Buying a Used Car: Inspection Checklist & Important Tips

Buying a Used Car: Inspection Checklist & Important Tips

Shopping around for a used car should be easy in today’s day and age, but the truth is, it can be more complicated than ever. With hundreds of used car websites available and more makes and models than ever before, determining the quality and value of a used car can be difficult.

In thus guide, our team provides an essential inspection checklist for buying a used car, detailing the most important factors and critical elements that you should be paying attention to. By using this checklist anytime you are test-driving a used car, you can make sure that you are not being “taken for a ride”, so to speak, and being forced to overpay for a junker that isn’t worth your time.

After the checklist, we are also providing some additional helpful tips on used car buying, giving you everything you need to go into your next test drive as educated and prepared as possible.

Intro: Benefits of Buying a Used Car Over a New Car

If you are still on the fence about buying a used car instead of a new car, then take the time to consider the following factors, all of which support the idea that in most situations, shopping for a used vehicle can be a smarter, cheaper, and wiser decision.

1.Buying a Used Car Saves You Money

There is no question that buying used can save you a significant amount of money over new. Even the most average brand-new vehicles can be prohibitively expensive, and are in fact not always necessary. But the moment that they are driven off the lot, they become worth a lot less, making it possible to score a very lightly used vehicle as a significant discount.

2.No Exaggerated Fees

Anyone who has purchased or attempted to purchase a car from a dealership before might be able to tell you about the staggering amount of hidden costs and exaggerated fees that are tacked onto the final bill, just as you are about to sign your name on the contract. From things like undercarriage protection to elusive “lot fees” (whatever they are) buying a new car from a big dealership is going to cost you more than just the number painted on the windshield.

Especially if you are buying from an individual owner, purchasing a used car usually means that they number they’re asking is the number they’re asking, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t try to drive the price down even further.

3.Lower Customization Costs

Newer cars are always more expensive to customize, whether you are installing a new stereo system or adding electronic gadgets and upgrades.

4.Lower Annual Registration Fees

Not only is the purchase price of a used car significantly lower than something off the lot, but the registration and insurance fees tend to be a lot more affordable as well, usually by 50% or more.

Used Car Inspection Checklist

Finding the right used vehicle for you might take some time. In order to score a really good deal and not be duped into buying something that is faulty, it is necessary to take your time with each prospective vehicle and really understand both the benefits and risks, and whether or not it is a good value.

What follows is a comprehensive used car inspection checklist, composed of what our editing team believes to be the most important aspects of shopping for a used vehicle. After the checklist, we are going to review the most important questions to ask when you are buying a used car, which can save you a lot of time and hassle in the shopping experience.

1.) Ask for a Test Drive

The first step is to ask the current owner or deal if they are willing to let you take the vehicle for a test drive. If they say no, then that is a really good sign that the vehicle is not worth it and you should simply walk away. However, anyone who truly wants to sell their car will let you take it for a test drive.

Some people might insist on accompanying you during the test drive, while others might be okay letting you go on your own if you leave your other vehicle there. Either way, respect the wishes of the car owner.

Plan your test drive on the type of roads and terrain that you are going to be using it for. For instance, if you need a 4×4 with off road capabilities, it’s best to get the vehicle out into the hills so you can really open it up and see what she’s working with.

2.)  Inspect the Body

Before you even turn the engine on, there are a number of things you can check for on the body that might indicate the vehicle’s overall condition or quality. Start with the basics, like dents, scratches, and rust. Rust is a big one because if it has gotten bad, it can be very expensive to fix, especially if there is rust on the frame itself.

Another thing to check for is that the vehicle you are looking at matches the one that you were looking at online. Some dealers will try to sell you the car they want to sell, so be alert and wary.

Q: How much body damage is too much body damage?

A: The severity of the body damage will determine whether or not it is too much. A lot of body damage is simply aesthetic and will not affect the overall functionality of the vehicle. However, some body damage might have hidden or unseen repercussions, such as frame damage.

3.) Test the starter

The easiest way to test the starter is simply by turning the key and seeing how fast / easy the car starts up. However, there can sometimes be problems with wiring or the relays that are causing the vehicle to not start up so well.

Q:  How do you check if the starter is good on a used car?

A: It is possible to make sure that the starter is in good condition even without turning the key, that is, if you have access to beneath the hood. In fact, all you need is a pair of jumper cables.

