Inspect a Car
Inspecting a car before you buy it is essential. You need to know what you are getting into. You want to know that the vehicle you’re buying is exactly the vehicle you agreed to look at.
It may sound like a big deal, but inspecting a new or used vehicle you’re interested in buying isn’t that difficult if you know what you are doing.
Before even laying eyes on the car in person, research the make, year, and model beforehand. Check to see what common problems may be. See what other people have said about it.
The good news is that you’ve got plenty of resources at your fingertips. The internet is a wealth of information from reviews to owner forums and organizations, including the NHTSA and the IIHS. All of these can help you get a picture of the common issues that come with the vehicle you’re looking at. The NHTSA is where you’ll find recall information, while both them and the IIHS can alert you to safety concerns.
If you can get the VIN (vehicle identification number) of the vehicle you’re looking at, you can find specifics above and beyond these generalities. A history report on that VIN can tell you how many owners the vehicle has had, the service record, accurate mileage, if used as a rental, any accidents, and much more!
Looking at the vehicle both in broad and specific terms, you can get an excellent picture of what sort of inspection you’ll need to do before ever even walking out the door of your house!
Of course, the first thing you’ll want to do is inspect the car in good light – avoid cloudy days, and don’t do it at night. You shouldn’t need a flashlight to see everything, although you may want it for the undercarriage and the engine bay.
The seller or dealership has likely spent time dressing the vehicle up before you take a look. You’ll have to do your best to look beyond the buffing and polishing, and detailing. Take a walk around the vehicle, look for signs of repairs not mentioned on the vehicle report. Does the paint color seem off, either lighter or darker? Are seams out of alignment? Is there paint where it shouldn’t be? These are signs of light damage that might not have been reportable.
Take a close look at all clear surfaces as well. Check for cracks, pitting, and chips in the windows, windshield, light covers, and sunroof if it has one. Check the mirrors for them as well – replacing any of these could be hundreds down the line and ground for negotiating the price a bit. Have the seller turn those lights and blinkers on too while you’re outside, as replacing or repairing them can be costly, especially modern LEDs.
Rust is a major deal. Once a vehicle starts rusting, it’s a massive battle to keep up with an almost impossible reverse. Particularly in the north or near the ocean, rust can eat away at even the newest car, truck, or SUV. Pay special attention to wheel wells and the bottom areas of doors, as these are the most concentrated areas where salt and other corrosive chemicals end up.
Finally, give the tires a check. Look to see if any odd wear spots could indicate the vehicle driving unevenly. If the tires are new, but the car is low mileage, ask why – was it a defect, did the previous owner drive hard? Or is it something else?
Open It Up
Once you can get inside, the first step in inspection isn’t looking or touching – it’s smelling. Take a whiff. Is there a smell of stale smoke, mold, food? Aromas of smoke or mold can indicate the vehicle had flood or fire damage in the past. These smells are super tough to get out. If the seller has put air fresheners inside, those could be disguising things. Ask them to remove them while you’re doing other parts of the inspection and come back to the sniff test once the smells dissipate.
The seller has certainly briefly cleaned the interior, but real issues will stick out. Upholstery and dash damage like rips, burn holes, stains, and cracks are obvious and hard to patch easily. Also, check out the headliner and door panels – these don’t take as much day-to-day abuse, but they can also be easily ruined by staining and smoking. They’re not easy to get replaced either.
Check all of the controls for operation. Buttons shouldn’t have too much play and should do what they are expected to do. Ensure seats move as they should, the steering wheel tilts and telescopes as it is supposed to, and that basic features operate seamlessly. Turn on the heating and AC, ensure the controls work correctly and that the systems blow as they should. Even in the dead of summer, crank that heat and check every zone!
Finally, look around the cargo area. These can take a fair bit of abuse. Don’t be surprised if the cargo area or trunk is a bit rougher than the rest of the vehicle, particularly in an SUV. But there are still limits – structural issues, water damage, and weird smells require a deeper dig.
Under the Hood
We understand that not everyone is a wrench-turning gearhead. What goes on under your hood isn’t common sense to many folks. Still, it’s important to evaluate it!
Check the oil – it should be in the acceptable range and should be light to medium brown. Low levels, especially if their last oil change was recent, are a sure sign of leakage. Oil with water, grit, or foamy is a sign of a serious internal engine issue.
In an automatic vehicle, check the transmission fluid. It should be pink and should have a slightly sweet smell. If it smells burnt, or is it discolored? The transmission is having issues. Check all the fluid reservoirs for engine coolant, power steering fluid, and brake fluid – each one has its own marking; make sure each is at the right level.
Check out the belts and hoses. Make sure there aren’t any punctures or heavy cracking. If any are brittle, they will need to be replaced. The battery may have minor rust or corrosion by the terminals. Corrosion is the white, green, or bluish gunk on the posts and terminals. While treatable, it’s an annoyance. Corrosion can be cleaned fairly easily. Rust, on the other hand, is a bit more permanent and harder to stop or prevent.
Down and Dirty
The last step is the dirtiest – you’ll have to get down and check the car’s undercarriage, truck, or SUV. Make sure you have the cleanest concrete or blacktop spot possible. No one wants to be muddy and grimy the rest of their day!
You’ll want to focus on looking for rust, leaks, and loose parts. Light surface rust in some spots is fine – indeed, in snowy regions, it is expected. But heavy scaling, particularly on the frame, is a cause for concern.
At the same time, if you don’t see any rust… beware! Fresh paint or undercoating can conceal these, and sometimes covering the problem is easier for folks than fixing it. When it comes to liquid, AC condensation is fine – but that’s it. If it’s not water droplets coming from the condenser, it’s a problem and one you need to address with the seller. It could be as simple as an overfilled reservoir or something being spilled. Or, it could be something severe. But you won’t know if you don’t check!
Inspection from Afar
You might be getting your vehicle shipped to you by Number 1 Auto Transport. Some vehicles with the right features can be hard to come by. You may need Number 1 Auto Transport to tote that lightly used sports car from hundreds of miles away.
The good news for you is that these days, a long-distance inspection can work. You can get a certified mechanic to conduct a thorough inspection for a small fee, usually not more than $200. Find a well-respected mechanic – maybe skip anyone the seller themselves recommend – and talk to them. Many mechanics these days can even take you along for the inspection with a video or cell phone camera and show exactly what they are seeing!