What To Look For When Buying A Used Car: From Hood To Trunk

When buying a used car, use online pricing guides to find its value. Consider the wear and tear on the vehicle, damages, mileage, and make sure it’s inspected. Read this guide to learn more.
Written by Jason Tushinski
Reviewed by Kathleen Flear
If you’re considering
buying a used car from a private seller
, knowing how to spot red flags will save you a lot of trouble down the road (literally). You should carefully examine the exterior and interior of the car and study its history.
Used cars don’t roll off assembly lines in pristine condition. Previously owned cars have a history, and it's up to you to do your best Sherlock Holmes impression and find out what problems—if any—a used car has had in its past.
That’s why the
car insurance
broker and comparison shopping app
has compiled a detailed checklist of what you should look for when buying a used car.
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What to look for when buying a used car

If you put the time into learning as much as possible about the used car you’re considering, you’ll be able to negotiate from a position of strength and get the deal that you want.
Here are some things to tackle first when you start your hunt for a used car.

Total cost of ownership

Total cost of ownership refers to how much the car will cost you, from purchase on through to repairs, maintenance, and depreciation down the road. This is an estimate, but it will give you a good idea of how much a used car will truly cost.
Reputable auto resources such as
Kelley Blue Book
and Edmunds offer handy calculators to help you determine the overall price of a used car.
Be wary of a used car with a low price attached to it. There may be a reason it's being sold on the cheap, so don’t be fooled by a low price tag.

Ensure reliability

When you’re shopping for a used car, stick with a dependable car make. Not sure which used car models to trust and which ones to avoid? There are plenty of resources online to help you.
Consumer Reports and J.D. Power are true nerds of the used car space, and thank heavens for them!
They compile detailed maintenance reports from car owners and rate all used cars. Simply look up the make and model you're interested in and you can get quick info. Put these great resources to use to ensure you end up with a reliable ride.

How expensive is your used car to insure?

Check online for average
used car insurance
prices for the make and model you’re interested in. Or, download
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How much is a reasonable price?

When you’ve got a car (or a few) in mind, start digging around on prices before you physically inspect a car.
Kelley’s Blue Book is a great resource
to find the market price of the car you’re interested in.
Keep in mind, you’ll be looking at prices for new models in those pricing guides. Still, they’re helpful. When you inspect the car in person, you’ll be able to assess the
wear and tear
on the vehicle in relation to its original list price.
Here are things to look for when you look up prices:
  • The year, make and model of the car you’re interested in.
  • Any options that come with the model you’re looking at, such as a navigation system or satellite radio.
  • The mileage of the car. If it has a lot of miles on its chassis—or conversely, not very many—this will affect the price.
  • The car’s condition—is the vehicle in truly fantastic shape considering its age and use, or just merely in drivable shape?
Pricing guides will also give you a dealer price, as well as a private seller price, if you’re looking in that direction as well.
To determine a reasonable price of a car factor in, the Kelley Blue Book price, wear and tear, and extra features.

Check the window sticker

The window sticker is a Buyer’s Guide that is attached to the window of every used car for sale. This is required by the Federal Trade Commission.
Amongst the most important information in the Buyer’s Guide is whether the vehicle is being sold with a
used car warranty
, or "as is."
If there’s a warranty, the Buyer’s Guide will spell out the details, including what percentage of repair costs the dealer is obligated to cover, if any. The Buyer’s Guide is considered gospel—meaning, its contents override any contrary provisions that may be found within the sales contract.
If a
buyer and seller negotiate
any changes that appear in the sales contract, the Buyer’s Guide must be updated to reflect this.
As for "as is," this means if you are buying from a dealer, they’ll make no guarantee about the operating condition of the vehicle. In such a case, any problems that result after the sale are, well, your problems.
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Inspect the used car

So you’ve done your research and taken a good look at the buyer’s guide for the used vehicle you’re interested in. Now, it's time to do an initial inspection.
Use those spidey senses of yours, and make sure the car is in a well-lit place, or outside, so you can get a good look at it. This is your chance to ensure
you aren't buying a lemon.

What to look for when examining the exterior

Overall exterior condition

Look for any body damage, rust, misaligned panels, poor paint jobs, damaged seals around the hood and trunk, and any evidence of subpar repair work. Make sure to open all the doors, including the trunk and hood, to ensure they’re functioning properly.


Examine the front and rear windshields, side windows, and mirrors for any cracks or imperfections. Cracks can lead to costly repairs down the road.


Make sure the car is leveled all the way around. Even try bouncing each corner. The car should only rebound once. This means the shock absorbers are in good working order.


Your tires will get you where you need to go, so give any rubber a good look when buying a used car. Overall, wear should be even across the width of the tires. Ask if they’ve been regularly rotated.
If the used car you’re considering is relatively low mileage yet is sporting four new tires, ask about this. This can be a sign that the seller has rolled back the odometer, so keep an eye out for that.
Be sure to look for wear on the outside areas of the front tires. This is a telltale sign of aggressive driving and could be a sign of other problems that might crop up later.
Remember to give the rims and sidewalls a look for any cracks or rust. Make sure there is a spare tire that’s in good shape, along with its jack and lug wrench.
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What to look for on the interior of a used car

Overall interior condition

When you pop your head inside the car, take note of any odd smells or odors. Does your nose detect anything funky in there?
If you smell something, this could be the after-effects of spills, messes, or other accidents that occurred inside the car. Be sure to ask the seller about this.


