The Auto Channel
The Largest Independent Automotive Research Resource
Official Website of the New Car Buyer

Feature Story


by Bob Hagin

October 03, 1997

The marketing of used cars has become an extremely big deal - especially so now that auto leasing has taken on such gigantic proportions. It's advantageous and easy for many new car shoppers to lease rather than buy and after two or more years, most of these cars are dropped onto the used car market in very good condition.

But every car that shows up on the used car market isn't in great shape and if you're one of the millions of shoppers who buy used cars every year, it's important to know what to look for, especially if you're buying from a private party.

Last time we covered the preparatory stages of buying a used car. Now we'll go through the actual inspection of the vehicle you've decided to buy:

EXTERIOR - Check the exterior closely for signs of major body damage. If the paint is new, it may be there to cover up major body work. Open and close all of the doors, the trunk and the hood to make sure they work correctly. Sight down both sides of the body to see if they're straight and not rippled. Scrutinize the corners of the doors, fenders and body panels for signs of rust (it sometimes appears as small bubbles in the paint) and for door, trunk or hood gaps that are uneven or large. This may be the result of a poor wreck restoration.

INTERIOR - Check the driver's side carpets and seat for heavy wear. The vehicle may have more mileage than shows on the odometer and a lot of driver-side wear may be a tip-off. Make sure the windows go all the way up and down and that the door locks work from the outside, too. Turn on the ignition switch and check the operation of the instruments, washers and wipers front and rear and all the features of the sound system but don't start the engine; that comes later. Check for a musty odor or heavy deodorizing. This may indicate that the machine has been renovated after being caught in a flood. Rust on unusual places like underdash braces is an indicator of flood damage, too. Remove the spare tire from the trunk and check for water damage or rust underneath it. Be sure that the spare is OK and that the tire changing tools are there.

UNDERCHASSIS - Examine the front and rear tires for unusual wear patterns which indicates suspension alignment or wear problems. Shake the front tires at the top and sides to check for excessive looseness. Examine the underside and suspension parts with a flashlight to check for damaged or bent parts. A hoist would be a good tool to use for this but it would have to come later. For now, look for the obvious stuff.

UNDERHOOD - Before you start the engine, pull the oil dip stick and check the oil level and cleanliness. Remove the cap from the cold radiator and check for dirty or rusty coolant. Also check the battery box for excessive corrosion, the drive belts for looseness or wear and the coolant and heater hoses for wear. Be suspicious of brackets that are empty. Start the cold engine: it should start immediately, run for a few seconds at a high idle and then drop down to a normal idle speed. Check the engine, transmission and cooling system for leaks when the engine is running and this includes the underside, too. Run up the engine in place and listen for "unusual" cold-engine noises (piston or valve lifter noise, maybe?).

ROAD TEST - Restart the engine from the driver's seat with your foot resting lightly on the brake pedal. The pedal should drop away slightly and then be firm. This checks the brake power booster. Make sure all the seat belts work. Drop the automatic transmission into drive to check for rapid engagement and try to pull away with the parking brake on to make sure it holds. If the vehicle has a stick shift, you can check for clutch slippage this way. Getting underway, the automatic shifts should be even and crisp while stick shift changes should not produce gear grinding. The vehicle should track straight with little or no steering "slop." Turning left or right should produce no noise from either front wheel and near-panic stops should be the straight and noiseless. Road bumps shouldn't produce excessive bounce (bad shocks) or noise. Check both the a/c and heater action on the road.

REEXAMINATION - At the end of the road test, open the hood and check the automatic transmission level and smell its dip stick. It shouldn't smell burned. Check the alternator, oil pressure and all other engine indicator lights at idle. They should be off. Shut down the engine and check all the outside lighting including the stop and turn lights. Then make sure that the hot engine will restart. If possible, take the vehicle to your mechanic or auto club test station for further examination.

GENERAL RULES - Don't buy at night or in wet weather since both hide flaws. Make sure that the title is "clean" and the registration is up to date; legal hassles can produce nightmares. Make sure the vehicle is smog-legal if your state requires it. Don't buy until any promised repairs are made and take the vehicle with you as soon as you pay for it. Call your insurance agent immediately to transfer coverage. Otherwise you might forget.

Buying a new vehicle is easy: you're really buying the deal since all new vehicles of one make and model are pretty much the same. But with a used car or truck from a private party, you don't get to take it back to have minor problems fixed. What you drive home is what you get.