How to Check A Used Car Before Buying It

How to Check A Used Car Before Buying It


Let’s face it: not everyone knows what to look for when buying a used car, especially if it’s their first. Car shoppers all have different levels of experience owning or working on their own cars, but it’s good to know the basics when you go out to see and test drive a car you’re interested in purchasing. In addition, make sure you bring a friend. It’s great if they have more knowledge than you so they can spot the things you might miss but having a second pair of eyes to help check lights and indicators is important.


Do as much homework as you can if you know the make and model you’re looking at, but if not, here are the basics of how to check a used car before you start signing any paperwork.

Go in The Daytime When There Is Good Lighting

Although the lot of a dealership may light up like a Christmas tree at night, the light from glaring floodlights can hide critical flaws, or make cars look deceptively new and shiny. Go during the daytime to spot deeper dents, signs of serious rust, and looking for acid corrosion in areas like the headlights and tail lights. You’ll also want to look at the vehicle when it hasn’t been driven in at least an hour.

Under the Hood

This is the area where people with limited or basic car knowledge may not be the most comfortable, but there are things you can check under the hood without knowing exactly how the engine works. YouTube is a great source for doing your homework before seeing the car, as someone else will be going through what’s under the hood so you have a visual reference for when you do it yourself.


  1. Make sure you check the color of the coolant in the radiator reservoir. The liquid should green or pale orange color, not milky or have signs of rust.
  2. Do a quick check of fluids. Look for the main indicator that the oil was recently changed: the oil itself is a nice honey color. If it’s dark brown or black, it will probably need to be changed soon. If the oil is gritty, grey, foamy, or you can see either metal particles or water, these are signs of engine problems or the head gasket is blown. 
  3. Squeeze a few of the rubber hoses to make sure they are firm, but not rock hard or squishy. Lastly, look at the condition of the drive belts to make sure they aren’t fraying.

Exterior Checklist

Know the difference between signs of regular wear and tear and potential long-term damage. 


  1. Check for misalignment or gaps between fenders and doors. Make sure the paint is the same color throughout. Inconsistencies like this can indicate bad manufacturing, or even worse, sloppy repairs after a collision. 
  2. Go over the body of the car and look for scratches, dents, and rust. Although vehicles will have some flaws on the outside from regular wear and tear, a significant amount can indicate the car has been through more damage than you might think. 
  3. Look for signs of filler on deep dents. Hold a magnet up to a dent that may have been patched with body filler, a sign of shoddy repair work, as body filler shouldn’t be used on dents deeper than ¼ inch. The magnet won’t stick to an area that has been patched with body filler. 
  4. Examine the glass: Check the windshield and all windows for any cracks or pocked areas. Repairing a windshield can cost anywhere from $200 to $1,000 for a full replacement, and these repairs are not always covered by insurance.
  5. Suspension: Do a full 360 walk around the car to make sure it’s level. To test the shock absorbers, bounce on each corner. One method is to quickly step on the car with one foot and immediately jump off. If the car bounces back once and remains steady, the shocks are in good shape. If it keeps moving, the car definitely needs a repair. To test the suspension joints, grab and shake one front tire at a time. If you hear a clink or tick, this is also a sign that the suspension has been worn down. 
  6. Just as you would before you start driving, check all the mirrors. You should be able to move the side mirrors, whether that’s manually or with a button or switch. Be wary of mirrors that are cracked, strangely foggy, or missing. Have your friend stand in front of and at the rear of the car to make sure all lights are working and are evenly bright. Test turn signal indicators and hazard lights. 
  7. Tires: Tires are tricky to check but can be the simplest way to evaluate the vehicle’s condition. Be wary of cars outfitted with brand new tires, but with less than 20,000 miles on the odometer. This shouldn’t automatically disqualify the car, but definitely ask why that particular car needed new tires relatively soon into its lifespan. Check the tire tread, 1/16 inch is required for those tires to be on the road. Use a tread-depth tool or insert a quarter into the groove with George Washington’s head facing down. If the top of his head is visible, you’ll need new tires.
  8. Make sure there aren’t any puddles or signs of leaking oil in the space the car is parked. Quickly check the tailpipe for any residue that isn’t gray and dry- this is normal.

Interior Checklist

It’s important to have a good feeling when you sit in the driver’s seat for the first time.


  1. When you first sit down in the car, observe what it smells like. A musty or acrid odor can indicate mold or that the car was previously owned by a smoker. These smells can be very difficult to get rid of and indicate that the previous owners did not take great care of the vehicle.
  2. Look up at the roof to check for signs of water damage, especially if the car has a sunroof. Test the sunroof to make sure it opens and closes smoothly, and seals tightly.
  3. Look for wear on the rubber of the pedals. If the car has low mileage, be sure to check the pedals to confirm. If they look worn down, the car has been driven a lot and the odometer reading may be incorrect.


  1. Test the ignition: after turning the key without turning the car on, all warning lights, including the check engine light, should turn on immediately. Turn the car on fully and listen to the engine. Does it take a few tries and sound like it’s struggling, or does it start immediately and steadily? Once the engine is on, test the heating and air conditioning to see how quickly the interior temperature control kicks in.
  2. Test the radio, and CD player/AUX/Bluetooth if the car has extra entertainment features.


All of our vehicles are inspected and checked to be in good working condition, and to further provide our customers with confidence in their new vehicle, every car, truck, and SUV Highline Automotive sells comes with a 90-day or 3,000-mile powertrain warranty. Affordable extended warranties are also available to get the best protection for your new vehicle. Check our on-line inventory to see our current late-model vehicles.





Categories: Pre-Owned Inventory

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