Buying a home is the most expensive purchase most people will ever make, but a car is usually second on that list. The process can be exciting and enjoyable, but you shouldn’t take it too lightly if you’re shopping for a pre-owned vehicle, as this could prove costly. When buying a used car, checklists are a lifesaver.
There are the obvious items to inspect, such as the tires and fluids, but there could be plenty of other items that either help you lean into a purchase or run away screaming. This checklist may help you tick off the important boxes so that you try and find a vehicle that’s in good shape and which should hopefully last for years.
Your buying-a-used-car checklist, explained
What does a used car checklist look like? The format doesn’t matter nearly as much as the content. Separate the major sections of a car, then drill down into each one in detail. Methodical, step-by-step inspections will help ensure problems don’t slip by unnoticed.
We’ll break down the checklist into a handful of categories to make it easy to navigate:
- The pre-inspection process
- Exterior inspection
- Interior inspection
- Powertrain check
- The all-important test drive
After going through these things to check when buying a used car, you should be able to make a definitive decision on whether the vehicle is right for you or if you should walk away.
Things to look for when buying a used car
Before you start ticking boxes on a checklist, some groundwork needs to be laid. Have you settled on a specific type of vehicle—a pickup truck, compact car, sports car, midsize SUV and so on? That has to be the place to begin. Once you have a type of vehicle, narrow down which make and model you are considering. You don’t have to choose just one, but a maximum of three options will help with trimming the field.
From there, compare prices with similar makes and models, figuring out where the pricing needs to be to determine a good deal. Kelley Blue Book’s Used Car Prices tool will show you what fair market value is, whether from a dealer or as a private sale.
Finally, before you delve into inspections and test drives, figure out your financing. Few things are worse than choosing a vehicle, getting your hopes up and finding out you can’t afford it after all. Get a preapproval from your lender before investing your time in on-site inspections.
What to look for before you inspect the car
After searching some listings, you’ve hopefully found a viable used car option. But it isn’t time to arrange a visit or schedule a test drive just yet. There are some precursory items that you need to line up before you see it in person. These are some details to check off when you initially make contact.
A clear title
The title should be clear, meaning that the car has not been designated a total loss. In most areas, both dealers and private sellers have to disclose branded title cars. It’s less likely that you’ll be able to finance a car with a branded or salvage title as well, so keep that in mind. No matter how well the car has been repaired or how low the price is, it’s usually not a good choice to buy a car with a branded title.
Also, ensure that the seller has a title in hand. If they still owe money on the car, they may not have the title, but the process to transfer ownership has to be well-documented to ensure you aren’t liable for their outstanding debt.
Detailed maintenance records
Ask the seller if they have maintenance records. The purpose of such records is to establish a history of consistent, quality vehicle servicing and repairs. On-time oil changes, for example, are vitally important for long-term engine health. Look for maintenance items that have come due according to the mileage—services such as timing belt replacement, brake fluid flushes and transmission services.
If maintenance records aren’t available, you’ll need to pay closer attention to the powertrain when you inspect the car.
Seller’s ID and registration match
Only the true, legal owner is able to legally sell a car. Ask the seller if they own the car and if their name is on the title. For a sale to be binding, the name has to match between the title or registration and the person selling the car.
Is the car’s mileage consistent with its year? A car that’s 8 years old would reasonably have more than 20,000 miles and a 1-year-old car shouldn’t have 50,000 miles on the odometer. If the mileage averages out to less than 8,000 miles per year or more than 20,000 miles per year, there could be an issue to sort out.
Smog check certificate
33 states require smog checks in at least certain counties. If you live in an area that requires passing an emissions test to register a car, ask if the car has already been certified. If it hasn’t, you might want to make the test a condition of the sale.
Vehicle history report
Before spending even a minute checking out a car, examine the vehicle history report. Ask the seller if they will provide one. If not, invest in a comprehensive vehicle history report if you’re serious about the car. Look for inconsistencies with mileage reports, the title status, recalls, collisions and out-of-state registrations that could indicate title washing.
Exterior inspection checklist
Satisfied with the preliminary information? Great! It’s time to get hands-on with the car. Start with an inspection of the car’s exterior, taking in everything that it has to tell you. With a discerning eye, you may be able to tell if the car has been in an accident, where it has been parked and how well the car has been cared for.
Wheels and tires
Tires are the only part of a car that touches the road, making them your No.1 safety item. Pay close attention to wheels and tires.
- Examine the rims and hubcaps for curb rash, which indicates possible suspension and steering damage.
- Inspect tread depth to confirm at least four-thirty-seconds of tread for safe driving.
- Lug nuts should all be present and tight. Missing or loose lug nuts can be a sign of shoddy workmanship.
- Inspect the tire pressures all around. Uneven pressures often indicate a leak or lack of quality maintenance.
- All four tires should be the same brand and model. Mismatched tires can handle differently, compromising safety.
Body panel gaps
The car’s individual panels can give you a clue into any possible damage that wasn’t reported to insurance. All around the car, body gaps should be consistent. If there’s a wider gap on the left side of the hood than the right side, for example, that could indicate there has been a front-end collision that has been repaired at some point.
Paint wears as it ages, and swirl marks and scratches are going to happen. However, the paint should all appear consistent on every part of the exterior. A car that has panels that look like they have different amounts of wear or the color is a little off could be hiding body damage that has been repaired—to who knows what standard.
Yes, even inspect the lights. All the exterior bulbs should be functioning. Also, the plastic housings will fade and yellow with time and sun exposure. If the headlamps or tail lamps are mismatched in color or yellowing, one of them was likely replaced. And if the headlamps are yellowed and cloudy, that’s a sure sign the car has spent much of its life outside in the sun, affecting the integrity of the paint, trim, tires and interior.
