How to inspect a used car
Here's some tips on what to look for when inspecting a used car.
Some of these problems are minor, some could be major. The advice here can help you decide on the value of the car and whether you want to buy it and take on certain problems.
Depending on the value of the car and your skills and experience, a professional inspection should be considered.
You can download a useful PDF checklist to take along with you at the end of this article.
Check all panels for damage and the condition of the paintwork. On a second-hand car, it is typical for there to be a few dents and scrapes and these are usually fine if you don't mind and the paint is not damaged exposing the metal underneath.
If there are panels which are a slightly different shade to the surrounding panels it may indicate that the car has been in an accident. Also, check for overspray on trim pieces and seals.
Although not common in modern cars in Australia, check for rust around the outside and inside of wheel arches, behind the front and rear wheels, at the bottom of doors, around the sunroof and boot lid.
If there is any paint peeling this will only get worse and make the car look very unattractive.
Some models and colours, like red, are prone to fading. This is usually worse on horizontal surfaces such as the bonnet, roof and boot.
Some colour paints can go chalky and also fade with long-term sun exposure. White is often the worst.
Check the windscreen for any cracks or chips. These can sometimes be repaired cheaply but if the windscreen needs replacement be aware that windscreens on models that have devices like cameras, sensors and heads up displays can be very expensive.
Check the condition of the tyres. If there are three or four different brands of tyres it's a sign of poor maintenance and maybe the seller has just put on some cheap second-hand tyres for the sale.
All tyres have a date stamp on the of when they were manufactured although it can be a bit hard to find and read. It's usually a 4 digit number (last 2 digits are the year). Rubber deteriorates over time, and most tyre manufacturers recommend replacing the tyres when they are ten years old even if they are not worn out. Don't forget to check the spare too.
Does the car smell of moisture or cigarette smoke?
Check under seat covers for rips in seats.
Check under mats for the condition of the carpet and for signs of water leaks.
Check inside the boot including under carpet and inside the spare tyre well for signs of water leaking and rust. Tools may become rusty if there has been moisture present in the boot.
Look at the headlining for sagging or bubbling. Depending on the model, these can be retrimmed but the cost varies depending on how much labour is required to remove and refit the headlining.
Check all devices work, eg. all windows, mirrors, sunroof, CD player, satellite navigation, etc.
Under the bonnet
Check the oil on the dipstick and inside the oil filler cap. Is it clean? New oil starts off as a clear brown colour and goes black as it ages inside a running engine.
If you see some white or a milky substance it may be evidence that the head gasket is leaking coolant into the engine oil, which is a major problem. In this case, the oil level may also be too high.
Check the coolant? It is usually a green colour, but some cars have red or blue coolant.
Modern engines need the right coolant to avoid corrosion as well as overheating and freezing in areas where it gets really cold. If the coolant is clear and colourless it is a sign of poor maintenance. Coolant that is a rusty brown is a very bad sign.
If the coolant contains engine oil it will usually turn brown. This can indicate a head gasket failure.
Also, check for coolant leaks by looking for green or white stains on and around the radiator and other parts of the cooling system such as the water pump.
For cars with an automatic transmission, check the dipstick if you can (many cars no longer have dipsticks for the automatic transmission). Good transmission fluid is usually red and clear. If it is brown then coolant may have mixed with the fluid which will destroy a transmission very quickly.
Check for oil leaks and try and find where they are coming from. Leaks from the cylinder head cover can be minor, but if there is a leak from the rear of the engine the transmission or gearbox may need to come out to repair so will be costly.
Are the drive belts in good condition and not cracked? Although not a major problem (although a broken belt could leave you stranded), it can be an indicator of poor maintenance.
Check under the battery for corrosion.
Before starting the car turn the ignition on and make sure that the dashboard lights come on and then go off when you start the car, particularly things like ABS, airbag, and "check engine" lights. If any stay on, research the possible causes.
If possible it is best if you can see the car when the engine is cold and hasn't been run for hours. It is good if you can check if it is hard to start from cold. Diesel cars, in particular, can be difficult to start when cold so hard starting is a sign of a problem.
It is ideal if you have a second person with you who can check for smoke from the exhaust outside of the car.
Some steam is normal if the car is started and the engine is cold, or if inspecting the car in very cold weather.
Blue smoke is a sign of burning oil. This is usually a sign of an engine needing overhaul, although there are causes of blue smoke that can be fairly minor.
Black smoke is a sign of the engine running too rich and can indicate a problem. On a diesel engine, a little black smoke is normal at times.
When engines burn oil they usually do so under certain driving conditions depending on the cause. Let the engine idle for a minute or two and then rev it or drive away and check for blue smoke. Another good test is to let the car coast down a hill and then accelerate at the bottom of the hill.
Throughout the test drive ensure that when stopped the idle speed is consistent and does not fluctuate and the car does not stall.
On a front or all-wheel drive, car check for a clunking noise when turning sharply in both directions, like when doing a u-turn.
Automatic transmissions should change gears up and down promptly. Reverse should also engage quickly. There should be no flaring (increase in engine speed) between gear changes.
On manual cars check all gears engage smoothly, that there is no noise when operating the clutch, and that the clutch does not slip when accelerating at various engine speeds.
Check for vibration under braking, as this could mean brake rotor or suspension issues.
Check for any clunks or looseness in the steering when going over speed bumps, driveways, etc.
If possible drive somewhere where you can legally drive at 100 km/h or more and check for any vibration. Vibration is often due to wheel balance or alignment but can also be due to suspension problems.
Get the car up to normal operating temperature during the drive. Usually halfway on the temperature gauge is normal operating temperature, but it varies from model to model. If the car has an electric fan leave the car to idle until the fan comes on.
Check the air conditioning is cold and the heater is hot. Many modern cars have dual-zone systems so you should check vents on both sides of the car.
After shutting down the car, check that the hot engine starts again easily.
Before you inspect, search online for common issues with that model so you can be prepared with any specific issues to look for.
Check the registration online to see how much registration it has, and if there are any conditions that might result in a larger than normal fee when you transfer it into your name. For example, in NSW if the car is registered to a pensioner they wouldn't have had to pay a registration fee, so you will have to pay the full registration cost (pro-rata) if you aren't also a pensioner.
How many keys does the seller have? A new spare key can cost hundreds of dollars or more.
Does the car come with the original handbooks? Although not essential, many audio systems require a code to be entered if the battery is disconnected and you may have to pay to get this code in the future if it does not come with the car.
A service history or receipts is a sign that the owner has maintained the car properly. But be cautious of someone selling a car after major work. For example, if the car had a recent automatic transmission service maybe it didn't fix the problem and the owner is selling rather than having to replace the transmission.
Are the original tools and jack present?