Buying a used car can feel overwhelming. No need to worry- we're here to help. By following this checklist, you'll be as prepared as you can be to make a decision on a used car.
- If the seller refuses to allow you to thoroughly examine the car or take it to a mechanic, walk away.
- Examine the engine, brakes, transmission, suspension, tires, and interior.
- Don't be afraid to ask questions about the car's history. Consider accidents, previous owners, and whether the car was used for towing.
Used Car Buyer's Checklist
Any “bad” records in a VIN history report?
Any maintenance records?
How many previous owners?
Why are they selling the car – tired of fixing it?
Any accidents, engine, or transmission repair?
Has the car passed an emission test?
Start with the Exterior
Indications of possible problems:
Are the exterior lines not straight? Ripples? Misaligned panels?
Driver's door has free play in the hinges? Is it hard to close?
Are the gaps between panels too narrow or too wide on one side of the car?
Lots of rusty spots?
Mismatched colors? Painting over spray?
Does any panel of the car seem to be repainted? If so, why? Accident? Corrosion?
Trailer hinge? Was the car used for towing?
Indications of a Possible Engine Problem
Any oil or coolant leaks from the engine?
Is the engine dirty or oily?
Is the oil level low? Is the oil on the dipstick too dark?
Any indication of poor quality repair work / lack of maintenance? (e.g. badly corroded battery terminals, very low oil level, etc.)
Start the engine:
Does it work unevenly?
Any knocking, pinging, or whistling?
Any smoke? Slight water steam is OK
Any warning lights come on while the engine is running?
“Check engine” light?
Is the engine oil pressure too low at idle?
Any hesitation on acceleration?
Is the engine powerful enough?
Does it look very dirty under the oil cap?
Is there the smell of burnt oil under the hood?
Possible Automatic Transmission Problems
Any previous transmission repair? Was it rebuilt?
Does the transmission fluid smell burnt?
Is the transmission fluid on the dipstick too dark/dirty?
Start the engine and try to switch from P to D and from P to R holding the brakes –
Is the time between shifting and the moment the transmission kicks in too long?
Any strong noises or jerks?
During a test drive:
Any delays or troubles shifting?
Any shudder? Does the transmission slip or jerk harshly?
The shifting seems to be delayed?
Does the kick-down function work?
Any noises while driving?
Any troubles changing gears?
Is the clutch slipping?
Any trouble shifting into reverse?
Are any of the shock absorbers leaking?
Are any of the shock absorber boots broken?
Does the steering have notable free play?
Does the car bounce too much when you push one of the corners down?
Tires have irregular wear?
Does the car sit level?
During a Driving Test
Any knocking or creaking noises when driving over bumps?
Does the car pull to one side? Is the steering wheel out of center?
Does the vehicle feel unstable on a freeway?
Any humming or growling noises?
Is the brake fluid container leaky?
Is the brake fluid level too low?
Brake pedal goes down to the floor? Break pedal is too soft (spongy)? Too hard? Any brake fluid leaks under the car?
Badly corroded brake lines? Brake rotors appear corroded?
During the test drive:
Any brake pedal or steering pulsation while braking?
Does the vehicle pull aside while braking?
Any grinding noise?
Does the brake warning light or ABS light come on while driving?
Any cracks or bruises?
Tread appears low?
Vibration at high speed?
Humming noise? Uneven tire wear?
Is the driver seat / steering wheel worn excessively?
Dampness under the carpet or in the trunk?
Does the stereo work?
Does the odometer have any evidence of being tampered with?
Does the air conditioner provide really cold air?
Are the power locks, windows, mirrors, sunroof, etc. working?
Are the heater and window defoggers working?
Wind noise while driving?
Any warning lights come on while driving?
Do you feel comfortable in the driver's seat?
Seats, seat belts, mirrors, controls, steering, visibility?
Spare tire, jack, wheel wrench?
After Completing a Check
After completing a thorough check of the vehicle you're interested in, go ahead and do the following:
- Talk to the seller about any issues you noticed. If you're still interested in the car, see if they're willing to bring down the price.
- Talk to your mechanic about how expensive fixing any issues would be.
- Walk away from any car that has excessive damage or that doesn't feel safe to drive.
- Take a couple of days to think over your decision. Don't impulse buy.
- Consider asking the seller to take the car down to a mechanic to have them examine it. If they refuse, it likely means they have something to hide. Walk away.
- Research what price cars of that make, year, and model sell for. Consider how any existing damage or issues impact the price.
- Negotiate with the seller as needed.
- Once you have the money ready, let them know you're interested in making an offer.
- If the seller accepts your offer, congrats! This car is now yours.
- Once the car is in your ownership, fix any outstanding issues as soon as possible. Get it cleaned up, both inside and out.
- If you had to take out a loan for this car, make sure you keep on top of payments.