A vehicle’s interior condition can tell you a lot about its life to that point. The smell, the wear, how features operate—they’re all things to look for when buying a used car, pointing you to a good purchase or red flags waving at you to find a different car.
For the interior, your first impression comes from the condition of the upholstery. Everything should feel like it’s in good condition, with appropriate amounts of wear.
Stains and crumbs can be cleaned but should still provide an overall indication of how the car was treated. If the seat cushions are crushed or the outside bolster is worn through, that tells you someone has likely spent hundreds of hours in the car with frequent ins and outs like a delivery driver. Look for sun-bleached or cracked plastic trim that signals a car has been primarily parked outside.
Most odors will dissipate over time or with ozone treatment. Tobacco smoke is an exception, so if you’re sensitive to smoke, shy away from even a hint of the smell.
Pay particularly close attention to musty, moldy or sour smells. Mildew or mold in a car could mean it has been water-damaged, so search for rust on the seat frames, under the floor mats and in the spare wheel well. If there’s rust or water collecting in these spots, take a hard pass on the car.
Turn the ignition on while you watch the instrument cluster. All the warning lights should come on for a few seconds and then go off. That is known as a bulb check. The gauges should sweep from one end to the other and back, and then nothing should stay on after it’s done. If the instruments aren’t working, it might not affect anything, but an instrument cluster repair is an expensive upgrade to have to make.
Roll the windows down one by one. They should go down smoothly from the master switch on the driver’s door as well as the individual switch on the passenger doors. If there’s a stutter during the movement or it doesn’t work consistently, a window motor, regulator or switch could be faulty.
Most late-model cars come with convenience functions like Bluetooth, cruise control, steering wheel audio controls and more. Try each button like a kid playing around to see if everything works. Something as simple as a nonfunctioning button can mean an expensive repair or even a safety concern in a collision.
Engine and drivetrain checklist
You might not be a mechanic and it would probably be best to have a trusted professional try and see if the car is mechanically sound. Consider making that a condition of the sale if all else goes well, but in the meantime, you can do some recon of your own. Tick off these boxes on your checklist.
A car’s fluids are critical to its longevity and should always be maintained. Fluids should all be between the full and add marks on their dipsticks or reservoirs. On your used car inspection checklist, inspect:
- The engine oil: It should be golden brown and smooth to the touch on the dipstick. Black or gritty oil indicates poor maintenance while milky engine oil tells you water is present. That’s bad.
- Transmission fluid: Cars with automatic transmissions normally have a dipstick to check the fluid. Fluid is commonly red and should be clear. If it smells burnt, looks dark or is milky, it needs maintenance.
- Coolant: Clean fluid without any particles is what you want. With the engine cold, open the cap to check the coolant. If there are crusty bits in the coolant, it’s overdue for a flush. If there’s oil in the coolant, the car might have a head gasket leak.
- Brake fluid: Brake fluid should be clear or lightly golden in the reservoir. Like the others, particles, darkness and milkiness are all bad signs.
With the engine running, listen for abnormal noises. Anything harsh—rattling, knocking or screeching from the engine bay—could be a costly repair waiting in the wings.
Before going for a drive, sit in the driver’s seat with the engine running and operate the shifter through the gears. Each movement should result in quiet engagement. Knocking noises or a hard bump into gear could mean the transmission is on the way out.
With the engine running, check for warning lights. Any amber or red lights are warnings that something isn’t working as it should or needs attention soon. Any blue or green lights are simply informational and nothing concerning.
Test drive checklist
Now comes the fun part: the test drive, which can help you glean a lot of information. Before you fall too deeply in love with the ride, though, stay the course by wrapping up your checklist first.
Get a feel for the brakes. When you press the pedal, it should travel smoothly and stop before reaching the floor. While you’re driving, grinding or squealing can indicate rusty rotors or worn-out brake pads. Vibrations when you apply the brakes are often caused by warped rotors.
Turn corners to the left and right and to varying degrees. Consistent steering motions that always return to center are normal. If the car feels like it’s binding or it’s hard to steer, there could be underlying power steering or suspension issues to address.
Feel the power. Test the acceleration as much as you can legally and safely. Hesitations aren’t normal, nor are warning lights that come on when you drive aggressively. If the acceleration is underwhelming, there could be tune-up concerns.
Unusual noises or vibration
As you drive over bumps, turn corners, hit highway speeds and slow down, keep a keen ear out for noises and a feel for odd shakes. Clunks and rattles are usually loose steering or suspension parts, while vibrations could be bad tires or brakes.
Try out all the heat and air conditioning settings. After the engine is warm, the heat should be toasty warm and the air conditioning ice cold. If they aren’t, there could be expensive problems to repair, from a defective heater control to a failed air conditioning compressor.
Other questions to ask
The inspection went well and the test drive was enjoyable. There are a few other things to check when buying a used car simply by asking questions. Ask the seller:
- Why are you selling the car?
- How long have you owned it?
- Where did you purchase the car from?
- Is there any warranty left, or do you have a transferable extended warranty?
- Do you know of any unresolved issues?
- Have you had any accidents with the vehicle?
Most upstanding sellers won’t have a problem answering your questions. If there are inconsistencies, take note. They could be trying to cover something up.
Shopping for a used car should be fun, but you do still need to take it seriously or you could be left holding the proverbial bag on unexpected costs. If you know what to monitor and check for when buying a used car, not only are you more apt to enjoy your ownership experience, but you might just keep more money in your pocket.