Now, I can’t guarantee that if you buy a used car, you’re not going to blow it up on a dyno. But, I can say that there are a handful of things you can do to make sure you aren’t getting a lemon. I’m here to help you out if you’re looking to buy a car by providing this handy list of 25 things you should do when looking at a new-to-you ride.
First, real quick, if you’re into buying cars that level up your life, check out the Ideal Car Strategies, which is a curriculum we’ve put together to help you go from super sad car to supercar.
But, for this article, to keep things simple, we’re going to break this down into 5 sections. First, before you go out to even look at the car, there are some things to do first. Then, start on the outside, move to the inside, open the hood and check the engine, and, finally, perform that all-important test drive. Got it? There will be a quiz. Just kidding.
Before You Go – Prepare for Battle!
This is actually the most important step because the work you do ahead of time will dictate your entire buying experience. After all, how can you know what to bargain for if you don’t even know what you are getting into?
First, get your finances in order! Make sure you know exactly how much you can spend on a car. If you’re getting a loan, prequalify first. And, if you’re paying cash, have the cash on hand. You never want to be in a position where you negotiate for an amazing deal and then can’t make it happen simply cause you weren’t prepared.
Next, do your homework on the car. Look up reviews for the make and model online. When you find a car you want to go look at, research the living hell out of it. Know everything there is to know about the specific make and model of interest and read up on what commonly goes wrong and what to look for.
While you’re researching, check parts, prices, and the cost of the most common repairs required. So, if you see something broken, you have some negotiation ammo. For instance, if the fan shroud is cracked and that’s a $200 part, well, you know you can knock $200 off the price.
Then, contact the seller and make sure the paperwork is in order. Do they physically have the pink slip? Is it in their name? It’s not necessarily the end of the world if they don’t, but you may not want to even go look at a car if the owner doesn’t have the title in hand.
Finally, while you’re talking to them, ask them about the history and see if they can get you up to speed on the car so you know what to expect.
To summarize, before you go, have your money ready, read reviews online, check parts and common repair prices, make sure the seller has the paperwork, and know the light history. If it’s all good, go check it out. Now, we’ll start on the outside and work our way in.
Combing Over the Outside – Does This Look Right to You?
On that outside, you’re going to want to look for anything that’s broken, faded, rusty, or just plain missing. Start by checking the tires and wheels. If the tires are cracked and damaged or the wheels are all rashed-up or missing center caps, who knows what else the seller has been neglecting?
Then, make sure the thing is straight, especially the sides and roof of the car. If you can, take a peek underneath it to make sure there’s no obvious frame damage. While you’re underneath, check the exhaust and suspension. If there’s a lot of rust and rot, do yourself a favor and walk away. Remember that rust is like cancer and often involves surgery to deal with properly. Unless you’re prepared for that type of commitment, let’s just go look at another one.
Look for holes in the exhaust, make sure the catalytic converter is still there, and check for extra play which could be a sign that the mounts are rusted away.
Also, check for any major leaks. A tiny bit of seepage here and there on an older used car is oftentimes no big deal, but leaks can get expensive fast. If you’re not able to tell how bad a leak is, you might want to get a professional involved before forking out the cash for the car.
Back up top, inspect the paint. Now, this may not be the most important thing to you because, if you’re like me, you care about performance more than looks. But, the paint does protect the metal and the stuff under the paint is definitely worth protecting.
Check the door, hood, and trunk gaps. If anything doesn’t fit right, chances are the car has been hit or, at least, taken apart and not put back together properly. Finally, make sure all the lights work. They aren’t hard or expensive to fix, usually, but you want to drive your new car away. And, to do that, legally, you need lights.
So, quickly, on the outside, check the tires, make sure the car is straight, check the underside, inspect the paint and body gaps, and turn on all the lights. Moving to the inside…
Inspecting the Inside – How Does That Make You Feel?
Primarily, you’ll be looking for things that don’t work, but you’ll also want to gauge the condition of things, especially the seats. Believe it or not, you’ll probably be spending the most time in the car’s seats, not rolling around in the trunk. So, make sure they’re in decent condition.
While you’re in the seat, twist the key and make sure all the lights on the dash come on. Then, extinguish shortly after you start the engine. Brad has literally bought cars with bulbs missing in the cluster so, even though the car is trying to yell at you about lack of oil pressure, you won’t know until it’s too late.
So, the engine is running and there are no warning lights. If there’s a warning light, be cautious, because that means something’s wrong and you’ll probably need to fix it. As you’re looking for dash lights, check the steering wheel for play. The steering wheel shouldn’t have excessive play and it shouldn’t rattle. Oftentimes, when people mess with the airbag or were in an accident, the steering wheel feeling wrong is a quick way to tell.
