Buying a Used Car: Checklist

There are several advantages of buying a used car. However, such a decision comes not without some risks. The good thing is that most of the risks related to buying a used car can be pre-empted or reduced by going through a thorough check up of not just the car’s mechanical and aesthetic condition but also some background checks, history, the kind of people who drove the car and of course legal verifications.

Checklist for buying a Used Car

The following are the categorized list of checks that you may perform on your car, its documents and ownership before making a buying decision.

1. Preliminary check

Before even thinking of buying a particular car, you have to quickly go through the following questions and checklist:

  • Research first: Go through car owners forums, review sites and complaint forums to make sure that the particular make, year and model of your car is having a good overall ownership feedback
  • Check if you are going to buy a discontinued model. Buying a discontinued car model is no advisable unless it still has strong brand and market value and good service network with spare parts still available
  • Check the real worth of the car by going through sites such as KBB. However, you may want to crosscheck the prices at different online used car sales sites as well as with your friends. Obviously you don’t want to pay the price quoted by your seller or price suggested by blue book evaluations. You may be settling between the sell and buy price as suggested by official blue book pricing sites
  • As much as possible buy from someone you know or someone your friends know. It may be worth doing a bit of background check of the current owner in terms of his activities and usage pattern of the car. Obviously you don’t want to buy a car from a complex personality who is into illegal activities, terrorism or other bad things. Moreover, he needs to be a nice person to deal with – a good used car sale should result in the satisfaction of the buyer and seller
  • Finally make up your mind on the particular car model that you want. Instead of picking any car that’s readily available at a good price, wait for the model and make that you always wanted to own. After all, you are going to drive it and you should love it!

2. Document & History verification

Once you are done with the first category of check points, you are ready to do a little bit more verification into the legality of the car, its ownership, history etc.

  • First and foremost thing is to make sure that the car is registered and has all documents up to date. Match the VIN number of the vehicle and the one in the title to be double sure
  • Next, make sure that the car is insured. Usually, an insured car cannot be a stolen or illegally imported/refurbished car
  • Do a car history check with sites such as Carfax which is operational in North America and Europe. Carfax provides the complete vehicle history including ownership changes, accidents, service history, theft etc
  • Finally, make sure that you can get finance for the car if you are not going for a cash deal. Based on your credit history and the car’s age, there may be cases when you are not eligible for a car loan. Moreover, let your financing agency know the current ownership, loan and lien details of the car so that the legal ownership transfer possibility is verified once again

3. Car body, mechanical & interior checklist

Now that the legality and ownership of the car is verified, it is time to go for a thorough check of the car.

  • Hail damage: Check for any hail damage on your vehicle which may be visible on the roof, boot lid and the hood. Sometimes, it may be difficult to insure hail damaged cars and your current owner should fix it before handing it over to you
  • Door closing: Properly closing (with a neat ‘thud’) doors are your first proof against any major accident in the past. Open and close all four doors to make sure that they close firmly and without any gap or rub. The same is applicable for the boot lid as well
  • Check for accident damage: Further to the door check, open the boot and the hood and see if you can see any deformation from inside or even abruptly ending paint job. If you can spot any, that may be the indication of previous accidents. Further, check the dashboard panel and door panels for any lose/creaking parts which may be due to accidents as well
  • Paint check: Look for any color changes, abruptly ending paint areas, level difference on door surfaces etc. Further, you may lightly move your fingers over all four doors and other panels to see if one panel is smoother than others. It may have been repainted!
  • Open the hood and look for engine and chassis numbers which should match the title document
  • Start the car and make sure that the mounted parts under the hood are not rattling or grumbling on idle. Also, make sure that there is no fumes and bad smell coming out of the hood
  • Recent service check: If the car is recently serviced, the under-the-hood area look cleaner without any major dust or black particles. Now, switch of the engine and check the oil level and its color. You don’t want to see thick and black (tar like) oil there which indicates poor service history or engine problem
  • Now check for any corrosion near the radiator fins, battery mount etc
  • Radiator coolant color is the next check. It should be bright and clear, if not it may be the indication of an engine problem such as cracked cylinder head or leaking gasket. You may want to take expert opinion in that particular case
  • Now start the car and move it a car length. See if there’s any oil drops on the ground. Bend down and inspect further (while the engine is on) and see if there is any leak, oil wet areas or even exhaust fume leaks. If there’s any evidence of any of these symptoms, you may have to take the car for an expert inspection before making a buying decision
  • While the engine is still on, inspect from inside. You don’t want to see/feel a shivering gear stick or steering when the car is idling. That may be the indication of previous accidents, rough used car or even odometer rollback
  • Finally check the switch levers, lights, wiper mechanism, air conditioning, heater, power windows for their good condition followed by a quick check on breakdown accessories (toolkit, spare tire, jack etc)

4. Road test

We are ready to take the baby for a road test now. When you are on a road test, always make sure to take someone who knows driving and cars. What you won’t notice will be noticed by him or her during your road test for sure.

  • Steering problem is the first thing you have to check out for while on the road test. You don’t want to feel excessive jerk or wobbling on the steering while driving. This may be the indication poor suspension or badly aligned steering
  • Further any tire wobbling or tendency to go either side may be caused by poor tire alignment, balancing or even steering issues
  • Next the engine – the acceleration, slowdown or gear shift should be responsive and the engine should do these jobs smoothly. There shouldn’t be any knocking or rattling sound from an engine that is in good condition. Remember, the engine and the transmission are the key points in our checklist
  • Transmission: The gear changes should me smooth and without any jerky move or trapping in between. The gear stick should not move around in your hand or vibrate
  • Suspension and brakes: Brake test should be pretty straight forward – it should do the job as expected without any other noise than tire screeching. If the car is ABS equipped, make sure that it works properly by braking firmly (no pumping of brakes) in a sandy area. Your foot should feel the ABS kicks or thuds if it’s working properly. As for the suspension, it shouldn’t feel too stiff or too smooth for a rear seat passenger. Also, listen to any rattles coming from the front sides or rear sides of the vehicle which may be an indication of poor suspension

That’s pretty much our checklist. Please note that if you are not fully satisfied with your own inspection and test drive, you may take it for a used car or vehicle inspection service. For 50 to 100 dollars there may be vehicle inspection services available and obviously the cost has to borne by you as buyer.

Hope this checklist was very useful to you. Let me know if you find any other used car checklist pointers that I might have missed out.