How to Inspect a Used Car: 7 Key Steps

Row of cars.

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Buying a used car can have many advantages over buying a new car, including affordability and the chance for non-stock features. However, buyers can also get scammed and end up with a crappy vehicle. Learning how to inspect a used car is crucial in today’s hectic automotive market.

Buckle up and check out these seven crucial steps for inspecting used vehicles so you get a fair deal for a quality car!

1. Get an Accident History Report

The first step for inspecting a used vehicle is to get an accident history report. You can use Carfax, Edmunds, Kelley Blue Book or any other car listing website to look up a specific vehicle and research its damage history. Most websites will also provide you with a list of previous owners.

If you see a listing with a laundry list of accidents and owners, steer clear of that vehicle. It’s okay if the car suffered a minor accident or two, but you should prioritize looking for used cars with clean records.

2. Read the Window Sticker

This tip is essential if you’re buying a used car from a dealership. When you first see the used car in person, find the window sticker and write down the information. The Federal Trade Commission requires dealerships to post a Buyer’s Guide sticker on every used vehicle. 

The Buyer’s Guide tells you whether the car is being sold “as is” or if it has a warranty. The dealer must change the sticker’s writing if they want to change the vehicle’s coverage. An “as is” sale can be a huge risk for both parties if the car is in bad shape, so it’s better to look for used cars with warranties.

3. Start With the Body Condition

Start your physical inspection by observing the body’s condition. Make sure all the door handles work properly, including the hood, trunk and gas cap. Next, go through a checklist for each of the following parts:

  • Windows: look for cracks and missing chunks in all of the windows, and pay especially close attention to the windshield. A windshield crack will get worse over time if you neglect it.
  • Tires: make sure the tread and air pressure are even across all four tires. Uneven tread is unsafe and could be a sign of a problem with the power steering or suspension. 
  • Suspension: the suspension is responsible for keeping the body level while driving. Make sure the car sits evenly on the ground and push down on all four corners. Each corner should have an equal amount of resistance, with little bounce. There should also be no clunking sounds when you perform this test.

Do a final once-over of the exterior and look for scratches, dents and rust from top to bottom. Keep your eye out for foreign or misaligned parts, as they are strong indicators of major collision damage and/or bad repairs. 

Ask as many questions as you feel necessary. Asking thoughtful questions tells the seller that you know how to inspect a used car and won’t be deceived.

4. Move to the Interior

Next, move your focus to the car’s interior. The interior has many areas you need to address, but don’t be afraid to take your time with each one:

  • Seats: the upholstery of the seats should have no holes. A little bit of wear is fine, but don’t settle for a set of worn-down seats. Test the adjustment and heating features too.
  • Pedals: the rubber grips on the pedals should also be in good condition. This detail plays a big role in driver safety, so don’t overlook it.
  • Control Panel: turn the ignition switch without starting the engine. All the lights and features on the control panel should light up. Once you confirm that the control panel works, turn on the car and play around with buttons and switches. If something doesn’t work, bring it to the seller’s attention.
  • Sound System: the sound system should have an even balance of bass and treble. Too much of one or the other suggests a damaged or altered system.
  • Roof: check the interior roof for stains and sags. These problems are strong indicators that water has leaked through the roof or windows somewhere. Make sure the sunroof and convertible features work, if applicable.
  • Trunk: water can also leak into the trunk. Check the inner carpet for wet spots or stains. A spare tire should be in the trunk as well.

If you notice a peculiar smell as you inspect the interior, ask the seller what the source might be. Perhaps the previous owner was a heavy smoker or there’s mold growing in a hidden area. People can hide a lot of negative qualities about used cars, but they can’t hide a bad odor.

5. Look Under the Hood

Under the hood is the area many buyers fear most because they aren’t well-versed in mechanical lingo. You don’t have to be an automotive expert to inspect a used car for mechanical problems. Start by looking for rust, corrosion and leaks. You can expect a used car to have a little corrosion here and there, but large pockets of rust are huge red flags.

Once you establish that the car appears somewhat functional, go through this checklist with the help of the seller and the owner’s manual:

  • Fluids: the oil will range from golden to dark brown. The color doesn’t matter, as long as it’s smooth with minimal grittiness. The transmission fluid should be pink and smooth as well. Make sure the power steering and brake fluids fall within the safe zone, which you will find in the owner’s manual.
  • Battery: most batteries on post-2010 vehicles have built-in charge indicators with a green/yellow/black color scheme. Green means good, of course. Still, you should also take off the filler caps and check the fluid levels just in case.
  • Radiator: the coolant in the radiator should be green or orange, depending on which brand the previous owner used. The outside of the container should also be stain-free.
  • Hoses and belts: the hoses under the hood should be smooth, yet firm. The drive belts should also be smooth and straight, with no frays. Ask the dealer or owner if you’re not sure where to look.

Electric vehicles have a less complicated under-the-hood inspection process. If you want to learn how to inspect a used electric car, consult Modded’s EV Buying Guide.

6. Remember the Undercarriage

Finally, you need to check the parts under the vehicle. Start by making sure there are no leaks. Water is okay because it likely got condensed from the A/C unit, but any oily or greasy fluid is a bad sign. Kinks and dents are also clear signs of a previous accident. 

If you see any fresh welding that looks different from the rest of the undercarriage, that specific part has been replaced. Ask the seller if they know the reason for the replacement.

7. Go for a Test Drive

A test drive is the last – and perhaps the most important – part of a used car inspection. Remember to go through this checklist when you get behind the wheel:

  • Listen for unusual noises while driving.
  • Test the car’s interior features (radio, A/C, etc.).
  • Drive at various speeds and take a variety of turns to get a complete picture of the car’s handling.
  • Pay close attention to the brakes and steering wheel. If something feels off, trust your intuition.

Of course, if the car is a hunk of junk, don’t feel obligated to get behind the wheel. You don’t owe the seller anything until you sign the final contract. The initial inspection will tell you if the car is worth driving or not.

Lean on the Side of Caution

When buying a used car, it’s always best to lean on the side of caution. The seller might seem trustworthy enough, but the exchange always comes with a degree of risk. That’s why knowing how to inspect a used car is so important. Take your time with each step to avoid getting scammed and find a quality used vehicle.

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