So, you’ve made a decision to buy a used car. The next best thing to do is learn how to check a used car before buying it.
Unlike new cars, where you have a clean starting point, with used cars it’s somewhat different.
Some crucial things must be checked before buying in order to avoid possible future problems. Problems that tend to be expensive, nerve-wracking, and annoying.
This list should help you with that and give some hints on how to successfully navigate through choosing the right car.
1. CHECK THE CAR EXTERIOR
Take a good and careful look around the whole car. Some main things you should pay attention to are:
Different shades of color across the car body, peeling paint, damaged or cracked lacquer, ….any kind of anomaly that disrupts the original, factory paint job is a sign for caution.
This demands time and attention but if you really want to learn how to check a used car before buying, you’ll have to make the effort.
Especially be aware of cracked paint with body filler appearing from underneath. When you see this, unless there’s a very good explanation, get away from that car.
Dents and scratches
A few minor dents and scratches located in common places (like bumpers or doors) are OK. These are all signs of normal exploitation.
Rather check for signs of hiding or camouflaging. With some polishing and DIY bodywork, these can easily be hidden only to reappear in the near future.
These interventions may also be a sign that something else more serious has happened with the bodywork.
Sloppy paint job repairs
This is easily noticed by seeing paint where it isn’t supposed to be (like on glass surfaces, plastic strips, or else).
For instance, if you see some paint on the glass, it might come from a sloppy fix of the surrounding body.
People do this in order to cut corners with bodywork (like hiding scratches or even rust marks).
To be clear, this doesn’t have to be a bad sign, but it is worth questioning.
Gaps between body panels
Visually check the gaps between the hood, fenders, and headlights.
Check the gaps between the doors and car body as well as the tailgate and car body. Look at the gaps between the fender and bumper. I hope you get the idea.
These gaps are supposed to be even and precise on each side of the car.
A very important part when learning how to check a used car before buying. This brief check can tell a story of the previous car history, perhaps a hidden one.
Any kind of deviation (on one side of the car the gap is bigger, on the other smaller) is a sure sign that something was tampered with (for instance repairs after an accident).
Uneven gaps may also mean sloppy repairs which may conceal even more problems.
Think twice about buying a used car like this as it is not a good sign.
Markings on the windshield and glass
Go around every glass surface and check that it has the original, factory marking imprinted on it.
When all the markings are from the factory, this is one more sign that there hasn’t been any kind of intervention or accident.
You can disregard this tip to some extent. Glass surfaces break due to other things like pebbles flying from the road, branches hitting the glass, mishaps during repair, etc. A missing factory mark doesn’t necessarily mean that someone is hiding something.
But, nevertheless, take a brief glance.
Headlights and rear lamps
Worn out, foggy or cracked headlights or lamps may give you a heads up on the actual mileage, previous history, and the complete state of the car.
On the other hand, too much shine is also suspicious. The cleanliness and clarity of the headlights as opposed to a shabby exterior is a warning sign. Look out for traces of polishing or even complete replacement. If this is the case, the car may be older or even been in an accident.
What you want to see are factory headlights and lamps (not replacement ones) with normal signs of wear and tear.
When and if the headlamps get foggy after you’ve bought the car, it can be solved with some home remedies, namely toothpaste.
2. LOOK FOR SIGNS OF RUST (CORROSION)
If you want to learn how to check a used car before buying, you have to be able to spot rust.
When buying a more modern car, rust, in most cases shouldn’t be an issue. Thanks to various manufacturing processes today’s cars are pretty much rust-free for many years.
So, severe rust signs may mean that some bodywork repair has been done and in a very sloppy manner at that.
Start with a superficial glance at the usual hotspots like wheel arches, door sills, the connection between the fender and door sill, the lower part of the tailgate door, and else.
After that, and this is even more important, take a look under the car. Might be inconvenient and perhaps awkward but if you want to learn how to check a used car before buying, do it.
Pay attention to connections between the lower parts of the door sills and floor panels, floor panels themselves (especially the driver’s side), where the rear suspension meets the car body, and so on.
Superficial rust is OK, especially on older cars but know that this will have to be tended to as soon as possible.
Avoid cars with deep and serious rust signs. These are costly to repair as well as unsafe. Serious rust may damage the integrity of the car body.
While you’re at it, take a look at the exhaust system. If it’s rusty, it may soon cause problems like cracks, worn-out brackets, or even a muffler falling off. One more future, costly repair.
