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How to Inspect a Car Before Buying It

young woman inspecting a car and checking the oil

Before buying a vehicle, you should inspect a car thoroughly to ensure that you know what you’re getting into. Used cars are often scammed into a sale, and you want to avoid that.

It might seem like a difficult process to properly examine the condition of a car, but that’s only if you don’t know what you’re doing.

In this car buyers guide, we will cover everything you need to know about inspecting a car before you buy. So that you can make a safe decision when it comes to spending your money.

Whenever you’re ready to start your authentication inspection, keep reading and get your notes ready.

To Inspect A Car, Preparation Is Key

As with all large purchases, it’s a good idea to spend some time doing intricate research on the car that you are considering buying, this can be done online. If you have your eye on a certain model, a simple search can help you recognize the most common issues for that used car.

It’s also valuable to consult with a specialist, owner forums, and consumer reviews to get some insight. In addition to those resources, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration will have a variety of details on recalls, ranging from minor to major issues.

In many cases, the recalled are listed on the history report that is based on the VIN. By listing accidents, past service, mileage, owners, rental use, and other information, the report will provide a great look into how it has been maintained and used.

If a private seller or dealer does not want to offer hte report or at least provide the VIN so you can complete one at your own expense, move on to a different seller as soon as possible.

Examine the Exterior

It’s quite incredible what a couple of hours of polishing, detailing and buffing can do to any car. But don’t let a sparkling glow distract you from the truth.

Walk around the car and look closely for signs of repair that might not have been present on the VIN report. If the color seems off, if there’s paint where there shouldn’t be, or if something does not line up, ask the seller for some information. The repairs potentially cover serious damage, but mostly common touch-ups.

If the car spent a lot of time in the north or is older, you’ll want to examine it for corrosion and rust. The most concerning areas are the wheel wells and the bottom of entrances. New cars are well protected, but when rust sets it, it’s an expensive and continuous battle to keep it maintained.

When examining the exterior, inspect the windshield for pits, cracks, and chips. If it looks damaged, you want it replaced. It might be subject to coverage with insurance, but keep deductibles in mind.

After this, examine the lights by having the seller turn them on individually while you look at them from aside. This might seem like too much, but until you see the cost of replacement for LED headlights, you’ll always think that.

Inspect the tires. If you’re seeing a newer, low-mileage car with hardly used tires, that might be an issue in itself. Ask the seller why the replacement was necessary so early.

Old tires, dry rotted or worn down from lack of use will need replacement at a significant price. This often comes out to $100+ per tire for most vehicles, not to mention the installation costs.

Assess the Interior

Nothing ruins the value of a car that’s new to you as much as an abhorrent smell in it. Unfortunately, stale smoke and other moldy smells can be hardly treated. Foul stenches in the car might propose potential flood or fire damage.

Assuming the interior passes the smell test, look for rips, excessive wear, burn holes, stains, cracks, or any other damage to the upholstery, dashboard, door panels, headliner, steering wheel.

If these areas have been poorly maintained, chances are the rest of the vehicle has been also. The same goes for all audio and seat controls, basic features, and gauges. Everything should work and be without wobble.

Illuminated warning lights are a big concern and they are to resolve before the purchase is made. Regardless of the outside temperature or season, do your best to test the HVAC, including each of the targeted zones, such as the rear, driver, and passenger.

If the AC fails to pump the cold air within minutes, it might need serious repair. Most importantly, ensure the fan blows when it’s set to defrost mode. A bad defroster on a chilly morning is dangerous and annoying.

Before calling it quits on the interior, take a peek inside the cargo and trunk area. Look for smells, structural repairs, and water damage.

Inspect Under the Hood

For many people, looking under the car hood is like trying to speak a foreign language. It is daunting, but a couple of simple guidelines will allow you to evaluate the powertrain health.

First, you should check the engine oil condition by examining the dipstick, which usually has a hook or yellow tab on the end. There are some markings at the end of the stick that present the level of the oil. Low levels might mean the oil is burning or the engine is leaking.

The color of the oil should be brown or light brown. If it’s black, the oil must be changed. The oil that has water or grit, or is foamy is proof of a serious engine issue.

Transmission fluid must be subject to assessment. The dipstick should be pink. It should smell nice as well.

If it smells burnt, there’s probably a transmission problem. Under the hood, their many reservoirs scattered through the engine bay, they are for engine coolant, power steering fluid, and brake fluid.

Each has its own markings and they should be at the proper level. A low level is attributed to leaks. While looking around, examine the belts and hoses. Neither should be cracked or brittle.

The battery needs to be subject to examination for rust and corrosion by the terminals. Cleaning them is simple, but if it’s not done regularly, you can have trouble starting the car.

What you will not see, but will want to ensure with history reports or service records is major maintenance that has been done. The most common example is the timing belt replacement, which for older cars happens quite often.

Vehicles that need these changes but did not get them in a timely fashion will run the risk of complicated engine damage.

Look Under the Vehicle

When looking under the vehicle, there are two things to look for. They are leaks and rust. Even though new cars use better methods and materials, rust can still be a thing. Pay attention to frame and exhaust rust. Light surface rust is fine but avoids serious scaling.

Fresh paint or undercoat on high-mileage cars is a serious concern because they might cover greater problems. As for the fluid, anything that’s not condensation from the AC is a problem. Regardless of the issue, whether it’s someone forgetting to tight the drain plugs or a corroded oil-pan gasket, fluid leaks are expensive.

Suspension problems are expensive as well. A certified mechanic might need to put the car on a lift to examine its property, but the inspection should also cover the struts and shocks for leaks, as well as bounce test.

Consult With Some Specialists

As important as your own inspection is when buying a vehicle, nothing matches the opportunity of getting an inspection done by a specialist.

A certified mechanic will usually charge about $100 for an inspection pre-purchase, but this expense is justified by the detailing of car condition and estimates for recommended repairs.

This relatively small cost can save you thousands of dollars in the long run. You never know what kind of trouble you’ll get when buying a car that you didn’t examine.

Trustworthy Car Shipping

Now that you know how to inspect a car, you are that much closer to purchasing a car. In any case, as long as you cover all of the bases and take an intricate approach to assess the vehicle, you will be able to avoid all of the common pitfalls of used car buying.

If you’re interested in getting your vehicle shipped that you bought remotely, get in touch with us and we will happily ship your car to you quickly and safely.

Dave Armstrong
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