for is anything that jumps out as being inconsistent with the rest of the vehicle. Look to see if the color or sheen is off on part of the body. Look at the gaps in body panels. For example, if there is a smaller gap on one side of the hood than the other, chances are it’s been repaired, removed, or replaced at some point. Look for areas where bumpers or trim don’t seem to fit right. Check to see if the bumper is secure or if it wiggles or is lose. This is a sign there has been an accident and the bumper wasn’t reinstalled properly.

Body or paint work isn’t necessarily a sign the car is no good or not worth purchasing, but it’s worth being aware of, as it can impact the value of the car. And if the car has had body work, ask the seller if they have a record of the repair that was done. If it’s at a dealer, and the repair was done before they got the car, have they done an inspection to make sure it was repaired properly, or to insure the safety of the vehicle?

Next take a look at the tires. Check the tread depth on the inside, middle, and outside of each tire. Uneven tire wear is a sign of a suspension or alignment issue.

Look where the car was parked before you came to see it. Is the ground dry? Or is there signs of oil or other fluids dripping on the ground?

If the seller has service records on the car you’re looking at, chances are you’re looking at a well maintained car, but it’s always good to look for other signs of how well the car was cared for. Pull out the oil dipstick. It generally has a yellow or white handle and will be poking out somewhat obviously from the engine. What color is the oil? Is it dark, like almost black? That means it’s dirty, and needs to be changed. If it’s closer to the color of cooking oil that means it’s clean and probably was changed recently. Also look at the oil on the dipstick. There will be two marks, for the minimum and maximum level of oil. Make sure it’s level is in between those two marks to avoid engine problems in the future.

The last thing your checking on the oil dipstick is to see if there is evidence of any bubbles or water. Anything on the dipstick that DOESN’T look like oil is a BAD sign! This means there is a head or head gasket problem, meaning the oil and coolant are mixing. This can be a major repair, and if you see signs that there may be a problem, it’s best to have an expert take a look.

Lastly check to see that everything works on the car. Do the windows go up and down properly? Does the AC blow cold? The radio and CD player work? Test every feature the car is equipped with and make sure they all function as designed.

If you want to get more in depth, you can look underneath the car for signs of oil seepage, or check things like shocks or CV boots for any tears or cracks, but these things are harder see, and if you don’t know what you’re looking for, probably best left to a professional. It’s OK to ask the seller to let you have the car checked out by a 3rd party mechanic. Just remember, mechanics make money by fixing things, so some can have a tendency to make recommendations that aren’t critical needs. Take the car to someone you trust, or at the very least ask the mechanic if he or she would be willing to buy the car as is. If there is something they recommend needing repair, you can always use that to help you negotiate a better price on the car.

Remember, almost no used car is going to be absolutely perfect, things wear as they age. The name of the game is to find a vehicle that has been well cared for, and thus is likely going to give you many years of reliable service. Use these tips to help you make an informed decision. Good luck!