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Car Buying Guide: How to Inspect a Car

When you’re buying a used car, you’ll need to do an inspection before writing the check. Well – you don’t have to, you can always throw away your money instead. In this car buying guide, you’ll learn how to inspect a car.

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Why an Inspection Matters

When you’re buying a used car, you have no idea what the car’s been through. Dealerships and private sellers are a little hesitant to tell you everything that’s wrong with the car. You have to wonder why they’re selling it in the first place.

An inspection is a way to get some answers and see if the car is truly worth it. It’s also a way of seeing if you’re about to throw away a ton of money on a lemon.

In almost every purchase, it’s a matter of “buyer beware”. You won’t get your money back if you notice a huge flaw after writing a check and driving the car home. That means that you need to do a full inspection before you close the deal.

Should You Bring in a Pro?

If you don’t know your way around a car, you should definitely bring a pro. You can hire different mechanics or inspectors to look over the car and tell you what they think. In some cases, they might inspect the car without you being there and they’ll give you a full description along with their recommendation.

There’s always a risk associated with doing your own inspection. After buying and driving enough cars, you’ll know what to look for and where the trouble issues are. If you want to try it yourself, keep reading for our handy guide to car inspections.

How to Inspect a Car

During the inspection, you’ll want to look at different parts of the car and go through a checklist.

Listed below are some of the things I’d recommend going over before purchasing a vehicle.

Mileage

The average person will put between 10,000 and 17,000 miles on a car every year. With this in mind, look at the odometer and see how many miles are on the car. A brand new car with a ton of miles is just as sketchy as a really old car with very few miles.

If the body has a lot of wear and signs of age but the odometer doesn’t read a lot of miles, the owner could have reset the odometer. If this is the case, ask to see some service records and take a look at the recorded mileage along with the dates of service.

History of Accidents

Ask the owner if the car has been in any accidents. Regardless of what they answer, there are a few places to check:

  • Every part of the car should have the same paint color on it
  • Gaps where parts should neatly meet (doors, trunk, where panels meet)
  • Look under the carpet to see if the color is the same as the exterior of the car
  • Look around the hood and the trunk, do you see any welds?

You can run a CarFAX report on them and see the car’s history as well. If the car has been in an accident, there are a ton of different problems you can run into. A lot of the problems will cost you a lot of money in the long run.

Inspecting the engine bay

Documentation

The documentation of a car will ensure you don’t buy a stolen car. If you buy a stolen vehicle, you won’t get your money back and it will likely get seized. You’ll be the main suspect which means you’ll run into legal problems until you prove the sale. Make sure you avoid deals that seem weird with mismatched documentation.

The seller should be able to show you the title and registration of the car. More importantly, the name on these documents should be the seller’s name. It’s possible that the car is stolen if the names don’t match up, so ask who the owner is and why the seller is selling on their behalf.

Make sure the documentation is legitimate, has the right watermarks, and doesn’t have any typos anywhere.

Check the VIN tag on the car. If it’s scratched out or tampered with, then don’t buy that car. This is another tactic that car thieves use. VIN plates are official, and they all look the same. You might find it on the driver’s side of the dashboard, close to the windshield.

Exterior Parts

There aren’t a ton of exterior parts to check. Make sure all the doors, trunk, and hood close and open. Check the gas tank cap, and make sure there’s a cover to the tank.

Look at the wheels and make sure they have enough tread and aren’t flat. You might also want to check the trunk to see if the spare tire and jack are there.

Before hopping in the driver’s seat, check all the seat belts and seat functions of the rear and passenger seats.

Check The Buttons

Now you’re ready to start the test drive process yet. Don’t start driving just yet – just turn on the car and sit in the driver’s seat.

  • Check that all windows go down and up
  • Ensure all doors lock and unlock with the buttons
  • Windshield wipers and fluid operate correctly
  • Check for warning lights, especially for airbags. All the lights should turn on when you first start the car
  • Check every button on the center console – the AC, radio, and anything else

Test Drive

When you’re happy with what you see, it’s time to buckle up and go for a ride. During the drive, you’ll want to try braking hard as well as accelerating hard to see what happens.

Be mindful of how the steering feels and whether the car pulls to one side or another. If there are noticeable vibrations, that’s a problem.

Are the brakes spongy or squeaky? Make sure the parking brake works as well.

Note About Inspection

There’s something to keep in mind during this process: used cars are going to have problems. As long as you know about the problems and the price works for the car, then you can overlook a lot.

Seat functions and locks that don’t automatically work can be overlooked when you see a great sticker price on a car. Engine and transmission troubles, however, can cost thousands of dollars to correct.

A good mechanic should be able to estimate how much it would cost to fix the different troubles that they see on the car. If it’s still worth it, then buy the car! Don’t let a few problems stop you from getting your dream ride.

Conclusion

An inspection will save you money by pointing out things that are wrong with a used car. You can follow the steps highlighted in this article or get a professional to help you out. Either way, don’t overlook the inspection process before you write a big check.

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Ernest Martynyuk

An automotive enthusiast who's been tinkering with vehicles since I was 15-years old. Repairing automotive electronics has been my main job for over a decade now and have a passion for everything technical regarding cars.

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