The best way to make this check is to raise the car and take a decent look. This is somewhat troublesome and time-consuming since you’ll probably need a car lift and have to visit a mechanic. Best do it if you’re ready to actually buy the car.
3. CHECK THE TIRES AND RIMS
The most important things to check are:
Depth of the tire tread and is the tire worn out evenly. No depth means that the tire needs to be replaced while uneven tear usually means a problem with the alignment or even parts of the front suspension and undercarriage.
Year of manufacture (DOT mark)
Despite the fact that the tread may be deep, if the tire is old or has been sitting for a long time, it is considered unsafe.
Good tires that can still offer quality handling on the road and from a renowned manufacturer is money in the bank, not to mention safety.
Rash marks on the tire
Any rash marks may mean more severe damage to the tire and again, replacement in the near future.
Damage on the rims (rash marks, chipped or bent parts, scratches, etc)
Damages of this kind are especially visible on alloy rims. This gives a pretty good picture of what the car has been through (what kind of roads it’s been driven on, in what way, etc).
Also, heavy carbon deposits from the brakes may be a sign of some pretentious driving or neglect.
Have in mind that fixing or replacing alloy wheels is usually expensive.
When the situation is ideal, the car will have four same, factory hubcaps.
Cheap hubcaps, missing ones, lack of hubcaps, or even worse, different types are not a very good sign. Not that it influences functionality, rather it tells a story of the previous owner and how the car was kept.
If you happen to buy a car like this and want to replace the hubcaps, take a look at a separate article on this topic by clicking here.
Besides that, you have our YouTube video if you’re not in the mood for reading.
Avoid tires that are worn out, low quality, and uneven on all wheels (in terms of the manufacturer). Avoid it to the point of thinking to even buy the car as it is unsafe to drive and has a guaranteed expense before you even start using it.
Every serious and benevolent seller will solve this problem before putting it on the market, despite the cost.
4. CHECK THE CAR INTERIOR
The interior tells you a lot about the previous owner and how the car was treated. If you look carefully, it can tell you a true story of what previously happened to the car.
Normal signs of wear and tear are normal. Be aware of extremes.
Too good looking and the steering wheel might have been replaced in the past for some reason.
Too bad (hand surfaces badly damaged, damaged horn switches, etc) mean high mileage or ill-treatment from the previous owner(s).
Take a look at the position of the airbag. If its’ crooked or the plastic has a different shade than the rest of the steering wheel, it’s probably been replaced. This might mean there was some sort of accident in the past.
If the gear knob is from the factory or even has small tears on the fabric, this is OK. These are common signs of the age and exploitation of the car.
Cars with hundreds of thousands of miles will have this in bad, torn, and worn-out shape.
So, a brand new, shining gear knob and fabric, as opposed to a worn-out interior, is a sure sign that the car has been through a lot but it’s not supposed to be seen.
Besides scratches, stains, holes, and damage from sunlight, check for any kind of drill holes.
Seems maybe peculiar, but this way you can see if someone previously installed devices like taximeters, mobile radios, or other gadgets. This means that that car might have been used for other purposes that may mean more mileage or extra strain to the car.
Also, take a quick peek around the dashboard gaps, especially around the odometer. If they’re not even, be careful.
All of this may sound too detailed, but if you want to learn how to check a used car before buying, best check as much as you can.
Worn out or torn foot pedal rubber pads are a sure sign that the car has been through some high mileage.
Because of this, people tend to change them, either for aesthetic, practical reasons or for further selling.
When you check them they should have normal signs of wear and tear accordingly to the mileage.
To new or too worn out is not good.
Watch out for fabric tears, soggy, loose parts, holes, burn marks, stains, broken plastic parts, or other problems.
Here also make a brief inspection of the gaps between the trim panels, both with each other and with the car body.
Wider gaps, tool marks (like from a screwdriver perhaps), loose trim panels are all signs that it’s been tampered with. This might be proof of past repairs or some sort of improvisation.
While you’re looking at the trimming, just raise your head and look at the headliner.
You’d be surprised how many people go above and beyond to polish the car interior while completely forgetting the ceiling.
However good the car interior may be cleaned or polished, a torn headliner, soggy or hanging fabric or insulation, will tell you the real situation.
Also, if the car was owned by a smoker, you’ll surely notice the yellow stains.
Beware of seat covers. If there are any, try and take a peek underneath.
The state of the seats will tell you the real situation about the car and its probable mileage as well as how the car was kept.