Begin by making sure the vehicle’s ignition is turned off and the car is in park. Then connect one end of a red (positive) jumper cable to the battery’s positive terminal. Then, with great care, touch the other end of the red cable to the positive terminal on the starter motor.

If the starter is working properly, then it will start to spin and crank the engine

It is important to know where the starter is on the vehicle you’re looking at, because every manufacturer puts them in a different place. This is something you should lookup online before you go to inspect the vehicle, as it will save both you and the seller some valuable time (they might not know where it is either!)

4.) Check the suspension

A vehicles suspension includes shocks, struts, and leaf springs, and these components come together to provide the stability and flexibility that a good car needs when driving on the road. It is usually possible to check the suspension simply by assessing how the car “feels” on the road, but sometimes, there can be bigger issues forming that are not yet affecting the way that the vehicle drives.

Start by inspecting the strut mounts or shock towers. These can be seen through the open hood of the car, extending through the fender above each wheel. If the strut mounts and shock towers are not mounted flush and firmly, then there are likely already some suspension issues. Severe rust in this area can lead to a loose mount over time, which can cause pretty severe rattling.

Inspect Rubber Bushings and Grease Boots for wear and damage. While these are small components of the overall system, any damage in this area can lead to larger problems, such as increased movement between the suspension system components.

Give it the “Bounce” Test by simply pressing down on the hood of the car with most, if not all of your weight. Of course, be careful not to dent a vehicle that does not yet belong to you.

Take your hands away immediately and watch how the vehicle springs back into place, if at all. If it bounces right back up into place, the front suspension is probably in good shape. If it takes a couple of bounces to recover, then there might be issues with the front shock absorbers.

Q:  What are signs of suspension problems?

A: Here are some of the most common warning signs of a bad suspension:

  • Harsh bumps, shakes, or rattles on the road
  • Audible squeaks or groans coming from under the car
  • Squeaking during turns
  • Vehicle doesn’t stay level under hard braking (nose “dips” as you stop)
  • Front corner of the vehicle “dips” as you make a turn
  • The vehicle does not sit level
  • The “Bounce Test” indicates bad shock absorbers

5.) Listen to the engine noise

When it comes to buying a used car, listening to the sound of the running engine is akin to a doctor listening to your cough; it can tell you a whole lot about the car’s overall health and well-being. However, just like a doctor, it is impossible to use this information to your benefit if you don’t know what the healthy engine is supposed to sound like.

Start by looking up a YouTube video of the make and model of the car you are looking at. These days, just about every car out there has a collection of different tutorials and video guides, some of which can show you what the healthy engine is supposed to sound like, and what the audible indicators of engine damage would be.

However, there are a number of audible “cues” that you can learn from no matter what kind of engine you are dealing with.

Engine Noise: Whining or Whirring Sounds

If it sounds like the engine is whining at a higher pitch than normal, this could indicate a number of problems including:

  • Low power steering fluid
  • Faulty alternator bearings
  • Faulty water pump
  • Bad power steering pump
  • Malfunctioning air conditioning compressor

Engine Noise: Backfires

If a backfire occurs when you press down on the gas pedal (a sudden burst, pop, or spit, not always as loud as in the movies) then there are likely some timing issues that need to be looked at. The camshaft timing belt or the ignition timing need to be checked.

Engine backfiring can also happen as a result of mis-connected spark plug wired.

Engine Noise: Stuttering, Chugging, & Hesitation

While stuttering and chugging can be caused by something as simple as a dirty air filter, it can also be an indication of an internal engine problem, which can be the most expensive kind of problem to fix. If you hear a significant stuttering or chugging coming from the engine, or a general inconsistency of power, then you either need to have the engine tested by a professional or move on to the next used car on your list.

6.) Inspect the Transmission & Gear Box

If the car you are interested in has an automatic transmission, then the best way to check its condition is on the road, noting how the engine shifts from one gear to another and how the RPMs correspond.

However, if it is a manual transmission that you are looking at, then there are some physical and visual inspections that can be performed to determine the overall health of the system.

To begin, lets have a look at some of the common warning signs that the car has a failing transmission and/or gearbox, most of which need to be listened for while the car is driving and shifting between gears:

  • Whistling, banging, clanking, or clicking
  • Lack of response
  • Strong burning smell
  • Fluid leaks
  • Delayed engagement of the gear box
  • Anything generally out-of-the-ordinary when shifting

Q:  How do you check a used gearbox?

