Things to Check on a Used Car

Your car is one of the biggest purchases you’ll ever make—second only to purchasing a home. It can be stressful, and it’s easy to forget the basics. So we’ve put together a list of things to check on a used car before you buy.

Check under the hood

This is one of the most important things to check on a used car, and should be top of your list of steps when performing a pre-purchase inspection. Check all of the accessible fluids—not just the engine oil.

All of the fluids should be filled to their full marks and clean. You can read up on how to check car fluids, but in general, this is what good fluids should look like:

  • Oil: should be honey colored. It should not smell burnt
  • Brake fluid: should be clear to honey colored
  • Power steering fluid: should be honey colored
  • Transmission fluid: should be pink and not smell burnt
  • Coolant: should be green, yellow, blue or red depending on the manufacturer

When inspecting your future ride, you’ll want to take a look at the coolant, brake fluid, power steering fluid and automatic transmission fluid. Some modern vehicles have electric power steering and lack a dipstick for the transmission, but check what you can. While you’re poking around under there, you’ll also want to check for fluid leaks.

SAFETY TIP: Hot exposed metal can reach temperatures hot enough to burn errant hands, and opening a hot radiator cap could burst off and cause severe injury. Before your test drive, pop the hood while the engine is still cool.Checking out the engine

Pay attention to the gauges

Once you’ve checked all the fluid levels, the next thing to check on a used car is the gauges. Not all drivers pay close attention to them, but they’re really important—they provide valuable information about the health of the vehicle.

During the test drive, pay particular attention to the oil pressure and temperature gauges. Allow the vehicle to reach operating temperature and drive it at different speeds and on a variety of roads.

Be sure to idle the car and observe its behavior. Engines are more prone to overheating at idle and low oil pressure is also more likely to be apparent. This is because the oil pump is driven off either the crankshaft or camshaft, meaning the oil pump turns faster at higher RPMs, and builds more pressure.

car gauge

Listen for noises

Turn off the radio and instead listen to what the car has to say. Listen for clunks, rattles, groans and any other abnormalities. Make sure to test drive the vehicle at various speeds, both in town and on the highway. Some of the most important noises to listen for include:

  • Engine noises: knocking, rattling, or pinging from the engine indicate potential big-time problems.
  • Transmission noises: whining, growling or rattling noises from the transmission area could quickly empty your pocket book.
  • Differential and transfer case noises: whining or growling noises from the rear end and/or transfer case (if the vehicle is a four-wheel drive) are a very bad sign.

A general rule of thumb is no news is good news; quiet is good.

Check the vehicle history

A Carfax report will provide insight as to whether a vehicle has been in an accident, if it has a clean title and how many owners it’s had. Don’t buy a used car without one.

What does Carfax tell you?

Check the undercarriage

Unless you’re buying a truck or SUV, you probably won’t be able to get completely under the vehicle for a lookie loo. However, you should still make a point of getting down to peek under the vehicle, looking for fluid leaks and damaged parts.

While you’re at it, take a look at the condition of the tires. After all, paying for a new set of tires is an ugly expense after shelling out significant money for the car itself. Tires should have at least 5/32” worth of tread (2/32” is the minimum to pass safety in most states), should be free of sidewall cracks and bulges, and should have a production date less than 10 years old. On all tires produced since year 2000, the last two digits of the DOT number listed on the sidewall will list the production date. For example, in the image below, the tire was manufactured in 2007.

Screen Shot 2016-05-24 at 2.14.22 PM
Image courtesy of TireRack.com

There, that’s it! You’re now a pro and won’t have any trouble inspecting your next used car — right?