Test them all out, even the ones in the back where the kids will go. Make sure no upholstery or material is torn or stained and that the seats can be adjusted, especially the driver’s seat. You want to be sure you can find a good driving position and be comfortable in the car.


Take a good look at the pedals for wear. If the used car you’re looking at is relatively new, there shouldn't be much wear. If the rubber is worn through in places, the car has been driven a lot.


Give everything a quick test. Turn the ignition but hold off on starting the engine. Make sure the car’s warning lights—including the check engine indicator—light up for a few seconds, then go dark again. Test out all the buttons and levers to make sure they work.

Heating and air conditioning

When you start the engine, is it hard to start? With the engine on, crank the heat to high and see how quickly it gets hot. Do the same with the air conditioning, and see how quickly the car gets cool.

Infotainment system

The fun part of the inspection. Give the system a quick workout—bring a USB cord and make sure the system pairs with your phone. Turn the stereo up and check the radio reception on both the AM and FM dials. If the car has a CD player—a true relic—make sure it works.


Pop the trunk and poke your head in. Look for any water stains, rust, or strange smells. If anything seems off, bring this to the seller’s attention.


Inside the cabin, look up at the roof and scan for any signs of damage, sagging or leaks. If there is a sunroof or moonroof, test it out. If you’re looking to buy a used convertible, make sure the roof is in good working order.
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Look under the car

If you are not comfortable sliding underneath the car, ask a mechanic to take a look.
If you can, take a look at the pavement where the car usually sits and look for oil spots or signs of leaks.
If you’re able to safely get underneath the car, lay out a blanket, slide underneath and see if you can see any leaks, drips or signs of green or red fluid on the engine. Look for any dents or damage underneath, as well as any fresh paint on the underside of the car—this may indicate recent repairs.

Check the engine

Take a look under the hood when the engine is cool. It is normal to find some dust and grime in the engine bay. Keep an eye peeled for any oil splattered about or on the pavement under the engine.

Hoses and wires

Be sure there aren’t any hoses or wires hanging aimlessly within the engine bay. On the contrary, make sure hoses and belts are supple and firm (not rock hard or damaged) in connection to the radiator, air conditioning, and other areas.


Check for corrosion on the battery. If the battery has a built-in charge indicator, make sure it is green, indicating good battery status. If the status reads yellow or black, it may need to be replaced.
If the battery has filler caps, wipe them off, unscrew them and take a look at the liquid inside. If the level is low, the battery is probably overworked. A mechanic can test your battery and verify its condition if you are unsure.


The radiator is connected via a rubber hose to a plastic reservoir. Make sure the coolant is a greenish or orange color, without a cloudy or milky consistency.


Fluids are the lifeblood of your engine, so double-check those fluid levels and make sure they have been maintained.
Engine oil should be dark brown or black, without any grittiness. If it is honey-colored, that means the oil has been recently changed. A dipstick with gray or foamy oil on it may indicate a cracked engine.
Transmission fluid should have a pinkish color to it, not brown. It should smell like oil, without any "burnt" odor to it. If you see any visible metal particles on it, this could indicate a problem with the transmission.
Make sure power steering and brake fluid levels are within the safe zone.

Don’t forget to test drive

A visual inspection is all well and good, but some car issues will not be readily apparent to the naked eye. Make sure you have time for a
proper test drive
(that means more than cruising around the block).
To conduct a proper test drive, you have to drive in different conditions to truly get a feel for the vehicle. Ideally, try to test drive the car on city and highway roads.

Get a reputable mechanic to examine the car before you buy

If you’re serious about buying the car, be sure to take it to an independent (not affiliated with the dealer), licensed, and reputable mechanic. They will give the vehicle a thorough mechanical inspection along with a written report to ensure it is in good working order.
An independent inspection will cost around $100. With a written report in hand, this will give you some leverage if the mechanic uncovered any problems with the vehicle.
When you’re buying a used or new car, there is no substitute for trusted expertise. It will give you peace of mind and likely save you money down the road.
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Frequently asked questions

What if I inspect a used car I’m interested in, but still unsure if I’ll be buying a quality vehicle?

When in doubt, take the car to a licensed, reputable, and independent mechanic. Most people aren’t car experts, but mechanics are.
It’s also a good rule of thumb to pull a vehicle history report to find out if the car has been in any major accidents or declared a "total loss" and rebuilt.

What if the seller discourages an inspection and insists the car has "no problems"?

If the seller is discouraging an inspection for any reason, walk away. There’s no point paying good money for someone else’s problem.
There are lots of quality used cars for sale—you’re entitled to find a seller who you can trust.

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Don’t forget—you’ll need car insurance to go along with your newly acquired, gently-used automobile. With
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