Aaron Widmar
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Car Buyers: Download This Free, Printable Used Car Inspection Checklist!

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inspecting car tire wheel bearings joints brakes mechanic

A couple years ago, my wife and I were searching for a car to purchase for her, after her last set of wheels decided to retire early. Intent on finding a used car in good quality and at a decent price, we went on a scavenger hunt inspecting used cars at local dealerships and private sellers around town.

In the process, we developed this exhaustive list of items to check on each used car we considered. Hopefully sharing our checklist with you will help you in your search for your next car. We still recommend taking into a mechanic you trust before buying it, but hopefully this will give you an idea of if the car’s worth your time.

For a printable copy of the Used Car Inspection checklist, download it HERE. For a preview transcript of what’s on the checklist, keep scrolling.

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What to Look For When Buying a Used Car

Vehicle Information

  • Year:
  • Model:
  • Miles:
  • Location/Owner:                          .

Items to Bring

  • Camera
  • Checklist
  • Pen
  • White paper towels
  • Flashlight
  • Hand mirror
  • Magnet
  • Music CD
  • MP3 player w/ cord
  • Ruler
  • Pressure gauge
  • Rags
  • Outdoor blanket 

Vehicle History

  • How many owners did the car have? Was it regularly maintained (obtain vehicle history report and/or log of repairs)?
  • Was the vehicle primarily used in a snowy or waterfront (salty) region?
  • Has the car reached its [40/70/100/150],000 mile inspection? Ask about spark plug, brake fluid, belt replacements and oil changes.
  • Are there overnight or extended test drive options to take it to a mechanic?
  • Is the model/year known to have any reported problems? Be aware of these during inspection.
  • Were there any recalls for this model/year? Ask for evidence that the recalled part has been replaced. 

Exterior

  • KEYS: Do the remote entry controls and alarm work?
  • KEYS: How many copies of the key will you receive?
  • DOORS: Any damage/scratches around the keyholes?
  • DOORS: Do the doors, trunk, and hood open and close smoothly (not loose/misaligned)?
  • GLASS: Any chips, scratches, or other damage on the windshield or windows?
  • WIPERS: Are the wiper blades cracked, torn, or otherwise damaged (including rear wiper)?
  • PAINT: Any rust, scratches, dents, holes, or spots painted over? Check for reflections & color consistency for signs of repair/dents/etc.
  • RUST: Any holes or rust spots on the muffler, exhaust line, transmission, doors, or elsewhere underneath the car?
  • RUST: Any excessive wear or rust on the struts, shocks, or around the wheel wells?
  • TIRES: Any signs of tears, bulges, scratches, patching, or low tread (less than 6/32” deep will need replaced)?
  • TIRES: Is the tread wear even on all tires in all spots? If not, why (check alignment/suspension condition)?
  • TIRES: Check the tire pressure and presence of all caps.
  • HITCH: Is there a trailer hitch that shows excessive wear/usage (causing strain on car)?
  • LIGHTS: Check the headlights and all emergency lights, brake lights, flood lights, and brights.
  • FLUIDS: Any leaks underneath the car before AND after driving it?

Interior

  • VIN: Check the VIN plaque and manufacturer’s label within the driver’s door jamb for anything unusual (signs of alteration)?
  • SMELL: Any strong/odd smells?
  • HORN: Does the horn work? Can it be heard from inside another car?
  • SEAT BELTS: Are they firm (not loose), extendable, retractable, un-frayed?
  • AIRBAGS: Any sign of the airbags being used (abnormal wear on the steering wheel or dashboard)?
  • GLOVE BOX: Check for signs of damage, moisture, smells, etc. Is there a manual? If there is an air filter located here, check its condition.
  • MIRRORS: Do the mirrors adjust? Are they too loose?
  • WIPERS: Do the wipers move and dispense liquid?
  • DASHBOARD: Do all the power outlets & displays work (A/C, cigarette lighter, clock, gauges, etc)?
  • BRAKE: Does the parking brake engage and disengage freely?
  • WINDOWS: Do all windows go up AND down smoothly?
  • ROOF: Does the sunroof open and close properly (no visible damage/leaks/rust)?
  • MATS: Are all mats present and in good condition? Check for moisture or damage hidden underneath for signs of rust or flood damage.
  • SEATS: Are all seats present? Do they all fold/recline/adjust properly?
  • SEATS: Any upholstery damage or excessive seat wear?
  • SEATS: Are there heated seats? Test for excessive heat or lack of heat.
  • SEATS: Are the head restraints sturdily secured but moveable?
  • BUTTONS: Do the remote gas lid and trunk release buttons work?
  • GAS: Any damage to the gas cap area? Is the gas cap present?
  • TRUNK: Check for signs of wear (crumpling, dents) not visible from the outside.
  • SPARE: Is the spare tire and jack (if originally included) present and in good condition?
  • ALARM: Does the car alarm work when the locks are fiddled with?

Under the Hood

  • MOUNTS: Are all the engine mounts in good condition?
  • COOLANT: Is the color green/blue (okay) or brown (bad)?
  • OIL CAP: Make sure there is a cap present. Is it sludgy (unkempt) or foamy (leaky gasket)?
  • OIL: Is the engine oil caramel-colored (good) or dark chocolate (bad)?
  • TRANSMISSION FLUID: Should be pink, not thick/dark brown (wipe on a paper towel to check).
  • TANKS: Bring a flashlight to check inside the engine holes and fluid tanks.
  • CONDITION: Any cracks or holes on the hoses/belts in the engine?
  • CONDITION: Any strange bolts or indications of shoddy repair (looks out of place)?
  • AIR FILTER: Is the engine air filter clean or dirty?
  • BATTERY: What is the date listed on the battery (needs replaced every 4-5 years)? Any corrosion or rust on it?
  • MOTOR: Run the car with the hood up. Are there any odd smells or sounds from the engine? Any excessive vibrations or smoke?

While Driving

  • START: Does the car start right away or does it strain/stall (evidence of battery/ignition)?
  • IDLE: Do the RPMs remain smooth and constant while idling?
  • IDLE: Any unusual noises?
  • IDLE: Shift from park to drive, then drive to reverse. Any delay, jolts, or clunks?
  • IDLE: Any smoke (especially blue or black) or odors coming from the tailpipe?
  • CITY: Any grinding or slack response of the brakes?
  • CITY: Any clicking or popping when slowly accelerating in tight turns (CV joints)?
  • CITY: Does the car suddenly, unintentionally accelerate?
  • CITY: Any unusual hesitations, sounds, clunks, or jolts?
  • HWY: Does the car drift to either side when driving OR applying the brakes?
  • HWY: Does the steering wheel pull or vibrate?
  • HWY: Does the cruise control work?
  • HWY: Does the A/C, heat, Outlet usage, or anything else put a strain on the car?
  • HWY: Do the heating and air conditioning work? Any weird odors from the vents?

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  • Aaron WidmarSenior Editor

    Aaron is unashamed to be a native Clevelander and the proud driver of a 1995 Saturn SC-2 (knock on wood). He gleefully utilizes his background in theater, literature, and communication to dramatically recite his own articles to nearby youth. Mr. Widmar happily resides in Dayton, Ohio with his magnificent wife, Vicki, but is often on the road with her exploring new destinations. Aaron has high aspirations for his writing career but often gets distracted pondering the profound nature of the human condition and forgets what he was writing... See more articles by Aaron.