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Used car inspection checklist

These five core areas will help cover the basics on a used car

woman holding clipboard in front of car
Photo (c) bymuratdeniz - Getty Images

There is a commonly held perception that previously owned vehicles are of lesser quality than new vehicles. However, getting a used car doesn’t mean you have to accept the possibility of acquiring a clunker. With in-depth research and inspection of a used car, you can be the owner of a highly functioning automobile. But you must know what to look for to judge whether a previously owned vehicle is a reliable option.

When arriving at a car dealership or an independent seller’s lot, you’ll find a car salesperson to persuade you to purchase a vehicle. The salesperson’s goal is to turn a customer into a buyer to meet sales quotas. That's why it's essential, as a potential buyer, to know the standard of quality you want your vehicle to meet — you don't want to be talked into the wrong match. Below is a series of signs to look for to ensure your used car will have a long life without frequent breakdowns.

The exterior

It's often said that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but in this case, the physical appearance can indicate the overall functioning of the car. Some of the features you should check on the exterior of the car include the following:

  • Headlights: Check the brightness and clearness of the front lights to ensure there's no damage.
  • Taillights: Check to make sure that the turning signals are working properly.
  • Body: Look for any nicks, dents and cracks on the surface of the car, and check for fading in the paint.
  • Bumper (front and back): Check for any signs of past collisions.
  • Tires: Check the condition and tread of all tires so you know how much life they have left.
  • Windshield wipers: Ensure that the windshield wipers on the front (and rear, if necessary) are functioning properly.

The interior

The most vital functions of a vehicle are located inside. It doesn’t matter how good a car looks from the outside if the interior is broken. Some features you should check out in the interior of the car:

  • Engine: Check for any oxidation and erosion.
  • Oil quality: Check the level of the oil and its appearance.
  • Brakes: Ensure that the brakes are functioning by checking the amount of fluid within the reservoir.
  • Transmission: Make sure the transmission fluid is at a proper level, and check its appearance.
  • Antifreeze: Check that the coolant level is correct and that the liquid is the proper color.

Car history

It’s essential to research the history of any used car that you're interested in buying. Some of the things you'll want to know about:

  • The number of miles on the odometer: Look into how much the car was driven by the previous owner; this is a big factor in the selling price.
  • Possible accidents and collisions: Check the vehicle accident history and ask to see maintenance records so you know as much as possible about the car’s past.


Take the vehicle out for a test spin. Make sure you don’t hear any strange noises like creaking or rattling while driving. Also test out the air conditioner, the heater and the radio.

Expert inspection

Consider bringing a car expert along with you during the buying process to conduct an independent inspection. Alternatively, you can ask the salesperson if you can take the vehicle to a mechanic for an inspection.

After careful consideration and inspection, you'll be on the road to owning a like-new car. Thorough research can lead to a great reward — enjoy the ride.

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