Used Car Buying Checklist

By William Maley

Doing a pre-purchase check on a used car could mean the difference between carefree motoring and spending a lot of time and money at the repair shop.

Buying a car is one of the largest purchases that you will make in your life. Whether you decide to go with a new car or save a bit of cash and go with a used car, you are laying down a fair amount of cash for something that is expected to get you from point A to point B with no troubles.

Going the used car route helps you avoid the depreciation that all new cars get hit with when they are driven off the dealer's lot. But going this route also introduces a gambling aspect. How do you know if the vehicle you're looking at has been in an accident? Or is close to having a major malfunction of a key component?

While a CARFAX Vehicle History Report can help ease concerns about accidents, maintenance and odometer fraud, we have also created a checklist to help guide you through the inspection of a used car.

Preparation: Do Your Research

Before you embark on your quest to find a car, ask yourself if there is a particular type of vehicle you are looking for. Deciding to look at midsize sedans brings up a different list of inspection items than looking at sports cars.

Research the type of vehicle you want, and be sure to find out what the common problems are for the models you are considering. This will play a key role in your inspection process.

Car Buying Step 1: Exterior Checks

Body Condition: Walk around the vehicle and take note of any signs of scratches, dents and rust. Little areas should be no worry, but large areas of those three items should be warning signs as to how the car was treated.

Also, take note of the body panels. They should line up evenly. If they don't it may be a clue that the vehicle was involved in an accident.

Open and close all of the doors, hood and trunk. Note how easy or hard it is to complete this task.

Tires: Tires are a great way to figure out the life of vehicle. During your walk around, take note if all of the tires are of the same brand. Seeing a different brand on one or more of the wheels might raise some red flags. If you see any, be sure to ask the seller about it.

Look at each tire individually and note if the sidewall has cracks, bulges, or scuffing. Also look at the tire tread and see if there is enough tread by using a tread-depth tool or a quarter. The trick with the quarter is to put Washington's head down into the tire tread. If you can see the top of Washington's head, then you know the tire needs to be replaced.

Ask if the tires have been rotated on a regular basis and look at the tires to see the tread wore evenly on the both sides.

Lights: Have the seller or friend turn on the lights and make sure that all of them work. Don't forget to check the reverse lights, turn signals and high beams as well. Look at the light housings to make sure that they aren't cracked or damaged, and that there isn't any moisture coming in.

Car Buying Step 2: Interior Checks

Odor Check: When you first open the door and begin looking inside, do a quick sniff test. If it smells like mold, must or mildew that could indicate a water leak or flood damage. If you notice this, remove the floor mats and run your hand over the carpet to check for wet spots. Do the same sniff test with trunk. If you smell something strange, remove the trunk mat and do some investigating.

Seats: Try out all of the seats – even if you don't plan on using the rear seat. See if the seats are worn or have any tears in the upholstery. Make sure to check the seat adjustments – electric or manual – to see if they work properly and to make sure that you can find a proper driving position.

Instruments: Turn the ignition switch to the accessory mode. All of the lights in the instrument cluster should come on for a few seconds before going off. Then, start the car. If any warning lights stay on, there is likely an issue that needs to be addressed.

Controls: Start the car up and play with all of the switches and buttons throughout the vehicle to make sure that they operate properly. Try out the climate control system and see if the heater and air conditioner works. Also be sure to try the audio system.

Roof: Check the headliner and trim for any signs of staining or water leaking through a sunroof or window. If the vehicle has a sunroof, check to see if it opens and closes properly.

Car Buying Step 3: Under the Hood

Belts and Hoses: Feel the hoses around the radiator, air conditioner and other components to find out if there are any cracks or holes. Check the drive belts as well to see if there is any fraying.

Radiator: Find the plastic reservoir connected by a rubber hose to the radiator and check to see if color is either green or orange. A milky or rusty color will give an indication of a problem with the radiator. Also look at the radiator itself. Any green or orange stain on the radiator may indicate a leak.

Fluids: There are four key fluids you want to check: oil, transmission, power steering, and brake. To find out where to check the fluids, open up the owner's manual.

Oil should be either a dark brown or black. If it appears to be an amber color, then the oil was recently changed. If the oil on the dipstick has water droplets or appears grey or foamy, the car could have either a blown head gasket or a cracked engine block, which are both serious and costly problems.

Transmission fluid should a pink color and have the smell of oil when you check it. If it's brown or has a 'burnt' odor, then the transmission could be in trouble. Another sign of trouble to be on the lookout for is visible metal particles in the transmission fluid or the oil.

Brake and power steering fluids should be filled to the proper level. Be sure to look underneath the car as well to see if any fluids are leaking.

Car Buying Step 4: The Test Drive

This is the crucial part of your inspection process. When you start the car up, take note of how long it takes for the car to start and if there are any odd noises.

Be sure to take the vehicle on a variety of roads and vary your speed. Note if there are vibrations, noises or shakes coming from the steering wheel or front end. Check to see if the transmission shifts smoothly and make sure that the brakes offer good stopping power without pulling the car to either side.

Car Buying Step 5: Paperwork and Mechanic's Inspection

If you happen to be buying from private seller, be sure to check the paperwork – the title and registration – and compare it to the seller's driver's license. If the names don't match, you may have run into a curbstoner – a seller who poses as a private seller, but is actually a used car dealer. This could be a sign that it's time to walk away.

Before you close the deal on a particular car, be sure to get the vehicle identification number (VIN) and get a Vehicle History Report for the vehicle. Most dealers provide a report on all of their used vehicles.

Also, make sure that a trusted repair shop scrutinizes the vehicle before you close the deal. Let your mechanic go over the vehicle, note any problems and give you a written report with estimates on how much it will cost to fix them. If a seller is hesitant to let you have the car inspected, you should probably walk away.