Most people will buy a used car at least once in their life. It can be an exciting, maddening, and intimidating experience. But if you do it right, it can mean the difference between a lemon and a cherry on top (see what we did there?). Luckily, we’ve learned a few things along the way that can help you make sense of it all. Here’s how to test drive a used car, in a nifty checklist.
Test Drive Pro Tip # 1. Do Your Homework
Before you head out to do the test drive, do some research. It’s easy to access a mound of information on pretty much any car via the (sometimes) trusty internet. Will you be looking at a Pontiac Aztek because you loved Breaking Bad? Chances are there’s a forum that specializes in Azteks where you can find a buyer’s guide. Go into the test drive knowing what to look for and what to ask about, such as common maintenance items and maladies. Speaking of asking good questions…
Test Drive Pro Tip #2: Ask All the Questions
Asking questions of the owner is absolutely critical and can be as elucidating as driving the car. You want to hit the owner with some great questions, not just “what’s she do in the quarter bro?” You want to buy a car from a person you trust, and you want to get a sense for what ownership is like, and why the owner would want to end their relationship with the vehicle. Some important questions:
- Why are you selling the car?
- How long have you owned it, and are you the first owner?
- Has the car been in an accident?
- What have you used it for? (If their answer is racing, pass)
- Has it given you any trouble?
- How often do you change the oil? (Every 3k miles is the best answer here.)
- Do you have service records?
- Where do you get it serviced? (A reputable shop is a good answer, and you can always call them and ask their opinion of the car.)
- Do you have the title? Is it clean?
- Where did you buy it?
- Who did you buy it from?
- Does it have any issues currently? Does it go through any oil/coolant?
Remember, nobody likes a jerk, so be nice about it; this isn’t Law and Order and you’re not Ice T. If the owner’s answers seem vague, sketchy, or don’t match up, use it as a sign that this car may not be for you.
Test Drive Pro Tip # 3: Look for clues
Bring your flashlight and look around, in, and under the car thoroughly with an eye for the following:
A. Bodywork and VINs: Work your way around the car looking for signs of repainting or overspray around each body panel. Overspray occurs when the body shop repaints a panel and accidentally gets paint spray on an adjacent panel or trim piece.
- Does one panel look newer than the surrounding panels?
- Does an area have more texture or undulations than others? Look from different angles and use your flashlight.
- Look for VIN tags. If a car has had a panel replaced, it may not have the original tag with the VIN stamped onto it. Instead, it might say DOT, which means the panel has been replaced. If so, assume the car has been in an accident.
- Look for different-sized gaps between the panels.
- When the owner is not looking, whisper “tell me your secrets, car.”
An accident isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker if it was repaired properly. But if it wasn’t, you could be in for trouble.
B. Leaks: Specifically look for leaking fluids around the engine.
- Is there oil, coolant, or other fluid dripping anywhere near the engine?
- Is the engine relatively clean, and is any part of the engine wet with oil?
- Look for fluid leaking from the shock absorbers.
C. Rust: If you see rust, you probably want to walk away. Like Neil Young said, rust never sleeps, and you don’t want it not sleeping in your car.
- Look up in the wheel wells with your flashlight.
- Look at the suspension and inside the quarter panels.
D. Mold and mildew: Mold and mildew inside the car can mean water is leaking into the car. Water: great in oceans, bad in cars.
- Pull back trunk carpets, look under floor mats, look at the headliner for signs of water.
- Look at the rubber seals around the doors to make sure they are not torn, brittle, and cracked.
Test Drive Pro Tip #4. Kick the Tires
Tires are perhaps the most important part of the car, and should not be overlooked, as they can tell you a surprising amount about the car.
- Do they have decent tread left or are they bald as an eagle?
- Is the wear even across the tire? If the tires are more worn on the inside than on the outside, the car needs an alignment.
- Are all four tires equally worn?
- Are they a brand you’ve heard of?
Tires are not something to be skimped on, and quality tires are a sign that the car has been well-maintained.
Test Drive Pro Tip #5. Check the Fluid
Oil, coolant, and other fluids are paramount to vehicle operation, so you want to make sure your potential next car has the fluids in the right place. Make sure you do this when the car is not hot.
- Check the oil and the coolant. If the dipstick indicates that the oil is low, that’s bad. If it is dry, that’s really bad. You’d be surprised how many cars we’ve test driven with low oil. It’s direct evidence that the car hasn’t been well-maintained, which means expensive repairs are looming.
Test Drive Pro Tip #6. Fire it Up
Start the car with the hood open. Listen for funny sounds.
- Does it idle well?
- Does it sound smooth?
- Does it sound like air is escaping?
- Does smoke come off of the engine?
- Walk around to the back; does smoke come out of the exhaust? Smoke that doesn’t dissipate shortly after the engine starts could mean the car is burning oil or coolant.
A lot goes into the inspection process, which is just one of the reasons we inspect every car sold on Shift for our customers. The findings from the 200-point inspection are compiled into a report that we give both buyers and sellers so that everyone is on the same page.
Test Drive Pro Tip #7. (Actually) Test Drive It
You want to drive the car in a way that is going to reveal any issues or maladies that may not be apparent if you were to drive it around the parking lot.
- Go on the freeway and accelerate briskly up to speed.
- Brake aggressively (just warn the passengers first) and pay attention to how the pedal feels and if the car pulls in either direction.
- Does the suspension make a lot of crashing, thumping noises over bumps?
- Is there a popping sound when your turn?
- Does the transmission shift smoothly?
- If it’s a manual, does the clutch engage in a smooth manner? Does it slip?
- As you drive, pay attention to the sensations from the steering wheel, the pedals, the shifter, and the seat of your pants. You want to look for any signs of anything not working properly. Don’t be afraid to make notes and ask the owner why a vehicle does something odd. If their answer seems satisfactory, that’s a good sign. If not, you can have your mechanic take a closer look. More on that in a bit.
- Does everything work? Windows, locks, stereo, lights, air conditioning?
After the drive, pop the hood again. Is there any smoke? Is there a sweet smell? If so, that’s not like your grandma’s cookies, that’s coolant, and it’s a bad thing.
Test Drive Pro Tip #8. Check the Carfax
This is critical. Run the VIN through Carfax. Does the history match what the owner stated? Are there any reported accidents? You may also want to check if any recalls have been issued. Look to make sure the title hasn’t been salvaged. If it has, this car is definitely not for you.
Test Drive Pro Tip #9: Pre-purchase inspection
At Shift, every car is pre-inspected and put through a 200-point examination. But, you might be buying in a car outside of the San Francisco, Los Angeles, and DC areas that Shift serves. If that’s the case, you might want to ask the owner if you can have your mechanic check it out.
A good mechanic will have the tools, skills, and knowledge to spot things that you can’t. Plus, if they find something amiss, you can use it as a way to negotiate a lower price. At Shift, the inspection is a standard part of the process for every car we help sell. Otherwise, the PPI will cost you $100-150, but it’s money well spent as you can know exactly what kind of car you’re buying.
That’s it! Remember, after you’ve gone through this used car test drive checklist, don’t be afraid to walk away from a car that doesn’t seem right. Finding a good used car takes time and patience. When you do find the right car, you’ll smile with satisfaction knowing you bought a ride you can trust.