It is absolutely essential that you thoroughly inspect any used vehicle before you purchase it. Not only will an inspection uncover any hidden problems the seller "forgot" to mention or didn't know about, it will also give you a chance to get behind the wheel and drive the car for yourself. That way, you can see how good of a fit it really is.

SEE: How To Avoid Buying A "Lemon" Product

Before you start an inspection, we recommend that you come equipped with a flashlight and an outfit that you don't mind getting dirty. This is going to be a thorough affair. With that said, here's a checklist that you can use to guide your investigation.

The Interior
The Ignition
Turn the car on. Does it start easily? If it doesn't, it may need a new battery. The Controls
Test every control in the car. This includes the windshield wipers, the seat adjustment levers, the locks, the windows and the power mirrors. If something doesn't function properly, take note of it. You can use it to negotiate down a lower price if you decide to buy.

The Pedals
Is the wear on the car's gas and brake pedals consistent with its mileage? Heavily worn pedals on a car with "only 20,000 miles" can indicate that the odometer has been tampered with.

The Radio
Does the radio work? Turn the volume up, are the speakers blown out? Are the preset radio channels consistent with what you would expect the seller to listen to? This can be a silly test, but if the nice old lady who insists she was only driving the car to church on Sundays has death metal stations as her preset then something may very well be amiss.

The Exterior
The Paint
Is the paint peeling? Use your flashlight to check underneath the chassis. Is there rust? If the body is rusting, it's only going to get worse and there's nothing you can do to stop it.

The Undercarriage
Is the undercarriage also free from rust? Does the frame look bent? Is the car leaking any fluids?

The Tires
When you stick a penny into the tire treads, does Lincoln's head disappear? If it does, then the tires are good. If it doesn't, then the treads are worn and the tires will need to be replaced soon.

The Exhaust
With the car running in neutral, step on the gas and ask your friend to check the color of the exhaust fumes. If he or she sees blue smoke, it means you're burning oil and the engine has some internal problems. (L12)

The Test Drive
Once the car has passed your initial inspection, it's time to take it out for a test drive. The seller should be more than willing to allow you to drive it. If it's a particularly high-end vehicle, they might ask for cash to hold while you take the car out for a spin.

The Transmission
If the car has an automatic transmission, it should shift gears quietly and smoothly. Loud noises could indicate a problem. If it has a manual transmission, make sure the gears don't grind when you shift. That means they're out of sync and could end up causing a major issue later on.

The Steering Alignment
Check your steering alignment. Take your hands off the wheel. Which way does the car drift? If it's bad, you may want to demand that the wheels be realigned before you purchase.

The Air
With the car up to temperature, check the heat. Does it work? What about the air conditioning?

The "It" Factor
Most importantly, drive the car like you normally would on your way to work. Is it fun? Is it comfortable? If it isn't, then why are you buying it?

In addition to inspecting the car yourself, you may also want to consider taking it to a certified mechanic to look over before you commit to the purchase. As a third party, they should be able and willing to tell you everything that's wrong with the vehicle for a small fee. Sometimes they'll even do it for free, in which case it would be foolish not to get their opinion. You should test drive several similar cars before deciding which one you're going to buy. Even if you're 90% certain you're going to go with Choice A, it can help to have a Choice B and Choice C to compare it to. Once you've chosen a vehicle that you would like to purchase and given it a thorough inspection, you'll be ready to move on the second segment of this guide.

Next: The Complete Guide To Buying A Used Car: How To Negotiate Prices »

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