Guides and Reviews‎ > ‎Cars‎ > ‎

How to buy used cars: Questions to Ask, and Car Inspection Tips

© 2011 Brice Center (first posted 9/28/11 ► last updated 9/28/11)
Things to do before you call the owner:
  1. Run a price report for private party if you have enough info about the car.  Look at the list of options.  If you don't know if the car is equipped with them, then make note of them, so you can ask the owner when you call.  Most cars are "good" condition.  If you are in front of your computer when you call, you can run the report with the owner on the phone, and ensure you get all the options selected correctly.  Don't let the owner know you are running a KBB report, just ask the questions about the options.  Sometimes the best deals can be had from owners who ran the run the report incorrectly, and got a low price from KBB because they selected the wrong trim level for their car, or the wrong options.

Things to ask the owner:
  1. How many miles are on it?
  2. Is it automatic or 5-spd? (if you don't already know)
  3. What color? (if you don't already know)
  4. Is the interior leather or cloth?  Is it worn? (especially leather)  Color?
  5. Power windows or manual?
  6. Power locks?
  7. How long have you owned it? (or-> Are you the original owner?  If not, how many owners?)
  8. Why are you selling it?
  9. Is there any rust?
  10. Does the A/C work? (A broken A/C almost never "just needs a recharge."  Usually the freon leaked out for a reason, and will leak out again.  This can easily be a $300+ repair)
  11. When was the timing belt and water pump last replaced? (This ranges from $450-$1000+ depending on the engine).
  12. Have you kept up with regular oil changes and other regular maintenance?
  13. Has the automatic transmission been serviced with fluid/filter recently (or ever)? (Auto trannies die early if they've never have their fluids changed).
  14. Do you have maintenance/service records?
  15. Has it ever been in any accidents?
  16. Ever had any body work done? Paint, dent repair, rust repair?
  17. Is there anything that needs fixing right now?
  18. Is the Check Engine light on?  (If so, it might be a minor issue; bring a code reader with you when you look at the car; see tip below)
  19. How much tread is left on the tires?  How old are the tires?
  20. Please provide the VIN number. (so I can do a Carfax report on it)
  21. Are all the electronics working?
  22. Will you let me bring it to my mechanic for an inspection?
  23. Ensure you have all the info needed to run a proper report.
Things to do before going to see the car
  1. Run a final price report if necessary.
  2. Run a Carfax report (need VIN from owner).  Verify if their story checks out (accidents, number of owners, etc).  If not, don't assume intentional dishonesty.  People forget.  Bring the discrepancy up with the owner, and THEN feel out if they are a liar, or just forgot a detail.
  3. Call a mechanic to get ballpark figures for the repairs that the owner mentioned.  Know what other typical repairs cost (e.g. timing belt replacement, auto tranny fluid service, brakes, suspension, tires).  To know what tires might cost, look up the car on  It will know what the stock tire size was, and will show you all the tires available for that car.  Note the lowest, highest, and average prices for the tires.  Write all these numbers down for negotiation later.
  4. If the car has it's Check Engine light on, get an OBD2 code reader to bring with you.  You can rent one for free from Autozone.  They make you leave the full price deposit on the unit, but they will refund it in full when you return the unit.

Things to check when you see it.

