INSPECTING A USED VEHICLE BEFORE BUYING
When looking for a used vehicle, it is important to know what you are getting. In many cases, the seller may not even know; if it is a private individual, they may be reliant on their mechanic to keep up with the vehicles (which may not be trustworthy) and if it is a used car dealer, they may not have even done a basic inspection. It is important to know what sort of condition a vehicle is in, not just for the sake of the sales price, but also so that you know what you may be in for down the road in maintenance costs.
In many cases, used car dealers and private sellers will allow you to take a vehicle to a local mechanic for a full inspection. In some cases they will pay for some or all of the cost of the report if they get a written report. In all cases, this is guaranteed to be a good investment to make sure you get the right vehicle at the right price.
WHAT SHOULD BE INSPECTED?
There are a lot of items to look at, some of the major items are below. Many of these can be inspected by the average person. For the best results… take it to a quality mechanic that you trust. Expect any quality inspection to include all the items below at a minimum. We’ll provide some reasoning here as well for you, as to why we think these are important.
Initial Test Drive
- Make sure the engine starts and idles smoothly. If the engine takes unusually long to start, this may be a symptom of an issue with the battery, starter, or related cabling. If it does not idle consistently after warming up (most engines will idle at a higher RPM, then lower in RPM as they warm up), this may be an indication of needing a basic tune-up, or a more serious mechanical issue.
- Make sure the parking brake functions normally. This is a good one to check before pulling away on your test drive. Make sure the parking brake holds the car. In an automatic this can be checked by applying the parking brake and then putting the vehicle into gear and releasing the brake pedal. Make sure the parking brake can hold the vehicle when it’s trying to “creep” in drive. If it does not hold, it should be repaired. For a manual transmission vehicle, you will ideally need to find a slight incline.
- Make sure no codes, CHECK ENGINE light, or other warning lights are on. These should be pretty self-explanatory; get any codes present checked, and have an idea of what the potential causes and repairs might be. Consider asking the seller to repair these items before buying the vehicle, or negotiate repairs into the price. Keep in mind that a rough idle and P0300 RANDOM MISFIRE code may mean you need a new distributor cap… or that the engine may be suffering from bent valves, cracked ring lands, or scored cylinder walls.
- Make sure the brake pedal is firm and the vehicle brakes well. If the pedal feels soft, spongy, goes to the floor, or, feels like it takes too much pedal effort to stop, these could be signs there is an issue with the braking system. Also listen for any squeaks or grinding noises. With the exceptions of minor noises from older pads, brakes should be perfectly quiet. Vibration in the pedal when braking may indicate warped rotors.
- Make sure the clutch pedal (if the vehicle has one) operates smoothly and engages normally. Every vehicle is different, but if the clutch engagement is right at the floor, or right at the top of the pedal stroke, this could be the sign of a worn clutch, bad clutch hydraulics or cable, or at least a poorly adjusted clutch system.
- Make sure the steering wheel has little or no play. It’s not uncommon for older or wrecked cars to have extra play in the steering system from damaged or worn components.
- Make sure the power steering system (if equipped) functions well and doesn’t make any unusual noises. Some systems may be mechanical or electrical, but if any of them make noises when in use, they may require service. In some cases this may be no more than an o-ring, but for some systems with EPS (Electric Power Steering), this may be a power steering rack or column that will cost more than $1,000. It is best to diagnose any power steering issues before negotiating a price.
- Make sure all the gauges work. This may seem a bit silly, but on some cars, there are known issues with fuel gauges, temp gauges, or other gauges not working well with age. This also can help identify other issues, such as a sticking thermostat (if the vehicle takes unusually long to warm up, or goes past the halfway mark while driving).
- Make sure the exhaust note sounds normal. What may sound like a loud muffler might be a rusty, leaking muffler. Or worse, it may be a leak upstream of the catalytic converter, which could result in failing emissions testing.
- Check all HVAC (Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning) functions and controls to make sure they all work. Don’t forget to check the AC AND the heat in a car, even if the weather is not conducive. These can be expensive repairs as in many cars, lots of labor is involved in removing the entire dashboard to access the heater or AC evaporator core.
- Make sure the vehicle rides well, and there are no inappropriate noises. Squeaks, clunks, rattles, groaning, or other noises can indicate worn bushings, ball joints, or other suspension components.
- Make sure CV joints (halfshafts or driveshafts) don’t make noise or vibration. When front-wheel drive CV joints start to go, you will hear a popping/clicking noise when making a turn at nearly full lock (steering wheel turned all the way). Try turning at full lock, both directions, and accelerating slightly. Listen for noise. In rear-wheel drive vehicles with an independent rear suspension, you may not hear noise but you may feel an odd vibration under had acceleration or deceleration. This would feel like a wheel that’s out of balance (if you know what that feels like), but only under hard acceleration or deceleration (and at any speed, slow or fast).
- Make sure the wheels are balanced. Unbalanced wheels will vibrate when at speed, typically worst at 50 to 70 mph.
