What to Check When Buying a Used Car – The Ultimate 27 Point Checklist

Jul 31, 2015 Paul Malcore Car Tips, Infographics 6 Comments
What to Check When Buying a Used Car

For many people, buying a used car is daunting. No one wants to be stranded with a lemon, paying for costly repairs the day after they drive the car off the lot. Good news. Buying a used car does not need to be the crap shoot it once was. You just need to know what to look for and what questions to ask.

This 27-point checklist will show you things to check when buying a used car.

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What to Check When Buying a Used Car

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What to Check When Buying a Used Car – The Ultimate 27 Point Checklist


1. How Much Car Can You Afford?

A car payment should not be more than 20% of your net take-home pay. You can use Edmund’s “How much can I afford” calculator to determine your ideal price range.

2. Research the Right Used Car for You

Finding out how much you want to spend was the easy part, now you need to identify the right used car for you.

Step back and look at both lists when deciding on which used car to buy. It will allow you to separate the must-haves from really-wants. This way you can make smart trade-off decisions.

3. Bring a Friend Who Knows Cars

An easy way to know what to check when buying a used car is to bring along a friend who knows cars. He or she will possibly spot red flags. If you don’t have a car-savvy friend, tell the seller you want to get a mechanical inspection. This inspection, which typically costs $150-$200, could save you from buying a lemon and being out more money. If the seller objects, odds are there is something wrong with the vehicle.

4. Make Sure the Car is Resting on Level Ground During Inspection

Check to see if the vehicle rests properly on level ground. If the car leans to one side, it might indicate a binding shock absorber or strut, a bad spring or torsion bar, bent suspension parts, or even a twisted chassis. All of these can lead to major ongoing repairs.

5. Look for Under-Body Rust and Leaking Fluids

Rust on the vehicle indicates a breakdown of metal. Over time, rust can eat through the door, floorboards, body, frame, and chassis.

6. Examine the Exhaust System

Black spots or greasy grime on the exhaust are big red flags. If white vapor is coming from the exhaust, you could have a blown head gasket or be burning oil. These issues may require replacing the exhaust system which can cost over $2,000.

7. Examine the Frame of the Car

Checking the frame will reveal if the car has been in an accident and is one of the most important items on the checklist for buying a used car. A damaged frame, if not repaired properly, can reduce the car’s ability to protect you in an accident.

8. Inspect the Glass

Look for chips or cracks in the glass. A tiny windshield chip might not seem like a big deal, but it could spread, causing poor visibility or shattering in an accident.

Some states have laws making it illegal to drive with a cracked windshield.

Chipped Windshield

A chipped windshield is a driving hazard and will be ticketed in some states

9. Does the Used Car Pass Required Smog or Emissions Tests?

Understand the smog or emissions restrictions where you live to make sure the vehicle fits the requirements. Repairing emissions is challenging even for veteran technicians and can be costly. The penalty fee for not being compliant will hurt your wallet even more.

10. What’s Under the Hood?

An important tip to buy a used car is to make sure the vehicle has been taken care of properly.

11. Inspect the Engine for any Leaks, Corrosion, Funny Sounds, or Smells

View this video to learn how to check car fluids, belts, and perform full under-hood inspection.

Dark brown oil stains on the engine block indicate a leaky oil pan gasket. Check to see if the previous owner has documentation of oil changes, radiator flushes, any repairs, or any other regularly required maintenance. Evidence of preventative maintenance can be helpful in your purchasing decision because regular maintenance extends the car’s “life.”

12. Check Hoses and Belts

The radiator hoses should not be soft or cracked. A bad radiator hose could burst, causing extensive damage to your vehicle.

Make sure belts are in good condition as well. If your serpentine belt breaks, your vehicle won’t be drivable. Make sure this one is at the top of checklist when looking at a used car.

check the car hose and belts when buying a used car

13. Check the Color of the Transmission Fluid

This is a must-check when buying a used car.The transmission fluid should be pink or red. It may appear darker in older cars, but the fluid should never look black or smell burnt. Transmission fluid level should also be full. If the transmission stops working, it may be more cost-effective to buy another car than repair the damaged car.

Transmission fluid color

Transmission fluid color

14. Inspect the Interior for Unwanted Smells

When you first open the car, take a sniff. How does the car smell?

Any musty, moldy, or mildew smell could indicate water leaks or damage requiring repairs. Mold is a health hazard and may be hard to get out of the car.

Any acidic smoke could indicate the car was owned by a smoker. This smell can be difficult to eliminate.

15. How do the Seats Function & Appear?

This might not seem like the most important item on the buying a used car checklist, but you’d be surprised. Make sure the seats move and have no unsightly stains or odors. Will you be comfortable driving with the amount of head and leg room? If not, keep looking.

16. Are there any Warning Lights When You Turn on the Car?

Do any lights stay lit on the dashboard? A lit “check engine” light doesn’t always mean a serious problem. It could be due to a temporary condition such as a change in humidity or an unsecured gas cap.

