15 Things to Check Before Buying a Used Car

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Always perform a thorough inspection before buying a used car. (Photo: @JulieK via Twenty20)
Cheryl Knight · Writer · Nov 11, 2020
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    Before buying a used car, you need to look it over to make sure everything works properly and that the vehicle doesn’t have any existing damage. This can save you from the hassle of dealing with problems after you buy the vehicle.
    What exactly should you look at when inspecting and buying a used car? Here are 15 components to check out before you decide if you should purchase a car or not.

    Inspect the Body of the Car

    You can tell a lot about how well a former owner’s taken care of their car by looking at the condition of the outer body. Check out various areas, such as the body, frame, paint job, underbody, and trunk, as detailed below:
    Paint: Walk around and inspect the paint job of the car. Look for any mismatched paint colors, runs, or dimpling in the paint job. All of these signify potential repairs made to the body panels of the car.
    Body and frame: Inspect the body and frame of the car, looking for any dents, dings, or rust. In addition, check the squareness of the various body panels and doors in relation to each other and to the rest of the car body. Check for signs of frame damage, such as a wavy look to the side of the car.
    Underbody: The condition of the underbody of a car tells you a lot about whether the car has seen flooding. For example, there may be an overabundance of rust. Sometimes car owners paint over the rust in an effort to disguise rust damage, so look closely.
    Trunk: The trunk represents another area to check for any water or frame damage. An ill-closing trunk can indicate an accident, while rust within the trunk might mean the car has seen water damage.

    Inspect the Engine

    Next, open the hood and inspect the engine. The engine compartment contains many components vital to the working of a car. And while you should expect some wear and tear, certain issues can signify greater problems. When inspecting the engine compartment, pay attention to the following:
    Cleanliness and fluids: A dirty engine usually indicates a leak of some sort, either oil, water, or some other type of fluid. You should also check the level of the fluids to see if you can detect any fluid loss.
    Belts: Check the belts for wear and cracks. While not usually a big deal to replace, sometimes worn belts in an engine indicate an overall lack of maintenance, which could lead to bigger costs down the road.
    Leaks underneath: Check underneath the engine compartment to see if you can detect any leaks. If you need to, place a clean piece of large cardboard under the vehicle to see if any fluids leak onto it while you conduct your inspection.
    Smoking from engine: Start the car and see how it runs. Warning signs to look for include a rough idle or smoke emanating from the engine. Also, listen to the sounds of the engine for any misfires or hesitation.

    Inspect the Tires

    The tires represent one area that people often neglect to check out when buying a used car. Tire wear can tell you a lot about the condition of the alignment. When checking the tires, look for:
    Age: Check the week and year the tire was manufactured via the Department of Transportation (DOT) number on the sidewall of the tire.
    Tread: In addition, check the tread of the tires to see how much life they still have left. Replacement represents an added expense if you buy a car with worn tires.
    Wear pattern: The pattern of the wear on a tire can indicate bigger problems, especially with a car’s alignment. Even wear indicates no problems, while wear on specific areas can indicate that the vehicle is pulling to one side or the other while driving.

    Inspect the Interior of the Car

    The interior of a vehicle sees the most use and tends to show the greatest signs of wear. Once inside the car, you should check a few areas to make sure that everything works properly or is in good shape, including:
    Upholstery: Constantly entering and exiting a vehicle can wear out car seats. When inspecting the seats of a car you want to buy, check the upholstery for any unusual wear or damage, such as cracking, tears, and stains. When buying a used car, also be on the lookout for lingering smells that could indicate an unfortunate incident, such as vomit on the inside of the car.
    AC/heat: With the car running, turn on the AC to make sure cold air blows from the vents. In addition, check the heat to make sure that it works properly.
    Odometer: Check the odometer to make sure that it works properly. Also, check the mileage to make sure that the car doesn’t have too many miles on it. On average, a car should have 10,000 to 15,000 miles per year on the odometer.
    Lights: When inside the car, make sure to turn on the inside and outside lights. In addition to the headlights, the brake lights and turn signal should also work properly when turned on.
    By conducting an inspection when buying a used car, you can ensure that you find any potential problems before you spend any money. After you buy a car, make sure to get it insured properly.
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