Inspection Checklist for Buying a Used Car

Are you thinking of purchasing a used car, but aren’t sure what to look for? Maybe you’re afraid of buying another person’s problems? There’s no need to worry. This checklist will tell you exactly what to look for and how to make sure the used car you’re looking at will be the perfect car for you.

Buying a used car can save money if you know what to look. If you don’t, you may just be buying someone else’s problems. To purchase a used car, you need know-how. What to look for, where to look for it and when to say no and walk away. This checklist will help you inspect the used car you are thinking of buying to ensure that the vehicle is right for you.


 Check the car’s body.

Check the tires.

Check the car’s interior.

Check the transmission.

Check the engine.

Test drive the vehicle.

Check the car’s history

Record Details

The contract.

The above is a printable list that you should take with you when you go to look at used cars. Let’s look at this list more in-depth.

The Car’s Body

Check the complete interior of the car. Take a pen and notepad along and mark all defects in the book. These are the things to inspect.

  • Broken light lenses.
  • Cracks in the windshield
  • Worn or rusted windshield wipers.
  • Missing hubcaps (wheel covers.)
  • Cracked or corroded mirrors.
  • Dents on the car’s body (scratches too.) If you are buying a used car from a dealer, be sure that dealer includes these repairs in the contract. If buying the car privately, ask the owner to repair them or take the cost of repairs off the purchase of the vehicle.
  • Look under the car on the chassis to find out if it is bent or cracked.


Check all four tires and the spare carefully.

  • Take a tire gauge with you and test the tire’s pressure. Each tire should have the same pressure.
  • Check the tires and the spare carefully. Are they a well-known brand such as Goodyear, Firestone or Michelin?
  • Are the tires the same size and make?
  • Is there a lot of tread on them, or are they almost bare of tread, or slick?
  • Are the tires wearing on the inside or the outside edges? If so, the car is severely out of alignment.
  • Do any of the tires, including the spare have nicks, cuts or cracks?

Car Interior

Though the interior of your car doesn’t influence the way it runs, you will want it to look nice and meet your needs.

  • Does the driver’s seat have cuts or cracks? Is it poorly worn or are all of the flaws hidden beneath a seat cover? Look under seat covers to inspect the seat.
  • Inspect all the seat belts in the car. Are they working properly? Are the straps damaged?
  • Check the power windows and locks if the car has them. Power windows should be working smoothly. Do the power locks work? Test them all a couple of times to be sure.
  • Open all doors with the key. Does it work in all of them?
  • Check the seat adjustment feature. Does it work smoothly and efficiently?
  • Open and close the sunroof if the car has one. Raise it all the way and lower it as well. Make sure it fits appropriately when in the closed position. Is there a crack where you can see the light? If there is, the snow and rain can come into the car, and you certainly wouldn’t want to take it through a car wash.
  • Ask the current owner or the salesperson if the car has an alarm system. If it does, have them demonstrate how it works.
  • Be sure to check all remote control functions to assure they are working.
  • You’ve already checked the spare tire, but have another look and while you’re at it, inspect the trunk. Lift the floor mat to detect rust or holes. Does the car have a jack and a wheel wrench? Have these items been taken care of, or are they dirty and rusty?
  • Does the trunk smell musty? If so, water may be leaking into it. Have a look at the seal around the trunk. Is it in good shape and pliable or is it cracked and hard?
  • Does the car have wheel locks? If it does, you’ll need the key.
  • Give the instrument panel a once over. Check signal lights, warning lights and gauges. Do the gauges work? Do warning lights stay on when you start the car’s engine?
  • Check four-way flashers (hazard lights.) Do they work? Will they work when the car is shut off and while it’s running?
  • Check both the heater and the air conditioner. Start the car and let the engine warm up. Turn on the air conditioner. You should notice cold air coming from the vents immediately no matter what season it is. To try the heater, be sure the different speeds all work. If damp air emits from the vents, or if you smell ant-freeze and the windows mist, it’s the car’s core is leaking likely. Be sure to check that the rear defroster is also in working order.

Automatic Transmission

Be aware that transmission repairs are costly. Check it thoroughly.

  • Put up the hood of the car and check the transmission fluid with the dipstick.
  • Touch the dipstick and smell the transmission fluid on your finger. The liquid should be clean with no grit, and it should not smell scorched or burned. If the fluid is dirty, then internal transmission problem is evident.
  • Drive the car. If the transmission slips or has delayed the reaction, then there is a problem. Try all gears, including reverse, park and neutral. Shift the car into neutral; the transmission should not engage at this time. Then, shift immediately into drive. There should be no delay. The transmission should engage directly; the car should not jerk but should move ahead without hesitation. If the transmission does jerk or a significant pause (more than one second) is evident, run the other way as fast as you can.