Ask the seller how long it has been on, and note if the “check engine” light is solid or blinking. Generally, the latter is much more serious. A mechanic can tell you the cause by running a simple diagnostic test.

For questions regarding other lights, Auto Zone provides a handy guide.

17. Check the Brakes Thoroughly

Does the brake pedal vibrate? Does stepping on the brakes cause squealing or scraping sounds? If so, the car will require a brake repair or entire replacement. According to CostHelper.com, this could cost $130-$900.

No one wants to shell out for new brakes, rotors, and calipers right after buying a car!

18. Feel for Trepidation During Slight Accelerations

Observe the car’s performance when it reaches 45 / 55 / 65 / 75 MPH. Any trepidation might mean worn or dirty parts such as ball joints or control arms of the suspension system. Repairs could cost upwards of $1,500.

19. Listen for Vehicle Noises

Listen for clunks or other strange noises when you idle or accelerate. There should be no pings, pops, knocks, or backfires. If something doesn’t sound right, it probably isn’t.

20. Run the Heater / Air Conditioner / CD Player / Radio

This is a surprising, yet important tip when buying a used car. Make sure the amenities such as heat, air, radio, CD player work to your liking. While everything on this list might seem like a luxury, remember: not only do you want to get from point A to point B, but you also want to enjoy the ride.

21. Check the Car’s Make / Model Reputation

Search consumer reports, recall alerts, and news articles regarding the used vehicle you are considering. Certain vehicles had mass recalls that, if ignored, could be detrimental to your budget and safety.

22. Find a Vehicle History Report

History reports are inexpensive and provide valuable information for purchasing decisions. Reports include details on accidents, flood damage, number of previous owners, VIN verification, actual mileage, and recall checks. If you are considering buying a used car from a dealer, ask to see a vehicle history report from CARFAX or similar service.

23. Cross Check the Odometer with Preventative Maintenance Documents

The common perception has been that a car over 100,000 miles is not worth buying. The truth is, if the car was taken care of, it is very likely it can last well over 100,000 and possibly over 200,000. It’s also true that a car with very low mileage might not be a safe bet if it was poorly maintained or infrequently driven. Cars are designed to be operated on a somewhat regular basis.

Ask for preventative maintenance documentation. If regular oil changes and other maintenance were done, a car over 100,000 miles will likely last another 100,000.

24. Decode the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN)

When buying a used car look at the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN). Some scammers will replace the VIN of a stolen car with one that is legally registered. Check the VIN for consistency on all service records, history reports, title documents, and on the car itself (behind driver’s side windshield & body panels).

This VIN Decoding chart may also help.

25. Check the Tires

Examine tires for feathering, uneven wear, and diminished tread depth. These signs can indicate bad alignment or worn steering and suspension components. Remember to also check the spare tire’s tread. Not having to buy new tires can save you anywhere from $400-$800.

Diminished tread depth

Diminished tread depth

26. Test Drive the Car

Test driving a used car will tell you if it is comfortable to drive and if it’s in good condition. While on your test drive, simulate the conditions of your normal driving pattern. For example, if you drive a lot on the highway make sure you take the car up to 65 mph. If you regularly drive into the mountains test the car on steep slopes and windy roads.

Bonus Tip: If there is an air freshener hanging inside the car or the interior smells like it was recently sprayed with an air freshener, open the windows. After your test drive, the car will have aired out, and you’ll get a better idea of any lingering odors.

27. Negotiate the Price

You do not have to pay sticker price. Negotiation is important when buy a used car. Know the Kelly Blue Book value of the car so you can negotiate with confidence. Consider any needed repairs and factor that cost into the offer you make.

Negotiation tips:


Follow this checklist for buying a used car. You’ll be able to avoid the lemons and find a quality vehicle you can enjoy for many years to come!

6 Responses to What to Check When Buying a Used Car – The Ultimate 27 Point Checklist

  1. Lillian Schaeffer says:

    This is some great information, and I appreciate your suggestion to check the functionality of the seats when buying a used vehicle. I’ve been saving up, and I finally have enough money to purchase my first car! I hadn’t thought to check and make sure the seats work well, so I’ll definitely make sure to do that. Thanks for the great post! http://www.miraclemilemotors.com/newandusedcars.aspx?clearall=1

    • Paul Malcore says:

      No problem Lillian! Thank you for taking the time to read it. We’re glad you found it helpful! Good luck with your vehicle purchase! If you decided to purchase it, you should share pictures with us!

  2. Aaron says:

    This checklist is very helpful, especially if you want to buy a car from unknown person and if you don’t know what to check in a used car. Thanks for the inform

    • Paul Malcore says:

      Thank you for the comment Aaron. We are glad you found valuable information in it! Are you currently shopping for a used car?

  3. Diane says:

    this is an outstanding website!!!

    thank you!

    • Paul Malcore says:

      Thank you so much Diane! What a kind comment! We’re glad you found use in our Infographic. 🙂

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