Your eyes are the most important tool. Take a
good look at the car. Walk around the car several times and look for
Look at the car from far away with the wheels straight. Twenty feet or
so not a block away!
Do the wheels front and back point the same
direction and sit in a square line with the body of the car? Some
cars tires tilt outward at the top so this may not indicate a problem.
A front end alignment shop can tell you quickly if this is normal for
the model you are looking at. Just call on the phone and ask! A yellow
page is a good tool to bring to inspect a car!
Do the bumpers sit straight? Parking lot dents in the bumper
are normal, separation from the body and misalignment need further
Are the gap between the each tire and it's corresponding fender the
same left and right? A difference under an inch could be normal, a
difference of more than an inch indicates some type of collision.
Do the tires stick out or sit in the same left and right? This
could indicate anything from a mis-mounted axel to a collision issue.
Does the paint match panel to panel? This is how you spot
damage! A fender being changed or painted should not disqualify the
car. My last new car had two doors painted, the rear bumper and front
hood changed in the first year, but was never in a major collision. If
you notice a repainted panel determine if it was a superficial bruise
or a major crash. The method above measuring the gap between the
wheels and the fender can be done by sticking your foot or your hand
in the gap to gauge if is worth having a body shop look at it before
you buy. If a door was painted was the door jamb painted as well? Open
and close each door, the hood, and the trunk. Do they ride freely on
their hinges and close properly? Try closing each door softly. If the
door is loose on its hinges there may be other issues that need to be
looked at. Also, inspect the rubber seals around all openings to be
sure they're intact. Loose, deteriorated, or missing rubber can create
water leaks, drafts, and wind noise. Minor cosmetic flaws are no cause
for concern, but rust is. Look particularly for blistered paint or
rust spots around the wheel wells and rocker panels (the sheet metal
beneath the doors) and the bottoms of the doors themselves. Use a
flashlight to look inside the wheel wells for rust and corrosion
caused by salt.
Check each body panel and the roof, looking for scratches, dents, and
rust. The gaps between the panels and surrounding surfaces should be
uniform. Examine the lines of the fenders and doors. Misaligned panels
or large gaps can indicate either sloppy assembly at the factory or
Sometimes a repair is obvious. Other times, you'll have to look more
closely, moving your head slowly to catch the light. If you think a
dent may have been patched up, use a magnet to see if it sticks to the
suspect area. If a dent was filled with plastic body filler, the
magnet won't stick. (This test won't work if the car has plastic or
fiberglass body parts, such as are found on a Saturn or
Lights and lenses. Have your friend stand outside the car and
confirm that all lights are working. Try out both low-beam and
high-beam headlights, the parking lights, the turn signals, and any
extra lights, such as fog lights. Make sure all the light lenses are
intact and not cracked, fogged with moisture, or missing.
Tires. You can tell a lot from the tires. If the car has less
than, say, 30,000 miles on the odometer, it should probably still have
its original rubber. If a car with low miles on the odometer has new
tires, be suspicious. Turn the front wheels all the way to the right
or left, so you can get a good look at them. All four should be the
same brand and size (except on a few performance cars, which use
different sizes on the front and rear). If there is a mix of the
brands or sizes on the car, ask why.
Tread wear should be even across the width of the tread. It should
also be the same on the left and right sides of the car. Ask if the
tires have been rotated front-to-rear regularly. If not, the wear is
usually more severe on the drive wheels.
Check the tread depth, either with a tread-depth tool (available at
auto-parts stores) or with a penny. To be legal, tires must have at
least 1/16 inch of tread. If you don't have a tread gauge, insert a
penny into the tread groove, with Lincoln's head down. If you can see
the top of the head, the tire should be replaced.
On each tire, lightly stroke the tread with the flat of your hand. If
you feel raised areas, the tire was not aligned or balanced properly.
That symptom could point to a simple maladjustment or a costly
suspension repair; have your front-end mechanic check it out. Tires
with that sort of wear may tend to make the steering wheel vibrate at
Examine the sidewalls for scuffing, cracks, or bulges, and look on the
edge of each rim for dents or cracks. A hard impact with a pothole or
curb could have knocked a tire out of alignment or damaged a tire, rim
or suspension part.
Brake discs. Check the rotors on disc brakes. Most cars have
disc brakes in front and drum brakes in the rear; some have disc
brakes all around. With a flashlight, peer through the front wheel
rims. The rotor discs should be smooth, with no deep grooves. Don't
worry about traces of surface rust on the discs. After your test
drive, when you've used the brakes, the discs should look clean and
Glass. Look carefully at the windshield and other windows to
make sure there are no cracks. A small bull's-eye from a stone hit on
the windshield may not be cause for alarm, though you should point it
out as a bargaining chip. Cracks in the windshield often grow worse
over time and can lead to a costly repair.
