How to Check Out a Used Car

The Walkaround

A used car inspection is important. The purpose of a walkaround is to visually inspect the exterior of the car for damage or excessive wear and tear. The first things you want to check out are the tires and wheels. If the tires need replacing soon, don’t be too alarmed; just make a mental note of it and move on. If the tires are mismatched or show heavily uneven wear, it could be a sign of sloppy maintenance. If the previous owner did not properly maintain his tires, it’s likely he didn’t properly maintain other items as well. The vehicle’s rims should be straight and undamaged. Bent wheels or wheels with excessive curb rash can cause problems and may require replacement. Unlike tires, wheels are usually a hefty expenditure.

Examine the paint closely. Do some areas of the exterior appear dull or mismatched? If so, it could be a sign of amateur bodywork, which may indicate a prior accident. Also make notes of any dents, scratches or scuffs. Go over the paint with a fine toothed comb, but be realistic; no used car is perfect; it’s likely to have a few minor nicks and scratches here and there.

Check the gaps between body panels, such as the doors and fenders. The gaps should be perfectly even; in addition, the gaps should match the opposite side of the car. Uneven gaps are a telltale sign of prior body damage.

Inspecting the Interior

The first thing you’ll likely notice when entering the vehicle is the smell. Most used cars, unless they are barely used, will no longer have the new-car smell. Nevertheless, the interior should be free from offensive odors, such as cigarette smoke or food odors. Said odors are often difficult to get rid of, even with thorough detailing.

The upholstery inside the vehicle will likely have minor wear, but rips, tears, heavy stains, and burns should send up a red flag. The same goes for signs of makeshift repairs on said defects, such as an improperly sewn or repaired rips.

Shine a flashlight in the hidden areas of the floorboard, particularly the area near the pedals and underneath the seat. Look for signs of water damage, such as water lines or stains. Additionally, you’ll want to check seat and pedal hardware for signs of rust. This could indicate that you are dealing with a vehicle that has suffered water damage, which could lead to engine and electrical problems in the future, as well as immediate problems such as mold.

The Test Drive

The test drive may be the most important part of checking out a used car. When test driving the vehicle, make sure the radio is turned off. If you are riding with another person, such as a salesman, politely ask him to keep quiet while you are test driving the vehicle.

Drive the vehicle over a variety of road surfaces, including rough roads. This will give you an idea of the condition of the suspension. Do you hear excessive noise or knocks when driving over bumps? If so, the vehicle may have worn out shocks or struts – or worse. Make hard turns in the car to check the steering; but don’t fall into the trap of taking a route with only right or left turns; be sure to make both.

Take the car onto the highway. Operate it for at least 10 minutes at highway speeds. Be sure that the vehicle doesn’t shimmy or shake a high speeds; be sure that it tracks straight and does not heavily lean to the right or left.

Mechanical Inspection

Because buying a vehicle, whether it be new or used, is a significant investment, it’s best to have the car inspected by a mechanic before you sign on the dotted line – regardless of how well your personal inspection goes.

When choosing a mechanic, make sure he is certified by ASE (Automotive Service Excellence). Additionally, you’ll want to select a third-party mechanic; don’t use the dealer’s shop, or a mechanic that may have a relationship with the dealer or individual.


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