Then, poke all the controls and make sure all the buttons work. That’s the windows, door locks, vents, sunroof, heat, air conditioning, and everything else. If a bunch of stuff is broken, at least make sure you don’t have to pay for all of it.
Finally, use your nose. We have a whole video on flood cars, but you aren’t just smelling for mold. Remember that things like smoke damage, biological damage, and other things will leave lasting scents that are very hard to get rid of. You don’t want to discover that your Jeep smells like dead deer after you buy it.
So, on the inside, check the seats, make sure there are no warning lights, wiggle the steering wheel, push all the buttons, and follow your nose. Then, reach down between your legs and pop the hood.
Under the Hood – Let’s Shake, Rattle, and Roll
It’s time to inspect the engine. First things first, make sure the fluids are topped up. That’s coolant, oil, power steering, and more. If the fluids are low, it means that someone has been either neglecting the maintenance or something’s broken. Neither is a good thing.
While you’re inspecting the fluid levels, look for discoloration on the outside of the engine. If coolant or oil has been splashed around, or if there’s a rupturing line, it will leave puddles or discolor the engine parts. Don’t forget to check your rubbers. That’s plug wires, belts, and hoses. Look out for dryness and cracking.
If an electrical wire is crispy, that could spell problems for you. That includes the wires going to the battery, which can often corrode and become less effective. Make sure to negotiate a battery into the price if the current one is ancient or corroded.
Then, have the seller start the car and watch for any leaks or weird vibrations. First, the car should start quickly. If it hesitates for a long time, that might mean something is wrong. Second, you’ll be able to see any leaks or hear any rattling parts that might be broken or failing, particularly with the timing chain.
So, just make sure to give it a good once-over while the engine is running. Make sure it’s not smoking excessively, it’s warming up reasonably quickly, and, overall, it behaves.
Finally, scan the engine with an OBD reader, the most convenient OBD2 scanners are Bluetooth dongles like the one from FIXD, who’s sponsored our videos in the past. Plus, they cost less than $20. While the car is running, scan it for stored codes and make sure there are no errors. It’s a small price to pay for that much piece of mind.
Just as a note, if you’re buying older cars, like any car before 1996, it probably doesn’t have an OBD2 port. But, you probably also don’t need this guide because you know what horrors you might be getting into. All I can say is “best of luck.” Enjoy that Mark III Supra.
In summary, check the fluids, make sure the fluids are on the inside, inspect the wiring, hoses, and belts, watch and listen to the engine start, and scan the computer with a reader.
Alright, here’s the last part. If you like knowing about car buying and the best ways to get it done, as well as being part of a community of car-buying enthusiasts, check out the Ideal Car Strategies. It’s a place where we’re all about treating cars as sound investments and teaching you how to do the same.
Anyway, once you’ve seen the outside and the inside and started the car, it’s time to take it on the test drive.
On the Drive – Testing, Testing, 1-2-3
First things first, when you get behind the wheel and start around the block, make sure the car can stop. Stand on the brakes before you do any other testing, that way you can be sure that it will stop in case things go wrong.
Then, you can make sure it goes. Stand on it, let it warm up by driving gently, of course, and don’t like spin out and crash. But, do a hard pull to make sure that the engine and gearbox are healthy.
Next, let go of the steering wheel and check the tracking, as in make sure the car goes in a straight line without input. A little bit of movement is probably alright, especially if you’re driving around badly grooved roads or if the car that you’re in has fat tires. But, if the car starts really diving to the left or right, you know there’s a serious suspension issue and you probably don’t want to deal with that.
The whole time you’re stopping, turning, and accelerating, listen for any weird noises. If there’s something up, you’ll hear one of two sounds: a sound that is related to your engine speed or a sound related to your wheel speed. If a sound gets louder or higher in frequency the more RPMs you turn, that means something is up with the engine. If the sound gets louder or more frequent when you go faster, that’s a drivetrain issue. Since you’re going to get a pre-purchase inspection, you can tell the inspecting mechanic about the noise and narrow down potential costs.
Finally, as you drive around, just feel the car. It’s nearly impossible to describe every single thing that you should be feeling for on a test drive, but I have faith in you. You probably know what a car feels like. You know that a car isn’t supposed to shake, or buck, or swerve without input. If anything like that happens, have the owner tell you why. And, if they can’t and your not sure what’s going on, be prepared to walk away.
So, on the test drive, make sure it stops, make sure it goes, check the tracking, listen for weird noises, and use your intuition. And, if everything feels great and it passes a PPI, you found a great car. An ideal car! Buy it and enjoy it and keep on mind all of these things so that you’re prepared to sell it.