A: As the chief component of the transmission system for both manual and automatic vehicles alike, it is important to assess the condition of the gear box as well as the oil level. The best way to determine the overall state of the transmission system is by getting the car out on the open road, preferably some place quiet where you can pay close attention to the sounds that the transmission makes.

Start in first gear and accelerate slowly through each gear. Pay attention to both the sounds and overall responsiveness of each gear change; i.e., how long it takes for the transmission to ‘bite’ and the engine to fully change gears.

7.) Check the steering wheel

The car’s steering wheel can be used to assess the overall condition of the steering gear system. Because bad steering linkages can be extremely dangerous and really expensive, checking the steering wheel is one of the single most important things to look at.

With the car started and at idle, turn the steering wheel in both directions. Try and note if there is any ‘slack’ in the tightness of the wheel and how fast it takes for the wheels to respond. In addition, listen for clanking and clicking noises that only happen when the wheel turns.

While driving on the road, a car’s steering can be checked by noting how much correction is required to keep the vehicle moving in a straight line. If a car wants to pull one way or another, then the steering is out of alignment. This is not a costly fix by itself, but if the vehicle has been operating out of alignment for an extended period of time, other issues could have formed.

Q:  How do you diagnose a steering problem?

A: Diagnosing a problem with the steering requires the vehicle to be in operation, and can be performed quite easily. Here are the basic steps of performing a basic driving systems check before buying a used car:

  • Feel for slack and/or hesitancy
  • Listen for abnormal sounds linked to turning
  • Check drive alignment on a flat, straight road at low speeds
  • Watch for a shaky or rattling steering wheel

8.) Inspect all Power Systems & Electronics

Once you have determined that there are no major mechanical issues that are going to prevent you from buying the car, it’s time to perform a top-to-bottom inspection of the vehicles additional powered systems … everything from light bulbs to windshield wipers.

Here are the standard systems that just about every car will have:

Headlights & Blinkers

Ask the owner or dealer to sit inside the car and activate the different lights. These include headlights, brights, durn signals, brake lights, driving lights, and hazards.

Interior Lighting

Check all dome lights and accent lights. While replacing a bulb can be very inexpensive, the cost of a faulty wiring system with possible shorts could cause more of a hassle than its worth.

Windshield Wipers

Wipers are another thing that you will likely have to replace either way, but it is important to check that the arms are in place and are functioning. Running some fluid through the window reservoir is also a good idea.

Radio & Stereo

Popping speakers can be more than an annoyance while driving … a quick radio test is always a good idea.

Power Windows and Doors

If the vehicle is equipped with power windows and/or door locks, then check each door’s functionality individually. Door motors are not too expensive on their own, but if you’re going to have to replace 3 or 4 of them, it could end up costing you.

If the owner claims that a non-functioning window or lock is the result of a bad fuse and nothing more, then request that they borrow a fuse from another component to demonstrate that it actually functions.

Q:  How to check the overall electrical system in a car?

A: Inspecting the relay box, fuse panel, and under-dash wiring is a quick way to get an idea of what kind of electrical system you are dealing with. The value of checking all electric systems components is that you can find out if there are any potentially dangerous shorts in the wiring, not to mention finding an additional bargaining chip you can use the drive the price down even further.

4 Pro Tips for Buying a Used Car

While the above checklist is an invaluable tool that you can use to inspect any used car before you buy it, there are some other tips and techniques that our team has identified that can make  the car-buying process a lot faster, a lot easier, and a lot more reliable.

1.Do some online research on a car you are looking for

If you are willing to spend a half hour to an hour researching the specific make and model of the car you are interested in, then you could very likely find yourself showing up to the test drive with more knowledge than the car’s owner. This is how it needs to be if you are going to get the best price while also avoiding those unseen problems that most people would simply miss.

