Sooner or later most of us will buy a used car. Whether it’s a cheap set of wheels for a teenage driver, a classic muscle car, a well-worn 4×4 just for winter or simply a low-mileage alternative to a new car, the possibilities are endless. The trick to buying any previously owned car is to know what you’re getting. And in the wild world of used cars, the only way to set your mind at ease before you buy is a thorough inspection. Sure, you can farm this out to an expert, but anyone with some mechanical experience can perform the task. You’ll save a few bucks and add to your automotive knowledge. We’re here to show you how to navigate your way through a sea of possible lemons.
The Art of the Inspection
Before you do anything, check for an online community focused on the model you’re going to inspect. Many cars, especially enthusiast favorites, have well-known trouble spots.
When you arrive on location, ask to see the car’s title. Salvaged cars, ones that were totaled and fixed or flooded, have the word “salvage” on the title. (Unless the price is ridiculously low, treat salvaged cars like they’re on fire: Run.) Also ask for service receipts. A thorough service history indicates a properly maintained car and verifies the car’s mileage. (In addition, try to obtain a report from Carfax or AutoCheck.)
Assuming the paperwork checks out, examine the car outside—natural light reveals more flaws. On vehicles from 1996 onward, use a scan tool—either rent one or equip a smartphone with the $99 GoPoint GL1 cable and app—to record any fault codes (an Internet search will reveal their meaning). Check for rusty areas and dented, crinkled or shiny metal. Rust is an obvious problem, but gouges along the underbody pinch welds suggest that the car has been on a frame-straightening machine. Small crash fixes don’t necessarily fail a car, but you don’t want a vehicle that took a huge hit. Note any fluid leaks or puddles under the car. Fixing leaks can be easy and cheap, like replacing a valve-cover gasket, or in the case of a bad rear-main seal, complicated and expensive.
In the engine bay, check that all the fluid levels are within range. Note anything amiss, like bare, stray wires. Engines in modern cars are quite robust, provided they’ve been maintained. But it’s a good idea to remove the dipstick and wipe it on a clean white rag. The oil should be brown. Milky oil suggests coolant in the sump; a gas smell means worn piston rings. And if there are fine metallic particles mixed with the oil, the engine won’t be running for long. Do the same fluid check for the transmission. Dark or metallic particles indicate worn parts.
Make sure you get behind the wheel. Steve Steeb, owner of Steve Steeb Service in Ann Arbor, Mich., relies mostly on the test drive to suss out a car’s condition. Steeb drives on varied roads—some with bumps, others long and straight—and listens for any strange noises. He applies brakes during turns and drives up steep parking lot ramps. He’s not looking for specific flaws (“Worn brakes are easily fixed,” he says), but rather, getting the general feel of the vehicle. Several things will immediately fail a car—a knocking noise from the engine, jerky transmission shifts, a slipping clutch or banging from the suspension—but Steeb is also trying to decide if it simply feels worn out. “Little things add up,” he says. “Does the steering wheel jiggle, or does the car pull to one side when braking. Is the interior a cacophony of rattles? I tell folks to trust their intuition.”
A few warts don’t mean that a used car is a bad buy. Take a survey of the numerous online price guides and use that book value as a starting point. Employ the demerits you’ve compiled to negotiate. With any used car, expect the unexpected. “There’s a lightning strike waiting in every older car,” Steeb says. So leave a little in the budget to cover the inevitable unforeseen repair. But if you’re detailed and diligent, you can minimize your chances of ending up with a clunker.