  1. Look around body for rust.  Hot spots are: Leading edge of hood, trunk edges, door edges, lower front fender behind front tires, rear quarter panel just behind rear wheel, rocker panels as they wrap under car, around the top of the windshield.
  2. Look around body for dents or scratches.
  3. Look at all four tires for condition.  Tread depth, even tread wear, not scalloped, no bubbles.
  4. Look at wheels.  Are all lugnuts present?  Are wheels visibly bent (not round)?  Is finish ok?
  5. Is antenna intact?
  6. Are all trim pieces intact?
  7. Do all doors open easily with their handles (both interior and exterior handles)?
  8. Do the doors sag?
  9. Do all the doors lock/unlock?  (with the power switch if equipped?
  10. Is the keyfob with the car? (for lock/unlock, etc)
  11. Does the trunk open and close properly.  Does the light go on?
  12. Is there water or a musty smell in the trunk?
  13. Lift the bottom trunk carpet.  Look for evidence of water or rust in the spare tire well.
  14. Look under car for oil/fluid spots on driveway.  Look at underside for oil misting across bottom of car, or other evidence of minor (or major) leaks.
  15. Look under car for rust in general, especially on floor pans, and brake lines.  Rust on exhaust is normal as long as it's not rusted through.
  16. Check the date code on the tires.  Here's how:
Under the hood:
  1. Look for leaks and/or oil misting.
  2. Look at how old the battery looks.
  3. Smell the engine.  Do you smell antifreeze, oil, etc?
  4. Pull the oil dipstick.  Does the oil look nasty, or OK.  Dark brown is OK.  Black is bad except on a diesel.  Light/clear brown indicates new oil, and a well maintained car.
  5. Pull the tranny dipstick.  Is it pink, or nasty and dirty brown.  This will give an idea if the tranny has been serviced recently (or ever).
Accident damage:
  1. Look for subtle paint color differences from body panel to body panel.
  2. Look for subtle paint texture differences. (orange peel indicates a repaint)
  3. Look for overspray of color on trim pieces that shouldn't be color.
  4. Look at the body panel gaps.  Are they even and symmetrical side to side?  Do the bumper covers fit properly?
  5. Open the hood, look at the fender tops where they bolt on, and the front radiator support that goes across the car.  Does it look factory, or evidence of damage?
  6. Open all doors and look around the door opening (on the body, not on the door itself).  Any strange seams, subtle creases, or paint?
  7. Open the trunk, and pull back the liner around the outside edges of the trunk.  Any strange seams, subtle creases, or paint?  Also inspect for rust.
  8. Do any of the headlights/taillights look remarkably new?

  1. Check function of interior and exterior lights (headlights, tail lights, blinkers), dash lights, trunk interior light. Do interior lights turn on when each door is opened?  Car may have to have ignition on for all exterior lights to work correctly.
  2. Turn the ignition to On, but don't start the car.  Look to ensure that all the warning lights light up...especially the check engine light.  This is the bulb check sequence.
  3. Do all gauges work?
  4. Roll all the windows up and down and try all the buttons. lights interior exterior, dash, radio, windows,
  5. Try the A/C.  Is it cold?
  6. Make sure the HVAC fan works at all fan speeds.
  7. Make sure the HVAC temperature changes when you rotate the knob. (Check heat)
  8. Turn on rear defroster for a few minutes.  Put finger on lines, and then between lines.  The lines should feel warmer than between lines.
  9. Move every adjustment on driver's seat and passenger seat (fore/aft, seat back tilt, seat up/down, seat fold forward if 2-dr)
  10. Try seat heaters if equipped.
  11. Are all 3 rear view mirrors in good condition?  Is the glass clear?  If they are power, do they move with the power control?
  12. Does radio work?
  13. Does the sunroof open/close properly? (both the slide-back and tilt functions, if equipped)
  14. Does the glove box open/close properly?
  15. Do all seat belts latch properly?
  16. Does the rear seat fold down (if equipped)
Driving it
  1. Drive with the radio OFF, and the blower fan on low, so you can hear noises.  Then listen to every sound the car makes.
  2. Does the tranny shift properly?  Does it delay shifting, or mis-shift?
  3. Does it drive straight in the center lane of the highway (i.e. is it properly aligned)
  4. Is there a vibration at highway speed?
  5. At highway speed, do you hear any humming that increases with speed?  Might be a wheel bearing?
  6. On a side street, stomp on the brakes hard from ~30mph.  Is there a vibration?  Does the car pull to one side?  If you push hard enough does the ABS engage (if equipped)
  7. When you come back from the drive, pop the hood, and smell.  Do you smell antifreeze?  Oil? etc?  Look for leaks.  (you might smell brakes if you just used them hard).