Inspecting a used car

If you don’t know much about cars, it’s easy to feel intimidated or stupid when you are inspecting a car – the temptation is just to take it on trust that it’s ok. This is a bad idea.

I am no mechanic but I have developed a routine for looking at used cars that helps me get an idea of whether they have been well maintained and seem in good condition. In reality, this is all you can do – you can’t guarantee that nothing is going to go wrong – it is a used car after all.

Here’s what I would recommend doing before a test drive (these checks are all easier when the engine is cold):

  1. Have a good look around the car’s body – are all the panels straight? Look for uneven gaps between panel edges (e.g. door & door frame) or for anywhere where the line of the panel doesn’t run straight – where it may have been dented and/or repaired. This could indicate crash damage although it may not be a problem.

  2. Look under the bonnet – the purpose of this is to see anything obvious and work out whether the car has been maintained correctly (although of course the seller could just have topped up the fluids before showing you the car):

    1. Check the oil level – it should be between the min and max marks if the car is on a flat surface.
    2. Check the water level is correct – it should be between the min and max marks when the engine is cold.
    3. Check the levels in the other fluid reservoirs – such as brake and power steering. They should generally all be between the min and max marks when the engine is off and cold.
    4. Look for any obvious signs of leaks – oil or water. Check around the top of the engine and look for any rubber hoses that look cracked, worn or wet.

      If the engine has been steam cleaned and looks like new, be a little suspicious. This isn’t common practice apart from on high value/show cars and can be a way of hiding evidence of oil leaks.

  3. Look at the tyres. How worn are they? Is there any damage to the sidewalls (look for cuts or chunks gouged out? These could be MOT failures and may need replacing for safety reasons, as tyres with damaged sidewalls are more prone to blowouts.

    Do the tyres look correctly inflated or obviously flat? This is another sign of a careful owner (or thorough dealer prep!).

  4. Do all the doors (including boot and fuel filler cap) open with the same key? If not, it indicates that one or more of the locks have been replaced – usually due to criminal or accident damage. Not necessarily a showstopper, but worth noting and asking about.

  5. Finally, look underneath the car. It can be worthwhile even if you don’t understand most of what you see!

    1. Is the exhaust (follow it forward from the back) badly rusted, full of holes and in need of imminent replacement?
    2. Are there any obvious oil or water leaks? Look at the ground below the engine, too, if the car has been standing.
    3. Take this opportunity to have a look at the inside sidewalls of the tyres, which aren’t normally visible.
    4. Is there any visible damage of any kind to anything?

Once you’ve done all of this and made a mental or paper note of your findings, you are ready to take the car for a test drive – or walk away, if you’ve found something really bad.

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