A small fabric tear or loose stitches here and there are normal. But DIY stitches, sloppy put seat covers, and especially replaced seats are an alarming sign. When you want to learn how to check a used car before buying it, you have to look everywhere.
The trunk or boot will also tell a story, namely how the car was used. This check is especially important when buying station wagons, SUVs,s or other types of cars that may be used for hauling loads.
Constant loading means extra strain (for the engine, transmission, rear suspension, etc) which may cause expensive repairs in the near future.
With normal exploitation, the trunk should look like the rest of the interior. Broken trim panels, shabby carpets, broken clips, and others are a sign that the car was used more for loading than for everyday, normal driving.
Take a look under the floor mats, especially if they cover the whole surface of the foot-well carpets.
Check the carpets near the door sills, in the trunk, the tunnel between the rear seats. The most important things to watch out for are major stains (like oil), holes (like from the heels of shoes), loose parts of the carpet (not tucked in under plastic trimming), extreme wear signs, and especially moisture.
All this will tell you the real mileage, possible past mishaps (like a leaking core heater for instance), possible rust on the floor panels, etc.
Believe it or not, the scent from the passenger cabin can tell you a thing or two about the car.
The scent you want is similar to when the car was new. Every car has a certain one, mostly due to the materials used for the interior.
If the car was well kept, the remnants of that scent may still be present. When you sense it, you’ll know you’re on the right path.
On the other hand, if you sense anything that resembles staleness, moisture, or even somewhat of a stench, you should probably give it a pass.
Even worse is a combination of stench and various fresheners or cabin perfumes. This is both repelling and maybe a sign that something is trying to be hidden.
Believe it or not, if you want to really learn how to check a used car before buying, you should have a reasonably good sense of smell.
By this, I mean anything that’s installed afterward, not from the factory.
Infotainment systems, center-console armrests, handsfree systems, window tints, various brackets are just some examples.
These should be installed correctly and in a professional manner with the possibility of removing them without destroying the interior.
If you see lots of unneeded and ill-installed gizmos with wires or screws sticking out, best pass.
Two main reasons: this is both dangerous (especially if the electrics and electronics were tampered with) and it may ruin the interior beyond repair.
What you’re looking for is an interior in good shape, reasonably exploited and without any major damages like tears, burn signs on seats, scratched or damaged dashboards, and so on.
Be careful, people tend to polish the interior to hide imperfections. They will even pay professionals that do an amazing job.
Lots of air fresheners, new seat covers, badly replaced trim parts are a sign you should say goodbye to the seller.
5. LOOK THROUGH THE CAR MAINTENANCE RECORD
The maintenance record of the car you want to buy should be neat and precise.
This is one of the most important parts when learning how to check a used car before buying.
If everything is OK it should have:
- Who did the maintenance (precise name of the dealership or mechanic)
- Locations of dealerships or mechanics (if you may need some help or advice in the future)
- What was exactly done (what maintenance, were any parts replaced, what kind of work was done, etc.)
- Precise date of all the maintenance and repairs
- Proof of validity (official stamps, receipts, etc)
- When is the next maintenance work due
This is the ideal scenario. Another acceptable option is some sort of personal valid record with receipts for parts or repairs.
In newer times, all this data is computerized making it perhaps even better and easier to track down. When checking a used car, ask for this option if there’s no written record.
If all of this is missing, then you’re buying in the dark. Never depend on hearsay. Maybe no one wants to swindle you but a precise thing like a maintenance record shouldn’t be a matter of memory. Some work or facts may be easily distorted or overlooked.
Remember, a clean maintenance record is future money in the bank. For instance, if some of the bigger repairs were made like the dual mass flywheel, brake overhaul, replacement of the timing chain or timing belt, then you’re carefree from huge expenses in the future.
If you find a car like this, don’t hesitate to pay more money, it’s a good future investment for sure.
6. CONNECT AN OBD TOOL
I would recommend this if you are seriously considering buying the car. Otherwise, the seller may see it as a hassle.
Having knowledge of how to check a used before buying is one thing, but tampering around someones else’s car is another.
Going around with an OBD tool and connecting it to every car you see or constantly visiting a mechanic is annoying and tiresome, to say the least.
But when you get to the stage where you’re willing to flash some cash, kindly ask the dealership or owner to check for any errors with the OBD tool.
When everything is OK and there’s nothing to hide, this will be approved with no problems. If you have the knowledge, OBD tool at hand, and permission, you can do it yourself.
