How to Check a Used Car Before You Buy it

By: Knut Holt

A used car always has faults that reduce the comfort of using the car or that must be repaired before using it comfortably and safely. This is all right, as long the prize you pay is not too high when you also add the prize, time and efforts for subsequent repair and adjustments. Here are some tips for checking a used car before any purchase.


The basic principles of assessing a used car before you buy it are:

- Look at everything.

- Test everything.

- Check the car's history.

- Write down what you find.

Before you begin checking the car, make sure you have ready something to note down your findings upon.

If you only remember these four depicted principles, you will probably make a good assessment even without any more detailed plan. However, in the following a plan for the assessment is presented. It is not always possible to do it exactly as described, but try to follow the procedures as well as you can.


Before starting the car, you should watch the whole car externally and internally in a systematic manner:

- Go around the car and watch every point. Look for broken windows, unclear windows, unclear or broken mirrors, bumps, rust or damaged painting.

- Then look especially well at the channels on the sides. Look for any rust and injuries.

- Try to open and close all doors. Look around the doors, both at the doors themselves and the frames around the doors. Try the locks in every door.

- Look at the wheels and the wheel suspensions.

- Look under the car. Look especially for rust, broken parts or unsymmetrical parts.

- Look into the luggage room. Look under carpets and covers. Look especially for cracks, rust or unsymmetrical parts. Such symptoms can indicate that the car has been subjected to an injury.

- Look into the motor room. Check for loose parts. Does everything seems solid and in place? Is there much rust? Are there signs of oil leakage? Is it very dirty, and what kind of dirt is present? Some dirt is normal, but extreme and unusual dirt should give you something to think about. Do you see any cracks or any asymmetry? Are there any signs of repair work done? Such symptoms indicate that the car has been through an accident.

- Try the suspension by bouncing each of the corners of the car. They should bounce only one or two times in every corner, and without any cracking noise.

- Look to see if the car has spare wheels, standard tools for repair and wheel shift, and both summer and winter wheels present.

- Then turn the key so that the electric systems are activated.

- Look at everything in the cabin. Look under the carpets. Sit down in all seats. Try all regulatory possibilities of the seats.

- Try all electric windows, electric mirrors and other commodities that are electrically operated.

- Try out all lights, including the signal lights and the serene. If some of them do not work, set in a new bulb, to see if this is the only problem.

- Try the radio, car computer, music equipment and any GPS navigation unit.


After having seen the car all over, it is time to start the motor. The motor should ideally be started when it is cold. A motor started easily when it is warm, does not necessarily start easily when cold.

- Start the motor. Does the motor start easily or not? Listen for sound of uneven motor work, sounds of vibrations or sounds of friction. Do you feel any vibrations outside the normal?

- When starting the motor, kick the brake pedal. It should easily go down and kick in the brakes when the motor is started. If not, the brake servo can be broken.

- Listen for unusual or high sounds from the exhaust system indicating breakage.

- Look at the dashboard panel. Do all indicators work? Does any indicator signal any problem?

- Try the steering by turning the steering wheels. How much do you have to rotate it before the wheels turn? It should not be more than around 2 cm or 0.8 inch.

- Try the window washers and the window wipers, and any light wiper and washers.

- Kick in the clutch, and try all the gears if it is manually geared.

- Try out the cabin heater or air conditioning.


Then there is the time for a test drive. When you are test-driving the car, you should try out the following:

- Set the gearbox in reverse, and back out of the parking place. Does the gas and the clutch work smoothly when backing? Does the car get smoothly into motion?

- Set the car in motion forewords. Does the gas and the clutch work smoothly in foreword motion? Does the car get smoothly into foreword motion?

- Increase the speed and gear up to second gear if the car is manually geared. If it has automatic gearshift, just speed up until the second gear sets in. Are there any problems to go up one gear? If the car has an automatic gearbox, does the second gear kick in when expected?

- Try the breaks from a low speed. Is there any problem with the brakes, like poor action, vibrations or unmoral noises? Does the car pull to one side when you use the brakes?

- Park the car and note down all your findings so far. Then start again.

- Try a wider range of speeds, and the rest of the gears. If the car has an automatic gearbox, do the other gears kick in when expected? Does the motor feel quick, or is it lazy?

- Listen to the car mechanics. Is there any rattling or whining sounds from anywhere? Be especially aware of singling sounds from the gearbox or unexpected motor sounds.

- Watch out for any smell of gasoline, diesel, oil or anything burnt during drive?

- Does the car go in a straight line and direction at higher speeds, or does it wiggle or pull to one side. Is it still easy to steer it both to right and left? Is the steering accurate?

- Try the breaks from a higher speed and notice any irregularities.

- Look at the figures for motor temperature. Is it in the normal range?

- Finish by testing the reverse once again when parking.

- When finished the test drive, look into the motor room. Do you see any oil leaks, or water leaks, or is there any unexpected high temperature? Is there any smell of burnt substance? Is there any smell of gasoline or diesel?

- Note down all your findings.


Then, before buying the car, check all the papers.

- Look at the service book. Has the car had all its services?

- Look at all repair bills. All of these should ideally follow the car.

- Look at the mileage indicator to see how long the car has been driven.

- Take out a history report of the car from authorities, insurance companies or other instances offering such reports. An example of such a report is a Carfax report that can be taken out online.

- In some countries or areas dept issues or fines that an owner has generated follow the car to the new owner. Such issues are especially important to check out. How you can do so, will vary from place to place.

- Ask the seller about history issues, for example accidents the car has gone through. If you have found some signs indicating some issue, ask directly about them. Many sellers will be honest and tell any truth. In other cases you can guess from the way that the seller answers if he is lying or not.


At the end, you must decide several things based on the findings.

- First of all, is this really the car type you need? If not, decline the offer, even though everything looks fine.

If you have decided that this is the car type for you, then think further.

- Is the car in such a technical condition that it is possible to bring it to the standard you want? If not, decline the offer.

- Then think about how much time and effort the repair of the car will cost you. Even though you let a workshop repair the car, you must spend time by bringing the car to and from the workshop, by explaining what to repair, by waiting, by checking after repair, and so on.

- What do you think the repair of the car will cost?

- Now you can decide if the car is worth buying after all, and the maximal prize worth paying.

- As the last point, discuss the prize with the seller, even if it is within the right prize range.

Then at last, after all checking, and all thinking, and discussing the prize, you can decide to buy or not.

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