We’ve previously discussed some important tips for anyone looking to buy a used car from a private seller, but it never hurts to re-examine a topic. Below we’ve compiled a checklist that any used car buyer should print out and run through prior to exchanging funds. If you’re unable to examine the vehicle in-person, be sure to check out our post about the importance of a third party inspection.
Prior to driving the vehicle:
- Examine the tires individually. Does each have at least a quarter of an inch of tread? Is the wear even? A good rule of thumb is to take along a penny and insert it vertically in the tread. If Abraham Lincoln’s head isn’t at least partially hidden by the tread you need to consider new tires. Also, are the tires matched in size and brand?
- If the vehicle has wheels with spokes, look through the openings on the front wheels to check the disc brake rotors. Are they scored or rusty in any way?
- Look under the car for fluid leaks. Do this with the engine off and again with it running. While cars may have a little collection of water if heat is excessive and the air conditioner has been running, there should be no sign of oil, anti-freeze or other lubricants.
- Squat at the front corners of the car and look down along its sides for ripples that might indicate body repairs.
- Open and close all the doors and the trunk. Make sure all operate smoothly. Uneven or difficult to open/close doors can be an indication of frame or chassis damage.
- Lock and unlock all the doors from inside and out.
- Ask the salesman or owner to sit behind the wheel and operate the headlights, brake lights and turn signals as you verify that they work. Missing or flickering lights can be an indication of electrical system issues.
- Open the hood with the engine running and listen for knocks, ticks or hisses. Also keep an eye out for excessive vibration or shaking hoses/fluid reservoirs.
- Check door edges and hinges for rust. This is often the first place where rust will begin to accumulate due to proximity to the road surface and any leftover salts or deicing compounds if you live in a region of the country that has harsh winters.
- Lift up the pad or carpet in the trunk and check for rust. Rust on the interior of the vehicle is a good indicator of leaky sunroofs or windows, or possibly even flood damage.
- Make sure the controls for every system operate properly. Does the air conditioner cool, does the heater heat, does the CD player work?
- If there is an air freshener hanging from the rearview mirror or the interior smells as though it was just sprayed with air freshener, open the doors for a few minutes and let it air out. By the time your test-drive is completed, the air freshener smell should be gone and you can get a better idea of the odors you will have to live with.
Once you’re behind the wheel:
- Make sure you drive the vehicle above 60 miles per hour at some point. Many front-end problems aren’t detectible at lower speeds. Does the front end shake, shimmy or vibrate? Does the car accelerate appropriately for highway driving?
- Does the steering wheel vibrate at any speed, or is the steering loose or sluggish when maneuvering?
- Are there any odd noises when you accelerate from a standstill? Does the car seem to struggle or stall before going forward?
- Does the vehicle pull to one side or the other when you accelerate? Find a large, empty parking lot. At 20 miles per hour or so, let go of the steering wheel; does the vehicle pull to one side or the other? If so, this can be an indication of alignment issues.
- Does the transmission shift smoothly?
- Apply the brakes; does the pedal feel squishy? Does the vehicle pull to one side or the other when braking?
Ultimately, you should take two test drives before buying any used vehicle. While the first test drive allows you to make your own assessment, the second test drive should be to a qualified, third-party mechanic. If the dealer or private owner is unwilling to allow a third-party inspection it’s a good indication that this is a deal you should walk away from.