Even if you don’t have much mechanical knowledge, there are some simple checks and tests you can perform on a used car that should indicate whether certain major things are wrong. Many could be enough to disqualify a car from consideration.
One of the standby pieces of advice has always been to take a prospective used car to a trusted mechanic to have it checked out. While that’s ideal — particularly if they can put it up on a lift — it usually isn’t practical. For one thing, the seller shouldn’t be expected to take the risk of letting you drive off in their car.
Slightly more practical is hiring a mechanic to go to the car. But scheduling can be tough, and a good car might get sold in the meantime. If you want to try this route and don’t know of someone who provides this service in your area, you might do a search for “mobile used-car inspectors in [your city].” Yet even if you can manage either of these options, it’s probably worth saving their time and expense until you’ve done some initial checks yourself.
Things You Can Check Yourself
One thing you can check is the car’s background history, which can be done through CarFax.com. (Competitors such as Autocheck.com, VINcheckup.com, and Bumper.com might be cheaper, but CarFax is the best known.) After entering the car’s 17-character vehicle identification number, the website will provide you with a history of when and where the car has been sold and registered, plus odometer readings — check these against the current odometer reading — and, sometimes, accidents, repairs, maintenance history and recalls performed. But since these reports cost something, you might want to do your own basic checks first.
What to physically inspect on a used car can be broken down into static checks and dynamic checks. We’ll make special note of the bigger issues to look for because if the car fails any of these, it may not be worth considering. Bring a flashlight, a towel to lay on (a big piece of corrugated cardboard is even better), hand cleaner, paper towels and a small magnet.
First, ask to see the title. If it’s a salvage or rebuilt title, you should probably steer clear, as both indicate the car may have suffered heavy body damage. Also, check to make sure the VIN on the title matches the VIN on the car. If it doesn’t, the car could be stolen.
Next, look for rust and telltale damage repairs. (Major damage repairs might show up on a CarFax report.) Bad rust or holes on the frame or subframes could be a deal breaker, as this is structural and can’t be easily fixed. Look down each side of the car to check for waves in the bodywork, and look straight on at all sides to make sure the paint matches and the bumpers are level. Check for body filler on anything that looks suspicious by placing a magnet against it (body filler isn’t magnetic) and examine the windows for cracked glass. Anything bad here may warrant disqualification.