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How to Inspect a Used Car

Spend some time checking a used car before you buy. You can save a bundle of money!


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Used Car Pre-Purchase Inspection Service
General Auto Repair and Maintenance

Victory Auto Service Center
13738 Victory Blvd.
 Van Nuys CA 91401(818) 989-4141
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How to Inspect a Used Car

Spend some time checking a used car before you buy. You can save a bundle of money!

General Auto Repair Brakes Belts and Hoses Transmission Service Auto Electric Oil Change, Overheating Problems

Used Car Pre-Purchase Inspection Service
General Auto Repair and Maintenance
Victory Auto Service Center
13738 Victory Blvd.
Van Nuys CA 91401

(818) 989-4141
ask for George

How to Inspect a Used Car. Spend some time checking a used car before you buy.
How to save a bundle of money; check it before you buy it.
Your eyes are the most important tool. Take a good look at the car. Walk around the car several times and look for unmatched paint.

Look at the car from far away with the wheels straight. Twenty feet or so not a block away!

Do the wheel’s front and back point in the same direction and sit in a straight line with the body of the car? Some car 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 inspection.

Are the gap between each tire and its 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 on the same left and right? This could indicate anything from a mix-mounted axle 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 you’re 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 repair.
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 Chevrolet Corvette.)

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 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.

Treadwear 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 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 highway speeds.

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 the 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 smooth.

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 costly repairs.

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 of 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 indicates use. A car with low miles shouldn’t show much wear. If the pedal rubber is worn through in spots, it indicates high miles.

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 lights, 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.

Air-conditioning issues

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 the road.

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.

Mechanical Inspection

Now look under the car (or better 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! Has anything been welded? Some cars have welds that are not finished if you are unsure if they are original compared 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 conditioner.

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 expensive. I’ve heard of people paying up to $1000 per axle (each has 2 C-V joints) Rebuilt axles 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 tailpipe 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 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 underway, 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 underinflated or that there is some suspension problem-something to have a mechanic check

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 off the pedal. If there isn’t at least an inch of play at the top of the pedal’s travel, 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

Paper and pencil



Rag or paper towels

Work gloves

An old blanket or something to lie on

Audio tape or CD (to the check-out sound system)

Yellow pages

Final checklist;

Does the motor start and run smoothly?
Can you live with any repaired bodywork?
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 inspection?

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