How to inspect a used car

Uncover the authenticity of a car before attaching a price tag!

Finding a trouble-free used car has nothing to do with luck and everything to do with applying good research and investigative skills. Knowing how to spot potential problems and determining how reliable a used vehicle is can save you from expensive automotive headaches down the road. The following advice can help you to provide a good value of a car.

Under Carriage Inspection


Hit the cross members or the frame with a hammer. You should hear a ringing metallic sound. Its absence indicates that the car was involved in an accident and welding was done to hide/rectify it.


Check for leakage from the dampers. They should be dry and the bushings should be intact. Also check for any cracks on the suspension springs, inside tyre walls, damper foundation, propeller shaft joints, etc.


Check for any oil leakage from the engine oil sump. Drain some oil from the sump and rub it against your fingers. The presence of any gritty metallic substance points toward the erosion of moving engine parts. Check for leaks and stains.

External Inspection


Visually, scan the car from a distance of 15-20 feet. Observe the stance - does it sag or lean in any direction or does it sit up high and straight?

Shock absorbers

Press hard on a corner of the car and release your grip. In case the car keeps rocking up and down, you may need to change the shocks.


If they are not of a single brand, then chances are that the car has done more mileage than what is shown in the odometer. If they are worn out unevenly, it could be due to under inflation or poor wheel alignment. It could also indicate that shocks, struts, or a part in the suspension system needs to be replaced. Do not forget to check the condition of the spare tyre.


These are one of the main indicators of the actual condition of the car. Look for a close fit and ease of opening and closing. A door that fits unevenly may indicate that the car was involved in a collision.


Check the windshield and the window glass for cracks.


Check the trunk. Is it large enough for your needs? Is there any rust at the bottom of the trunk well? Does it contain a good spare tyre and a jack?


Look for rust spots, particularly at the bottoms of fenders, around lights and bumpers, on splash panels, under doors, in the wheel wells, and under trunk carpeting. Small "blisters" may indicate future rust sites. Check for paint that does not quite match, gritty surfaces, and paint overspray's on chrome - all possible signs of a new paint job, masking body problems. Look for cracks, dents, and loose bumpers - warning signs of a past accident.


Check all the gaps between the fenders, doors, bonnet and trunk. Every gap should be even along all its length. Try to inspect all the gaps in the same way.


Take a look at the front fender's edge. It may have unpainted black spots. This may indicate that the fender has been changed and repainted (new parts commonly are in black or grey).


Check the bonnet's fastening bolts. In case you notice that the bonnet has been readjusted from its original position, it is sign that the car has had an accident.


It is very difficult to paint some replaced or damaged part (fender, door, hood, etc.) in exactly the same color as the rest of the car. Therefore, take a look at the car from all angles from a distance.

Rust spots

Check the floor under the carpet, door bottoms, trunk and wheel arches. Take a magnet and try to make it cling to the door bottoms and fenders and other places where you suspect defects or rust spots. If there is too much filling under the paint, the magnet will not cling.


Black, gummy soot in the tailpipe may mean worn-out piston rings or bad valves which may entail expensive overhaul.

Internal Inspection

Lights and mechanical parts

Make sure all head lights, tail lights, brake lights, back-up lights and direction signals work properly. Test the radio, heater, air-conditioner and windshield wipers as well.


Check the upholstery for major wear and tear. Do not forget to look under the floor mats and seat covers. Check the steering wheel. When unlocked, with the engine off, it should have no more than two inches of "play." Check the inside of the door for any rust, especially at the bottom. Examine and fasten the seat belts and make sure they are comfortable and snug. Make sure the seat is comfortable and that adjusts to your needs. Open the glove box and spend some time looking at the car's repair history and owner's manual. Check what was done and what was recommended. Look for frequent oil changes and inspections.


Check the dates of repair against the kilometers you see on the odometer. A car with low mileage, but with a lot of wear on the driver's seat or on the brake and accelerator pedal, may indicate tampering with the odometer. A musty smell inside the vehicle could mean that the car was damaged in a flood or that rain water leaks into the car.