  • Compare prices on websites like
    In just a few minutes, it is possible to get a good idea of what the going rate for that specific vehicle is. While the Bluebook value is an important number, sometimes the actual value can be a bit different based on supply and demand. While private sellers might not be willing to budge on price, having this knowledge can prevent you from spending more on a used vehicle than you should.
  • Compare common defects
    Using search terms like “Jeep Cherokee 1997 Common Issues” is a good way to cut directly to the useful information you are looking for. Use this information to make a detailed plan on how you are going to inspect the vehicle and what things specifically you are going to look at.
  • Check reviews
    For any used vehicle, there is likely already a consensus on how it performs, what its strengths are, and what sort of things to look out for. Read up on what the industry magazines and websites have to say, and if possible, seek out reviews from real people who have driven the car before. Online forums are a great place to find people to compare vehicles with.

2. Questions to ask when buying a used car

There are a number of determining factors that go beyond the mechanical and aesthetic condition of the vehicle. No matter where you are at in the used career-buying process, make sure you can answer the following questions about the vehicle you’re thinking about:

Q: Why is the car being sold?

This is perhaps the single most important question to ask. If you are getting a great deal on a car with no visible damage or performance issues, then there might be some other reason for why they are getting rid of it. The old adage is especially true when it comes to shopping for used cars: if it seems too good to be true, then it probably is.

Q: How many previous owners have there been?

Sometimes, this information is not available on the title itself, as new titles can be printed without listing all the previous owners. While it is generally always a good idea to buy from the original owner, a car that has had 2 or 3 owners is not necessarily disqualified from the selection process.

Q: What is the mileage on the odometer? Is it correct?

A car’s total mileage is one of the most important factors in determining its value, even if the mechanical condition of the car is still quite good. Generally speaking the more miles a car has on it’s engine, the more upkeep it is going to require in order to remain in good working order.

While used car dealers are often depicted as rolling back the mileage on a vehicle in order to get a better price, this is not as common a practice as it used to be and generally not something that needs to be seriously worried about.

Having said that, the penalties for rolling back an odometer are nothing to sneeze at. Odometer fraud is regulated differently in each state, but it almost always comes with an immediate multi-thousand dollar fine and a possible imprisonment for two to three years. In other words, not worth it.

Q: Can you tell if an odometer has been tampered with?

There are a few ways that you can tell if an odometer has been messed with, though none of them alone are absolute proof:

  • Smudges near odometer panel
  • A ‘sticky’ or hesitating odometer wheel
  • If the overall condition of the car is vastly different from what the mileage would suggest
  • Check receipts and service history documents if they are available

Q: When did this vehicle last go through inspection?

Unfortunately, most car owners to not keep good enough records when it comes to their vehicle’s ongoing maintenance. While you might get lucky and find someone who has a complete service history available with the receipts and documents to back it up, it is far more likely that you will only get “to the best of my memory” type answers.

Still, take the time to ask questions about the service history. You might be able to knock something lose in their memory, or even nudge them towards dropping the price if you show that it is an important factor to you.

Q: Has this model had any recalls?

Performing a quick search of the vehicles make and model plus the words “recall” will bring  up any significant recalls that were ordered for that vehicle. You can then determine whether or not the individual vehicle you are looking at has been properly repaired according to the recall.

3. Take a mechanic with you or take a car to a mechanic if possible

There is nothing quite as important as having a mechanic in your life that you can trust. This can be long process, but it is more than worth the effort.

If you have any lingering questions about the overall health and condition of a used car, then the best thing to do would be to enlist the services of a trained professional. Many mechanics and body shops will perform multi-point inspections on used card for a small fee, and some might even do it for free.

However with a bit of dedication and education, it’s possible to arm yourself with the information and resources that you need to determine if any used car is worth its asking price.

4. Bargain (in case if any minor problems found)

Remember, not every problem with the vehicle means that it is not worth it. If you find something wrong with any component, it is possible to use that to your advantage when trying to get a better deal. Buying a used car is all about bargaining and haggling, and being good at that is all about being fully educated.

Conclusion: Risks of buying a used car

There are always risks with buying a used car, most significantly is the fact that it is unlikely to be under any kind of warranty. This means that once the car is yours, if anything major breaks on it, it will be up to you to cover the costs. Things like engine failure and transmission failure are not covered by regular car insurance either, so it is even more important to be able to properly assess these systems before you buy. By following our Used Car Inspection Checklist and paying attention to our other helpful tips, it is possible to mitigate the risk of buying a used car and increase the chances that you score a great deal on a new set of wheels.

Buying a Used Car: Inspection Checklist & Important Tips
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