- Listen for wheel bearing noises. These are usually clicking or groaning that varies with land speed, and are always present. Wheel bearings are best checked with the vehicle up in the air (see Chassis & Under-Hood).
- Make sure the cruise control, if equipped, works fine. Note that on many cars it won’t work at low speeds (you may need to be on the highway or above 50 mph for it to work).
Chassis & Under-Hood
- Check fluid levels and the appearance of the engine oil, transmission fluid (for automatics), and brake/clutch fluid. Dark fluid is not necessarily a bad sign, but it almost always is a bad sign for levels to be low. This generally indicates a car that has not been maintained often or well. In some vehicles, such as the Honda S2000 or E30 BMW M3, this can lead to serious engine damage.
- Check the air filter. On many cars this can be done without tools, and again, indicates the sort of maintenance the car has received over its life.
- Inspect the engine for leaks. Dealers and some end users like to pressure wash or degrease engine bays, but most leaks are still obvious unless the vehicle was just cleaned. Look at where the valve cover meets the cylinder head, where the head meets the block, and under the vehicle. This can be difficult without a lift, but a cell phone camera or picture can help. Most pressure washing and degreasing is only done up top… look underneath the chassis for tell-tale drips and built up oil/dirt deposits.
- Check the battery for corrosion, tight cables, and cables that don’t look like a hot mess. Normally, in a shop, it is good to check water level (for a battery that can be maintained), load test the battery (easy to do with the right tool), and performance test the alternator. Without the proper tools, the best you can do is make sure the vehicle starts fine and hope for the best. While a battery is a consumable item, this may run as much as $150 (just for the battery) on some vehicles, and should be figured into price. Replacing corroded cables can get expensive (many manufacturers now combine fuses and other devices into them at the terminals). Many times corrosion can be cleaned and prevented, but it’s also a good indicator of how well (or poorly) a vehicle has been maintained. As for the “hot mess” part, look for any wires that don’t look like they belong. The more aftermarket items that have been added on, especially if the work was done poorly, the greater a chance that there are other issues with the vehicle.
- Inspect all the belts and hoses. This can be done with a simple visual check. Belts will start to crack and fray as they get old. If you see any cracking or cords, the belts need to be replaced. Hoses should not show any cracks or “swelling” at their joints. With the exception of a few odd hoses on a few odd cars, hoses are always a consistent diameter. If you see any that look swollen or ballooned at their ends where they are clamped, they need to be replaced immediately. Also make sure their clamps are in good shape, not rusted or looking like they are about to fall off.
- Check plastic radiator end-caps and overflow tanks. When these age they will start to display spiderweb cracking or even leaks. These can be expensive to replace on some vehicles, and if left unattended, can even cause an under-hood explosion of fluid while driving. This can be quite violent and the ensuing confusion can cause an accident.
- Inspect the timing belt. This is important on any vehicle that has a timing belt (vs a chain), as, like other belts, they wear out over time. Depending on the vehicle, a timing belt that snaps while driving may effectively destroy the motor. It is worth determining if your vehicle has a belt vs chain and if it has been replaced recently. Due to effort on some vehicles (maybe as much as an hour), this may be done with an additional charge and may not be included on a basic inspection.
- If possible, get under the vehicle and look for rust on the exhaust or chassis (frame rot). Up north it is not uncommon to see surface rust, but you shouldn’t see any flaking, scaly rust spots or bubbling paint. It is best to walk away from a vehicle if you do.
- Also check bushings, ball joints, and steering rack and CV boots for tears. This generally requires a lift, but on some cars you can see some of this on your hands and knees. These parts can start getting expensive, so it is worth checking. Many owners will decide to sell a car when a dealer points out torn CV boots or control arm bushings and quotes them dealer prices.
- Check brake pad thickness. On many cars, this can be done without taking the wheel off, and just looking at the brake pad. Make sure you can see the pad material, and not just the backing plate. Also check the brake rotors for excessive grooving, which can indicate more serious problems.
- Perform a compression test. This is another test that requires a specialized tool. This is essentially a performance test to determine how healthy the internal components of the engine are. While not absolutely conclusive (a compression test may be good, but for instance, the engine may still knock or have other issues), this is one of the most basic diagnostic tools in a mechanic’s toolbox. If the compression test results are low, expect that there is a major internal issue with the motor (in other words, a big red flag). If you have your heart set on the car, further diagnostic work is warranted to determine root cause and estimate repair costs. Note that due to effort (a half hour to an hour) this is usually going to be done with an additional charge for time and likely will not be included on a basic inspection.
- Check the wheel bearings. This really has to be done with a jack or on a lift. This is a more common issue on a higher mile vehicle, or one that has been raced. With the wheel in the air, grab the top and bottom of the wheel and push/pull with your hands. Do the same side-to-side. There should be no perceptible play in the wheel. If there is, this should be addressed immediately. Depending on the vehicle, this may be an expensive fix.
Interior & Accessories
- Make sure that all the dome lights, map lights, and door switches all work. It may seem minor but it’s pretty annoying when you find out that you have a specialized interior bulb burned out or that the wiring that went to a door switch wasn’t reconnected because someone accidentally cut it when they cut out and replaced the B pillar after that accident…
- Make sure the horn, stereo, cigarette lighter/power port, and the clock (if it has one) all work.
