Used Car Inspection Checklist
Download a list of the most important questions to ask during a used car inspection.
Whether through a dealership or a private seller, buying a used car isn't always a straightforward process - especially if you don't have a lot of experience. And while there are a lot of great resources for researching and locating the type of car you want, finding the right make and model at a price you're comfortable is only the beginning.
Before buying any used vehicle, it's important to inspect it to make sure it doesn't have any problems that could end up costing you down the line. That's why we've put together a handy list of questions to ask during your used car inspection process.
Download our used car inspection checklist.
Or to view our used car inspection questions here, just keep reading...
Is the engine block clean and clear of any oily residue?
Pop the hood and look directly at the engine block. Look for oily residue or any leaks that suggest the engine doesn't hold oil well.
Is the engine oil the correct color?
Pull the dipstick and look at the color of the oil to see if it's been changed recently. If it's extremely dark, ask about service records. You also want to look for warning signs like small bubbles, metal shavings or discolored oil on the dipstick – “yellow sludge” in oil could be a sign of a blown head gasket.
The Electrical System
Is the dashboard free of any illuminated warning lights?
Get inside the car and turn the ignition key. Look for all of the warning lights to pop on as a quick diagnostic check of the vehicle's electrical system.
Is the electrical wiring working properly?
Check turn signals and audio/video components and the stereo and infotainment system (if applicable). Make sure everything wired into the vehicle is operating correctly, because electrical repairs can be very expensive!
Are the battery terminals free of signs of corrosion?
It’s also a good idea to check the battery terminals for corrosion and a tight connection, because your battery needs to work right for your car to start every time. Also, if the battery is several years old, it will soon need to be replaced, so factor in that cost.
Is the vehicle body free of damage or rust?
Look for any frame damage, or areas where rust is eating into the body of the vehicle. Body repairs can ultimately be very expensive, and you want to look for rust anywhere, including areas of the car that you can only see on a lift, from the underside.
Are the windows and windshield free of cracks?
Do a thorough visual inspection to make sure that the windows and windshield are in good condition as well. Even small cracks can cause big problems down the road.
Are the coolant reservoir and radiator free of leaks?
You’ll also want to check the vehicle's coolant reservoir. Look for any discoloration of coolant, or signs that there may be a leak in the radiator or elsewhere.
Is the power steering working properly?
Power steering fluid is another one you want to check. Turn the ignition on and try turning the steering wheel. You’ll know if there is a problem with the power steering or power steering fluid, because that wheel will be as heavy as lead.
Is the brake system in good condition?
It's also important to see if any elements of the brake system may be in poor condition. Turn the vehicle on and step on the brake pedal to see how low it goes – if it goes down near the floor, or is not firm, there’s probably trouble. The brake pedal should feel firm and have a tight hold on the brakes. If it feels “soft” or “spongy”, then then there could be something wrong.
Doors and Windows
Are the door and window seals in good condition?
It's important to look at doors and windows carefully, to make sure that all of the seals that keep out water are in good condition. Look at the areas where the tops of the doors join the roof. You may even want to pour some water over this area, if possible, to make sure there are no leaks. Check the seals on the trunk, as well. Water can do a lot of damage to the vehicle and practically ruin the cabin.
Are all powered windows, doors and seats working properly?
Check all power doors and windows, as well as power seats, to make sure these are operating correctly.
Air Flow and Air Conditioning
Is the air conditioning working?
With a used car, you always want to manually operate air conditioning systems to make sure that the AC is in good condition and that it blows cold air. Air conditioning really affects the value of the vehicle, and it’s often one of the first amenities to go.
Does the air conditioning have good air flow?
Most common problems include low refrigerant (which can be costly to replace), problems with the compressor, and other problems that could be expensive to fix. Check for good air flow with both heat and air conditioning, and look for any off-putting smells that come along with the delivery of air into the cabin.
Is the suspension system working properly?
You’ll also want to check the used car’s suspension. Simply put pressure on the area of the vehicle above each tire. You should have a fairly smooth rocking up and down. Problems with the suspension can cause the car to handle poorly and make things uncomfortable for drivers and passengers.
Are the headlights and all other vehicle lights working properly?
Check the headlights and all other vehicle lights to make sure they're working properly. Sometimes old headlight housings let in water, causing your light bulbs to shatter or go out frequently. These items will need to be fixed in order to keep all of the vehicle lights on for long-term inspections.
Belts and Hoses
Are the belts and hoses free of any signs of dry rot or wear?
Check all of the hoses going to and from parts of the coolant system. Check the serpentine belt and other belts and hoses that are visible. Check for signs of dry rot or excessive wear. You can run the vehicle and listen for loud squeaking or other belt problems that may be evident.
Are the tires properly inflated and is there sufficient tread depth?
It's also useful to look at tire tread. Yes, vehicles can simply get a new set of tires put on, but in some cases, tire wear can tell you a lot about the vehicle. Improperly worn tires can be a signal of tire underinflation, lack of vehicle alignment or other problems that can impair the drivability of the vehicle.
Does it have a clear title?
Look at the title of the vehicle to make sure it has not been previously wrecked. Some titles will have a “salvage” designation indicating they have been written off by an insurance company as a total loss. These vehicles will have very low value and will be expensive to insure. Make sure that the VIN number is legible and has not been tampered with.
Is the original manufacturer's warranty still valid?
Some used cars may still be covered under their original manufacturer's warranty. If so, make sure to ask for documentation to verify if it's a bumper-to-bumper warranty or just a powertrain warranty.
Does it have additional third-party coverage such as a vehicle service contract?
Some drivers may opt to purchase additional coverage for their vehicle after their manufacturer's warranty expires. This type of coverage is known as a vehicle service contract and usually covers certain repairs due to mechanical breakdowns. Check to see if the vehicle is still under a vehicle service contract and if the vehicle service contract is transferable.