The used car checklist

There are many used car checklists available on the Internet that can help you evaluate a vehicle that you are considering. Again, if you are not a professional with regard to working on cars, it is probably best to leave this to a professional. If, however, you want to do an inspection yourself, the checklist that follows may help.

  1. Vehicle Body Check
    • Are all seams where the doors, trunk, fenders and/or hood meet even and straight?
    • Do all doors, hood, and trunk open and close easily and cleanly?
    • Do the windows fit cleanly into their frames and roll up and down smoothly?
    • Does the magnet stick everywhere? Using a magnet, check all body panels to see if the magnet sticks (indicating steel). If the magnet doesn’t stick this indicates that filler has been used to repair accident or rust damage.
    • Is the paint smooth and consistent?
    • Are all body panels the same color?
    • Is the weather stripping clean and straight? Does it show signs of deterioration or cracking?
    • Does the car appear to have been recently repainted? Look for overspray and different paint on the edges and seams. Fresh paint is often used to cover rusted areas.
    • Do the bumpers appear straight? Do they fit cleanly with the body?
    • Do all lights work, both high beams and low? Do the brake lights, blinkers and hazard lights function correctly? The blinkers should not flick too fast.
    • Do the lights seem strong or weak?
    • Does the vehicle have a gas cap? Does it fit correctly?
    • Remove the gas cap then look inside the filler neck. Is a fuel-nozzle restrictor present to prevent adding leaded fuel? These fuel-nozzle restrictors are required in most states.
  2. Tires and wheels
    • Are all tires the same brand?
    • Are all tires the same size?
    • Do all tires have the same amount of tread?
    • How is the wear on the tires? Is it even or wearing more on the inside or outside of the tire?
    • Does the vehicle have a spare tire? Is it inflated?
    • Does the car have a jack and lug wrench?
    • Does the vehicle have locking wheels? If so, is the key for the wheels available?
    • Are all the lug nuts on the wheels tight and present?
  3. Vehicle Frame
    • Look at the vehicle from directly in back of it. Does it appear to sit “straight” on the road, or does it appear as if the front is slightly to the left or the right of the rear? If possible, drive directly behind it while it is traveling straight on a freeway. Does it point directly forward or seem to slightly point left or right?
    • Look inside the wheel wells, in the trunk, and under the hood. Are there areas where it appears that the metal has been crumpled and then straightened? If so, this indicates an accident.
    • Look under each side of the car for a row of holes that are in the frame (they should be just outside of the vehicle’s outer edge). Do the holes appear scratched or cleaned? This could also indicate that the frame has been straightened after an accident.
    • Is there any significant rust on the frame or undercarriage?
  4. Vehicle Suspension
    • Does the vehicle appear to sit “level” with the ground? Does it seem to sit too low?
    • Is the suspension sound? Bounce on each corner of the car. All corners should have the same response and only bounce once or twice before stopping.
    • Are there any squeaking or creaking noises when you bounce the corners of the vehicle?
  5. Vehicle Interior
    • Are both the dashboard and headliner in good condition (free of cracks, flaking, tears, etc.)?
    • Is the upholstery in good condition? Are all seams tight?
      • If leather, is it free of cracks and significant deterioration?
      • If cloth, is it not overly worn out or torn?
    • Do the seat adjustments work? Do the seats adjust easily?
    • Do all the lights on the interior of the vehicle work? Do all the dash bulbs work? What about any lights in the sun visors?
    • Do all the window cranks/switches, turn indicators, high-beam and low-beam switches, etc. work correctly? Be sure to check all of the accessories to make sure they work.
    • Are all the knobs, handles, and switch covers present?
    • Do the heater and air conditioner work? Are there any strange smells emanating from the heater or air conditioner when they are turned on?
    • Does the condition of the carpet match the condition of the rest of the vehicle? New carpet may indicate that the seller is trying to cover something up.
    • Does the carpeting smell of stale water or mildew? This may indicate that there is a leak in the vehicle or that it has been in a flood.
  6. Engine Compartment and Performance
    • Check the engine compartment. Are there any signs of leaks of fluid or oil anywhere in the compartment?
    • Do all the belts and wires appear to be in good condition?
    • Do you smell gas in the engine compartment when the gas pedal hasn’t been depressed recently and the engine is off?
    • Turn on the engine. Does it start easily?
    • Let the engine run for a while (it should achieve normal operating temperature). Do you see any drips or small spouts of fluid when looking in the compartment? Smell the engine to see if there are any strange smells that could indicate fluids leaking on a hot part of the engine.
    • Does the engine idle smoothly at all times?
    • Does the engine stall or “shimmy” at all?
    • Stand behind the vehicle while it is running. Are there any strange smells coming from the rear of the vehicle?
    • Have someone rev the engine while you stand behind it. Does the exhaust smoke when the engine is revved? This may indicate a problem.
    • How is the idle speed? Does it seem to idle too slow or too fast?
    • When you drive the car, does the engine hesitate or jerk during acceleration?
    • Does the engine run smoothly while you drive it in different conditions?
    • If equipped, does the cruise control operate correctly?
    • Are any engine warning-lights on?
    • Does the engine continue running after you have shut off the key?
    • When sitting in the car with the engine running, can you smell exhaust or gasoline?
  7. Transmission and Clutch
    • When you put the car in gear does it go in smoothly or jerk?
    • Do the same for reverse… is it smooth or jerky?
    • When driving, is the shifting of the automatic transmission smooth?
    • If a manual shift vehicle, try down-shifting (shifting into a lower gear) while going slowly. Does it shift easily without grinding?
    • If a manual shift vehicle, accelerate hard in third or fourth gear. If the engine RPM’s rise without the speed of the vehicle increasing, the clutch may be slipping. This could require repair or replacement.
  8. Vehicle Brakes
    • Try a number of different braking situations and speeds. Do the brakes stop the vehicle in an adequate fashion in all situations?
    • Try a sudden stop with the vehicle from a higher speed. Does the vehicle pull to one side when you apply the brakes?
      Note: If the vehicle is equipped with anti-lock brakes (ABS), during the sudden stop the brake pedal should pulse. If the vehicle brakes lock up, the ABS is not working properly.
    • Check the parking brake. Does it hold the car firmly? Does it completely release when you take it off?
  9. Four-Wheel Drive
    • Important: Do not engage the four-wheel drive on a hard-surfaced road unless the owner’s manual specifically says the feature can be used on hard-surface roads.
    • On a surface as specified in the owner’s manual, test the vehicle in both forward and reverse with the four-wheel drive engaged. Does it shift smoothly in both directions?
    • Do the wheels pull or bind? This could happen whether you are going straight or while turning. Either could indicate a problem.
    • Take some tight corners to both the left and the right. Does the transmission make squeaking sounds or clunking noises?
  10. Vehicle Steering
    • Note: Some cars are equipped with variable steering that makes the steering different at different speeds. Check the owner’s manual to see if the vehicle is equipped with variable steering.
    • Is the steering of the vehicle difficult or “loose” at any speed?
    • Does the vehicle seem to pull to one side or the other during normal driving?
    • Turn the vehicle sharply in both directions. Do you hear any rubbing sounds or clunking noises?
    • Is the steering wheel centered on the dashboard when the vehicle is traveling in a straight-forward direction?
    • Does the steering wheel vibrate or shake while the car is moving. This typically happens at higher speeds and could indicate a number of different problems.

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