Under the bonnet

Check the battery connections to see that they are clean. Check the oil level to see that it is full. If you are buying a car with a warranty, you do not even need to look under the hood. If it makes you feel any better, go ahead, get out of the car and raise the hood. Look for overspray or for paint where it is not supposed to be.

Cooling system

Unscrew the radiator cap and peek inside. The coolant level should be almost full and there should be no oil or foreign material floating inside. The coolant should be clear light green, but do not panic if it is a little cloudy - it may just need to be replaced.

Oil pressure

Try to check oil pressure on the cold engine (at least an hour after the engine was switched off). Start the engine and look at the low oil pressure warning lamp or oil pressure gauge on the instrument panel. The time between the engine start and the oil pressure indication on the instrument panel should be no more than 1 - 2 seconds.

Oil level and leaks

If you find that the oil level is "minimum" or less on the dipstick, you can suspect that the engine consumes more oil than what is required. Check the engine thoroughly for oil leaks. The more it leaks, the worse the engine.

Air filter

Take off the air filter cover and look inside. If you note the presence of heavy dirt (sand, insects, leaves, etc.), then you may suspect that the last owner of the car was not paying proper attention to its maintenance.

Instrument panel

All the warning lights such as those indicating low oil pressure, low oil level, overheating, etc., should go off after the engine has been started.

Brake and clutch pedal wear

This indicates how a car has been driven so far. Do not compare it with the odometer reading, because the latter can be manipulated.

Rubber beading

Check for any cracks in the rubber beading close to the windshield, outside of glass windows, inside trims, along the roof linings, etc.

Door hardboards

Slide the glass windows up and down to check that they operate properly. Check levers such as glass window winder, door opener and safety lock.


Test Drive


There should not be any extreme noises, knocking and whistling during acceleration or idling. If you see steam in the exhaust after the engine has achieved normal operating temperature, it indicates some cooling system defect - blown-off head gasket, for instance. (Note, if the engine is cold or has just started, steam or water pouring out from the exhaust pipe is okay). In several of the latest cars, there is a sign on the instrument panel indicating any failure inside the engine.


Start the engine. Let it idle for 3-5 minutes. Then press halfway down the accelerator pedal for 2-3 seconds and tell your friend to check the smoke from the exhaust pipe.

o Strong black smoke means the engine is flooded with petrol because of a fuel system defect or that the spark plugs may not be working.

o Blue or white-blue smoke means burning of oil because of internal engine defects (like broken pistons or piston rings).

o White smoke (steam) is a result of the coolant penetrating into the cylinders. It could also mean some gasket defect.


Once the car has warmed up, listen for engine noise as you drive; unusual sounds may be the signs of major trouble. Drive over rough road surfaces, watch for unusual vibrations, noises or odour. Make several stops and starts, at varying, but safe, rates of speed on a clear, level road surface.


Drive carefully, close all the windows, switch off the radio, and listen for any noise. If the car is a front-wheel-drive model, pay more attention to checking front suspension. If there is any knocking noise, the suspension has some faults.


Be a bystander and allow the seller to drive the car on a flat, muddy terrain. The tyre marks on the front wheels should match those on the rear ones. If they don't, then the chassis or the frame has been damaged due to an accident.

On-road performance

The car should accelerate smoothly and should brake without grabbing, vibrating, or pulling to one side. When you step firmly on the brake pedal, it should feel firm, not spongy. Try turning at various speeds. Too much sway or stiffness can mean bad shocks and/or front - rear problems. Turn the wheel all the way from one side to the other; power steering should feel smooth, with little or no squealing. In case of worn-out wheel bearings, you can hear a humming sound which betrays this defect. Also, the noise of the distorted steering bushings will cause excessive steering column vibration.

Instrument panel

Sit inside the vehicle for a minute while it warms up. Now is a good time to try the horn, the signals, the lights, and other electrical items.


Play the radio if you want to check out the sound system. You may want to take your favorite CD when you hunt for cars. Try the air-conditioner while idling and during high speeds. You might want to turn it off before going for a test drive to see how the car performs without it. One can check the pick-up of the car with and without the A/C.