Check out the interior
Odor. When you first open the car door, sniff the interior. A
musty, moldy, or mildew smell could indicate water leaks. Be diligent
here because water leaks can be very hard to find and fix. Remove the
floor mats, and feel and sniff for wet spots on the carpet beneath.
This may or may not indicate a big problem. If the car has rust under
the dash it could be a flood car. If the wetness is confined to the
right side and smells like anti-freeze the heater core may be leaking.
That repair runs from a couple hundred dollars up to around a thousand
dollars or so depending on the model.
Pedal rubber. The rubber on the brake, clutch, and gas pedals
gives an indication of use. A car with low miles shouldn't show much
wear. If the pedal rubber is worn through in spots, it indicates high
Instruments and controls. Start the car and let it idle. Note
if it's hard to start when cold. Note too whether the engine idles
smoothly. Then methodically try out every switch, button, and lever.
Check all the doors and their locks, and operate the windows. If
there's a sunroof, open and close it. Try the interior lights,
overhead dome light, any reading lights, and the lighted vanity
mirrors on the sun visors. Honk the horn.
Turn on the heater full blast and see how hot it gets, how quickly.
Switch on the air conditioning and make sure it blows cold. If there
are seat heaters, turn them on and see how warm they get.
Try the sound system. Check radio reception on AM and FM, and try
loading, playing, and ejecting a tape or compact disc if there is a
tape or CD player.
Seats. Try out all the seats even though you may not plan on
sitting in the rear. The driver's seat typically has more wear than
the passenger's. The upholstery shouldn't be ripped or badly worn,
particularly in a car that's supposed to have low miles on it. It may
be if the car was not garaged. Try all the driver's-seat adjustments,
along with the steering wheel height-and-reach adjustment, to make
sure you can have a good driving position.
Particularly if you're considering a 1994 or older car or truck, check
the air conditioner: Fixing one that's broken or leaking could prove
costly. The reason is the R-12 refrigerant that chilled all cars and
light trucks through the early 1990s. Because R-12 is a
chlorofluorocarbon (CFC), which depletes the earth's ozone layer,
production was banned in the U.S. and most other countries in 1995 as
automakers switched to non-CFC R-134a. Shrinking supplies have since
driven prices for R-12 to around $40 per pound compared with just $6
to $9 per pound for R-134a--and made the time-honored act of simply
adding R-12 to a leaking system expensive as well as irresponsible. It
is now possible to convert the older Freon to the new coolants for
less than a hundred dollars.
Check the temperature. A healthy air-conditioning system should
produce cold air within a few minutes. Turn it on with the temperature
set to full cold and the blower at medium speed. Then keep it running
when you road-test the vehicle. Be wary if the air coming through the
dash vents turns warm and stays that way. While the problem could be
minor--a faulty switch or excess moisture in the system, for
example--a shift from cold air to warm could mean a repair bill down
Look in the trunk
The trunk is another place to use your nose as well as your eyes.
Again, sniff and look for signs of water entry. See if the carpeting
feels wet or smells musty. Take up the trunk floor and check the
spare-tire well for water or rust.
Check the condition of the spare tire. (If the car has alloy wheels,
the spare-tire rim is often plain steel.) With many minivans, pickups,
and sport-utility vehicles, the spare tire may be suspended beneath
the rear of the vehicle. You'll have to get down on your knees to
examine it. Also make sure the jack and all the jack tools are present
and accounted for.
Now look under the car (or better to put the car
on a hoist). Is it wet as a Texas oil field? Oil leaks are generally
not expensive to fix, the damage they can cause usually is! Anything
been welded? Some cars have welds that are not finished, if you are
unsure if they are original compare to a similar car.
Having a mechanic check the car is another
method. It has always been a frustration of mine as a seller that
mechanics are opinionated and steer their clients the wrong way.
Usually to the car that they are selling! Ask your mechanic to limit
his mechanical opinion to the prior upkeep of the car. Has the oil
been changed? Does it leak every fluid? Has it been crashed? Is it all
original or has something been modified?
Don't be alarmed if some clear water drips from
the car on a hot day. It's probably just water condensed from the air
Examine the constant-velocity-joint boots behind the front wheels (CV
Joints). They are round, black rubber bellows at the ends of the axle
shafts. If the rubber boots are split and leaking grease, assume that
the car has or shortly will have bad C-V joints--another item that's
going to need a repair. C-V joints are not terribly expensive. I've
heard of people paying up to $1000 per axel (each has 2 C-V joints)
Rebuilt axels can be purchased for less than $100 from most auto parts
stores and the labor to install them is usually less than two hours.
Feel for any tailpipe residue. If it's black and greasy, it means the
car is burning oil. The tail-pipe smudge should be dry and dark gray.
Look at the pipes. Some rust is normal. Heavy rust is sometimes normal
but could mean that a new exhaust system might be needed soon.
