Before you commit to a used car, you must first subject it to a thorough inspection and take it for a test drive. The test drive gives you a feel for how the car handles on the open road. The inspection is designed to ensure that there are no potentially major or minor hidden problems. You don’t want to find out after the fact that the vehicle you’re driving needs extensive repairs or is unsafe.
In 2016, for example, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) reached an agreement with General Motors (GM) and two car dealers which essentially allowed them to claim that used vehicles with unfixed recall issues are “safe” or have been subject to a rigorous inspection, as long as they disclosed to the buyer that the recall repairs had not been made. In February 2017, the Center for Auto Safety, Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group sued the FTC to have those agreements reversed. (See: Should You Buy a Certified Used Car?) Source: 1
In January 2017, CarMax (KMX), the nation’s largest used car dealer and two other dealers reached a settlement agreement with the FTC concerning claims that they too had failed to tell customers that certain vehicles had unrepaired safety recalls. Again, the agreement allows for vehicles to be advertised as safe, despite an open recall, if the recall issue is disclosed. Source: 1
As a used car buyer, it’s imperative that you take the inspection seriously and research whether any recalls have been issued for a used car you’re looking at, independent of what the dealer may say. One of the most recent recalls to make headlines involves Takata (TYO) airbags, for instance. The recall, thought to be one of the largest and most complex in U.S. history, is believed to impact more than 42 million vehicles primarily manufactured between 2002 and 2015, by 19 different car makers. Eleven deaths and 180 injuries have been attributed to the faulty airbags to date. (See: Airbag Recalls: What To Do If It's Your Car.) Source: 2
In light of those developments, the inspection is something that you should take seriously. You’ve got two options for inspecting a used car: hire a professional mechanic or do it yourself. If you’re planning to go the DIY route to try and save some money, there are some specific things to keep in mind as you’re looking the car over.
How to Inspect a Used Car
The first step in inspecting a used car is knowing what you need to look for. Here are the most important things to focus on.
Inside the car
If you’re starting your inspection on the inside of the vehicle, you can begin by turning it on. Does it start easily? Do you hear any strange noises as the engine attempts to turn over? How does the car idle once it’s started and sitting in park? Do you feel any shuddering or revving of the engine even when your foot isn’t touching the gas? If you experience anything out of the ordinary, that could be a sign that something may be going on with the car’s starter, the battery or the motor.
Once you’ve gotten it started, test out the various controls on the dash. If the car has power windows or power doors, make sure they open and close smoothly. Turn on the windshield wipers, adjust the seats and mirrors, check the heating and air conditioning systems, turn up the radio to make sure the speakers aren’t blown. Check your left and right turn signals, the headlights, the horn and your emergency flashers to make sure there are no blown bulbs or fuses.
Take a look at the gas and brake pedals to see what kind of shape they’re in. If they appear to have heavy wear and tear but the dealer is advertising the car as being low-mileage, that may be an indicator that the odometer’s been tampered with. Speaking of the odometer, check the miles. As far as determining how many miles is too many for a used car, there’s no right way to answer this question.
A car that’s got 120,000 miles on it could go another 100,000 miles if it’s been properly maintained and you continue with a regular regimen. On the other hand, a car with 75,000 miles could be falling apart if the previous owner neglected to take care of basic things like oil changes or tune-ups. A good rule of thumb is that a used car racks up about 12,000 to 15,000 miles per year. Ask the dealer if they have the previous service records for the car. Then, think about how many miles you typically drive annually. That can give you an idea of how long a used car is likely to last.
Outside the car
Walk all the way around the outside of the car, checking for scratches, dents or rust spots in the pain. Be sure to look not only at what’s immediately visible but also underneath the car since rust can easily hide here out of sight. That’s especially important if you live near the ocean or in an area where the roads are salted regularly in winter because of ice and snow.
Check the frame for rust and dents. Take a look to see if there are any fluids leaking out of the vehicle. Look at the exhaust pipe to make sure it’s secured properly. While you’re at it, you may want to start the car again to check for any unusual exhaust coming from the tailpipe.
Finally, look at the condition of the tires. Are they all part of a matched set or are there different tires on the front and back? How much tread is on the tires? Can you see any worn spots or unusual bumps? Tires can be an expensive fix so it’s better to know upfront if you’ll need new ones sooner rather than later.
Under the hood
Now that you’ve addressed the cosmetic aspects of the car, it’s time to look a little deeper. Open up the hood and check for any loose hoses or wires. If possible, see if you can determine how old the battery is. Check the fluids, including the oil and brake fluid. If the oil is dark or cloudy, that may mean that it’s been some time since it’s been changed. If the dealer allows it and if you can manage it, check the air filter and the oil filter as well.
The test drive can reveal a little more about what may be going on with the car’s inner workings. As you’re driving down the road, test the acceleration. Does the car speed up and slow down smoothly or do you feel the transmission jerking or slipping? With a manual transmission, listen out for grinding noises since that could reveal a serious problem.
Check the steering alignment to see if the car pulls to the left or the right. When the alignment is off, that can cause your tires to wear unevenly. Practice making turns and listen for any popping noises, which is often associated with a damaged CV joint. Pump the brakes to see if there’s any squealing or grabbing.
Finally, pay attention to the quality of the ride. Is the car fairly soundproof when you’re riding with the windows up? Is the motor quiet or does it make a lot of noise? Do you have enough legroom and headroom? Is there enough space for your passengers to ride comfortably? Does the car feel like a good fit physically? If there’s any room for doubt at all, you may want to do a little more shopping around.
Consider Getting a Second Opinion
If you’ve inspected the vehicle inside and out but you need a little reassurance about its condition, it may be worth it to have a certified mechanic inspect it for you. Choose an independent mechanic that has nothing to gain by doing the inspection, other than the fee you’re going to pay them. Have them look at the car inside and out to see if they can spot anything you may have overlooked. It may cost you a few bucks to have a professional inspection but it could be to your benefit if it allows you to avoid buying a lemon.
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