- Check the interior upholstery, especially near the seams, and the carpet and interior panels. These can all be quite expensive to replace if they need more than a good cleaning.
- Look for missing trim clips or any loose clips or screws on the floor… always a sign of potential issues or recent repairs by a sloppy shop.
- Check the dashboard for any warping, missing trim, and hanging wires. All could indicate prior repair or hidden issues.
- Make sure the seat belts are all in good condition (webbing, retractor, anchor points, and latching). You will probably notice the driver’s belt on a test drive, but check the others. Newer ones can have explosive charges that retract them in an accident, and all of them since the 90s should always apply some tension and retract automatically. Note that most 80s and earlier cars had a “locking” feature where you could set the seat belt to be slightly loose. They should still return when you tug and release them (like a pull-down window shade). Seat belts can be expensive, and may be hard to find in a junkyard. They are almost always a pain to replace.
- Check the seats to make sure that they slide, recline, and are anchored properly. This is a common wear point for older vehicles. They are usually not terribly expensive to repair but can be dangerous if your seat decides to go flat while driving.
- Make sure the steering column tilt/telescope features work properly (if equipped) and the steering wheel itself, shift knobs, and shift boots are all in good shape.
- Check to make sure the remote fuel door and trunk releases work fine (if equipped).
- Check the fuel cap to make sure it’s there (some new cars don’t have them, but should be marked as such) and that when you remove the cap, you can hear airflow. All cars made in recent time have an evaporative emission system that, if functioning properly, will keep fuel vapor from escaping (you should hear a hiss when the cap is removed after the engine has run any length of time).
- Check the trunk to make sure that all the trunk trim, spare tire and tools (if equipped), and weatherstripping are all there and OK. Check under the liner and spare tire to make sure there are no signs of leaks.
- Check the glove box, center console, and other storage locations to make sure they operate and latch properly.
- Check the sun visors to make sure they function properly (both will stay down and stay up). Also make sure they are there- on some vehicles, like the Mazda Miata, it’s popular for people to remove them altogether as they block visibility slightly, even when stowed.
- Check the exterior panels (all around the car) to make sure there are no major scratches, obvious signs of past bodywork (mismatched paint, overspray on trim, bubbling paint, panels not lining up, etc.), dings, or rust.
- Check the parking lights (front and rear), headlights (low and high beams), brake lights, turn signals (front and rear), hazard lights, and driving/fog lights. Again, it’s good to find out if you have a burned out bulb, wiring or switch/relay issue before you buy a vehicle.
- Check headlight aiming. There is an exact test for this, according to federal DOT/FMVSS law, but the shadetree method is that at 20’ away, the cutoff for the headlight beam should be significantly lower than a rear-view mirror. This is to keep from blinding people you are following and also oncoming traffic. If the headlights light up the night sky when you turn them on, the vehicle may have been damaged previously in a collision (body shops are notorious for missing this critical step after a collision).
- Check all the exterior lights for haziness or signs of water/condensation inside. It is possible to fix this, but can become quite expensive depending on the car.
- Make sure all the doors open and shut properly and don’t require excessive force to shut all the way. This may be a sign of prior bad bodywork, or adjustments that need to be made due to age. Also check the weatherstripping to make sure that none is torn or missing (this can be difficult to find, or very expensive on some older vehicles).
- Similarly, make sure the hood and trunk both open and shut without requiring excessive force. If the vehicle has gas struts on these, make sure they actually work, and hold the hood or trunk open while you are under them. Don’t forget to check the glass on tailgates with rear glass that opens/shuts as well.
- Check tires to make sure they are not dryrotted or unusually worn. Odd wear may indicate an alignment problem. Be aware of what tires cost for a vehicle- on some sports cars and trucks, this may extend well past $500. Also check the rims for curb rash, bends, or other damage.
- If the vehicle has a convertible top, sunroof, or T-top, check to make sure they operate properly and the weatherstripping is present and seals properly. In many cases, this can be very expensive, and weatherstripping on sunroofs is generally not replaceable (it only comes with new glass).
- Look for vehicle-specific items & recalls. Some engine types, such as diesel engines, have other, specific items that should be checked. Depending on the make/model/year, you may want to research and inquire about specific items. For instance, there are specific items on the Honda S2000 that should be checked before purchasing (AP1 retainer cracking, and performing an oil jet bolt update). Finally, check the vehicle for recalls (the recent Takata airbag recall comes to mind). Dealers will handle recall items for any age vehicle at no cost; you will want to get these taken care of. You can check for recalls for your vehicle by its VIN number from any web-enabled device at the safercar.gov (NHTSA) web site here: https://vinrcl.safercar.gov/vin/
We hope that this helps you in finding, or at least negotiating price on your next vehicle. If you are in the DFW area, Marcucci Motorsports offers inspection of used vehicles in our shop and will provide a full written report. In most cases, we will provide free estimates for repairs (some exceptions apply). Contact us directly for more information and availability.