Under the hood
If the engine has been off for a few minutes, you can do most
under-the-hood checks. Look first at the general condition of the
engine bay. Dirt and dust are normal, but watch out if you see lots of
oil spattered about, a battery covered with corrosion, or wires and
hoses hanging loose or rust (orange colored) around the radiator.
Wiring. Feel the crinkly, plastic-armored covering on
electrical wires. If the covering is brittle and cracked, the wires
have overheated at some point. Look for neat plastic connectors where
wires run into other wires, not connections made with black electrical
tape. If you are unsure this is a good thing to have a professional
mechanic give you some insight on.
Hoses and belts. Try to squeeze the various rubber hoses
running to the radiator, air conditioner, and other parts. The rubber
should be supple, not rock-hard, cracked, or mushy. Feel the fan belt
and other V-belts to determine if they are frayed.
Fluids. Check all the fluid levels. Dipsticks usually have a
mark indicating the proper level. The engine oil should be dark brown
or black, but not too dirty or gritty. If the oil is honey-colored, it
was just changed. White spots in the oil cap indicate water is
present. Transmission fluid should be pinkish, not brown, and smell
like oil, with no "burnt" odor. It shouldn't leave visible metal
particles on your rag--a sign of serious problems. With most cars,
you're supposed to check the automatic-transmission fluid with the
engine warmed up and running. On some, the transmission-fluid dipstick
has two sets of marks for checking when the engine is either cold or
warm. Also check the power-steering and brake-fluid levels. They
should be within the safe zone.
Radiator. Don't remove the radiator cap unless the engine has
cooled off completely. Check the coolant by looking into the plastic
reservoir near the radiator. The coolant should be greenish, not a
deep rust or milky color. Greenish stains on the radiator are a sign
of pinhole leaks.
Battery. If the battery has filler caps, wipe off the top of
the battery with a rag, then carefully pry off or unscrew the caps to
look at the liquid electrolyte level. If the level is low, it may not
mean much, or it may mean that the battery has been working too hard.
Have a mechanic check it out.
Take a test drive
If you're still interested in the car, ask to take it for a test
drive. Plan to spend at least 20 minutes behind the wheel, to allow
enough time to check the engine's cooling system and the car's heater
and air conditioner.
Comfort. Make sure the car fits you. Set the seat in a
comfortable driving position and attach the safety belt. Make sure
that you're at least 10 inches away from the steering wheel and that
you can still fully depress all the pedals. Typically, seats fit some
bodies better than others, so make sure the seat feels right for you.
Make sure that you can reach all the controls without straining, that
the controls are easy to use, and that the displays are easy to see.
Steering. With the engine idling before you start your test
drive, turn the steering wheel right and left. You should feel almost
no play in the wheel before the tires start to turn.
Once under way, the car should respond to turns quickly and neatly,
without lots of steering-wheel motion. At normal speeds, the car
should maintain course without constant steering corrections.
If the wheel shakes at highway speed, suspect a problem with wheel
balance (not a biggie) or the front-end alignment, which is easily
fixed, or with the suspension, which may not be. Likewise, if the car
constantly drifts to one side, suspect that a tire is under inflated
or that there is some suspension problem-something to have a mechanic
Engine and transmission. The engine should idle smoothly
without surging or sputtering, and accelerate from a standstill
without bucking or hesitating. When you accelerate up a hill, you
shouldn't hear any pinging or clunking. The car should be able to keep
up with highway traffic without endless downshifting.
With an automatic transmission, don't confuse smoothness with
slippage. When you accelerate, there should be no appreciable
hesitation between the engine's acceleration and the car's. If there
is, it's an almost sure sign of transmission wear--and a costly fix
down the road.
With a manual transmission, the clutch should fully engage well before
you take your foot all the way off the pedal. If there isn't at least
an inch of play at the top of the pedal's travel, it's possible the
car may soon need a new clutch.
Brakes. Test the brakes on an empty stretch of road. From a
speed of 45 mph, apply the brakes hard. The car should stop straight
and quickly, without pulling to one side and without any vibration.
The pedal feel should be smooth and linear, and stopping the car
shouldn't take a huge effort. If the car has antilock brakes, you
should feel them activate with a rapid pulsing underfoot when you push
hard on the brake. (It's easier to make the antilock braking system
activate on a stretch of wet road.)
Try two or three stops; the car should stop straight and easily each
time. Then pull into a safe area, stop, and step firmly on the brake
pedal for 30 seconds. If the pedal feels spongy or sinks to the floor,
there may be a leak in the brake system.
What to bring along
Does the motor start and run smoothly?
Can you live with any repaired body work?
Are you comfortable with the possible future expense of any major
flaws you've uncovered?
Do you like the way the car drives?
Did the seller disclose any known defects?
Do you want to bring the car to a mechanic for a final pre-purchase