Otherwise, drive it to a trustworthy mechanic and let them make a reading. One more good thing about this is that you can ask the mechanic, for a certain fee, to check all the other vital parts of the car.
Any error codes that show up may tell of some present problems or what awaits you in the future. Very valuable information for getting yourself and your budget out of harm’s way.
If any objection is present from the seller, despite the fact you’re a serious customer, you don’t have to go away, just be sure to make a more thorough inspection.
7. CHECK THE PAPERWORK
Depending on the legislative in your country, check all of the crucial paperwork.
Is the car in any way incriminated, are all the past fees or taxes paid for, is it under any kind of debt, is everything OK with the import papers, and so on.
Some countries are more strict, some are more liberal, just make sure that you’re not buying a problematic car.
Most countries have these problems sorted out and are in favor of the buyer, but nevertheless, it is worth the attention.
You might have the possibility to check if the car was in an accident in the past which is also great information. Especially when something is trying to be hidden.
8. TEST DRIVE THE CAR BEFORE BUYING
If the previous tips check out, don’t be shy, ask for the keys, and take the car for a spin.
The seller should you let you do this, especially if you’re a serious, ready-to-buy customer.
A few tips when making the test drive:
- Best ask if there is a secluded road nearby, perhaps ask the worker or car owner to drive you there. The last thing you would want is a car accident.
- Give some pedal to the metal. Sometimes a few good revs may reveal problems. If the engine is OK, there won’t be any harm. Also, monitor the exhaust fumes in the rearview mirror. Severely black or white smoke is a sign of trouble.
- Safely jolt the car left and right and go over a few speed bumps. This may reveal any problems with the undercarriage.
- Do a couple of hard brakings so your sure everything is OK with the brake system.
All in all, drive a bit more harshly than you usually would. The main point of all this is to spot potential problems before you buy the car.
Any objections from the seller on this part is a sure sign of trouble.
9. ASK TO REMOVE THE ENGINE COVER
Engine covers are present on most cars but have one major throwback.
They block the proper view of the engine. So, if there are any tell-tail signs of a problem (like oil or coolant leaks for instance) you won’t be able to see them.
Also, lots of sellers tend to shine the engine cover up while underneath there may be a problematic engine.
Just like asking to connect an OBD tool, if there’s nothing to hide, the seller should be happy to help you lift the cover and make an inspection. Otherwise, something is wrong and you shouldn’t buy the car.
Yes, some people are sensitive and see this as an opportunity for breaking or damaging the car, but if you want the seller to see that you know how to check a used car before buying, you must do this.
It’s in your best interest.
Any kind of leaks, replaced parts, damaged screws, fresh sealants, tampered with wiring installation, or else are all sure signs that something has been done around the engine.
Some kind of problem existed or might still exist.
When this is the case, be cautious about the decision for buying that car. Don’t buy it until some more thorough inspection is made.
10. TURN ON EVERY IMPORTANT DEVICE AND MAKE SURE IT WORKS
In order to learn how to check a used car before buying, you must try out the most important devices on the car.
Some of them are:
- Climate control (especially if it’s dual-zone), check that all the functions work
- Power windows (on all doors)
- Signalisation (headlights, especially LED headlights, turn signals, stop lights, and else)
- Wipers (front and rear)
- Central locking (on all doors)
- Controls and switches
- Car stereo or infotainment system
- Handbrake (both classic and especially the electric one)
- Controls on the steering wheel
- Reverse cameras (or others)
The more you try out, the better. Pay special attention to various systems that may influence safety or cause later expensive repair.
Most modern cars are full of these so take your time in order to avoid future problems.
After reading this lengthy article and everything it asks of you, learning how to check a used car before buying seems complicated to say the least.
Well, the fact is that you’ll have to take the purchase seriously, with attention and some reasonable doubt.
Lack of attention to detail, laziness, being in a hurry can all cost you a lot of money, time, and nerves down the line.
But, when you gain some experience and have looked at a car or two, all of the above-stated checks last about 10 minutes at most (of course without the professional mechanical check or diagnostic).
A small amount of time for a large and long-term investment which a used car usually is. If it all becomes tiresome, remember your hard-earned money and that it might be lost because of simple overseeing or disregard.
The main point of these tips, at the end of the day, is to keep yourself and your investment out of trouble and harm’s way. Nowhere is this needed more than in the market of used cars.
Written by: Sibin Spasojevic
Former car technician, life-long car and DIY enthusiast, author for Despairrepair.com