Manual Transmission or Standard

  • If the car has a manual transmission, be sure to drive the car in every gear. They should all shift smoothly. There shouldn’t be any thunks, clunks, vibrations, jerks or weird noises.
  • When you are in second and third gears, accelerate quickly. When you do this, the clutch shouldn’t slip, and if it does, it’s an indication that you need to replace the clutch very soon.
  • While driving, de-accelerate and accelerate to see how the car and the transmission respond. If you hear humming or whining, leave the car where it is. It will only cause you a massive headache. All gears should shift without noise or grinding.


An engine is costly to replace. When your car’s engine goes, it can sometimes be more expensive than buying another car. You wouldn’t want this to happen after just buying a car. Be sure to look for the following:

  • Check to be sure they do all oil changes on a regular basis.
  • Is the car’s engine very dirty or covered with old oil? It could indicate a bad head gasket.
  • Does the engine smell of burnt oil?
  • Are the terminals on the battery corroded?
  • Remove the oil cap and look inside the motor opening and then look inside the oil cap. Are oil caps corroded with sludge? It is a definite sign of lack of engine maintenance.
  • Use the oil stick to check the oil. It should be at the proper level. Be sure the engine is cold, and the vehicle is sitting flat when you check the oil to alleviate false readings. Remove the dipstick, wipe it on a clean cloth or paper towel and re-insert it into the slot. Pull it out and check the oil level.
  • Check the dipstick. If the metal piece that inserts into the engine is dirty or has massive oil deposits or sludge on it, this tells you that the owner has not adequately maintain the car.
  • Start the car and check for dark emissions that resemble smoke. If the car is a smoker, this indicates the car is burning oil and that it burns excessive fuel. Walk, don’t run to your current vehicle and drive away.

Test Driving a Used Vehicle

There are numerous advantages to test driving a used vehicle, and there are multiple things to check. Let’s take a look.

  • Even on the coldest winter days, the car should turn over and start easily.
  • When started, the car should not shudder, smoke or make noise.
  • Bluish-colored smoke on start-up indicates engine trouble.
  • Check for hisses, squeals, squeaks and other noises while on the test drive.
  • Drive the car on busy city streets, on roads that are under construction and on the highway to check its performance under all of these conditions.
  • Does the steering respond well?
  • Does the car vibrate at higher speeds?
  • Does it jerk, shudder, sputter?
  • Does the transmission shift correctly?
  • Does the car creak or does the engine knock?
  • Does the car pull to the left or right?
  • Is the steering out of center?
  • Does the car corner with no squealing or grinding? Does it hug the curves?

Car History

Always check every aspect of the car’s history that you can. Here are some things to do.

  • Find out if it has even been in an accident. In most places, it is a law that owner need to reveal this information
  • Check previous owners. In many places, there is a kit you can buy that divulges all info on the car’s history. Check to see if the kit is available in your area.
  • Has the car been damaged in flood? Check upholstery, floor mats and the trunk mat for a musty smell.
  • Be sure the odometer numbers are aligned. If they’re not, it’s an indication that owner has put back the odometer. This would lead you to believe that the car has less miles or kilometers on it. It is against the law in many locations.

Record Details

  • Mark the VIN in your notepad. You wouldn’t want to buy a stolen car. You can check it with police or the Department of Motor Vehicles.
  • Find out if it has even been in an accident. In most places, it is a law that owner need to reveal this information.
  • Record the price of the car, the amount of miles that’s on it, what you like about it and what you dislike about it.
  • Print a copy of the checklist above and this information to take with you when looking at used cars.
  • Take a flashlight to use when checking for corrosion, leaks, looking inside the oil cap, checking the engine and beneath the car.
  • Take an old rag or a paper towel with you to check fluid levels and for wiping hands.
  • Don’t forget the tire gauge mentioned earlier.
  • Take along an audio tape or CD to check the tape deck or CD player. Check the radio and clock while you’re at it.


As with every deal, read the fine print if there is any. If not, read carefully every inch of text. Contracts can be deceiving. Be sure you know what you’re signing.

  • Do not sign a contract with anyone until you are sure the car is perfect for you.
  • Don’t leave a deposit unless you are sure that the care is in top notch shape. If you change your mind, you will probably lose your deposit.
  • Be sure that they include all repairs and changes in the contract.
  • Check laws in your area to be sure the contract adheres to them.
  • Check lemon laws, refunds and guarantees that are mandated by law on used vehicles in your province or state.
  • Take your time committing. Don’t let anyone pressure you into a sale. If a salesperson or private owner says they have someone else looking at the car, don’t rush into buying it. It can be a scam to get you to buy the car on the spot. Remember, there are thousands of used vehicles on today’s market.
  • Test drive at least five used cars before making your decision. Impulse buying can get you into trouble.

If you follow the tips in this article and take along the checklist, you will find a used car that is perfect for you and your experience will be a positive one. Remember, Buyer, Beware!

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