Used Car Buying Checklist and Worksheet

Check that you’re getting the best deal and completing all the essential pre-purchasing checks.

Smart car shoppers know that a new car depreciates by up to 20% as soon as it’s driven off the dealer’s lot. By the time that car is three years old, on average it’s worth only 40% of its original price.

Buying a used car can save you from taking that depreciation hit, but sometimes the purchasing process can seem daunting. To help you make the best choices when you’re buying a used car, follow our step-by-step checklist.


Do Your Homework

Before you start viewing cars, consider which type of car will best suit your needs. Check out relevant data such as consumer reports and car magazines to find out more information and independent opinions on the make and model you are considering.

Car Buying Step 1: Exterior Checks

Take a Look

Make sure the body parts line up, the paint matches, doors open and close easily and the tires show even wear. Check for commons signs of disguised frame damage.

Lift the Hood

Check under the hood for leaky hoses, worn belts, and dirty oil. Automatic transmission fluid should be clear and reddish, and not smell burned. Radiator water should have a light yellow or green color.

Image courtesy of Rivitography

Car Buying Step 2: Interior Checks

Take a Seat

Turn the ignition key to accessory and make sure all of the warning lights and gauges work. Start the car and check all lights and accessories and make sure no warning lights remain lit on the dashboard.

Have a Sniff

A musty odor can indicate a flood damaged vehicle.

Check the Airbags

Pay close attention to airbag warning lights, unusual behavior can be a warning of airbag system problems.

Image courtesy of Kia Motors Worldwide

Car Buying Step 3: Interior Checks


Race the engine for a few quick bursts and listen for knocks, look for smoke and make sure the idle runs smooth.

Hit the Road

Take the vehicle up to 35-40 MPH on your test drive. Make sure shifting is smooth and steering is straight. The steering wheel should not shimmy at high speeds, and cornering should be smooth.

Test the Brakes

When braking, a pull to the left or the right could indicate a brake problem.

Image courtesy of Matěj Skalník

Car Buying Step 4: Check the Paperwork

Examine the Names

When buying from a private seller, check that the same name is on their driving license and the vehicle’s title documents. A mismatch can be a sign of curbstoning.

Look at the Title

Look out for salvage brands or doctored title papers.

Ask for the CARFAX

Most used car dealers should provide a vehicle history report. If the seller doesn't offer a vehicle history report, order one online.

Image courtesy of erikrasmussen

Car Buying Step 5: Choose a Reputable Seller

CARFAX Listings

All CARFAX listed cars are from reputable dealers and included a free CARFAX report. Start your search with CARFAX today and view used car listings based on specific search criteria.

Shop CPO

Certified Pre-Owned cars typically have comprehensive inspections and a limited warranty provided by the dealer.