No car purchase should be made without first inspecting the car in question. Of course you will want a professional mechanic to look over and test the vehicle for possible engine problems, or discover if the car has been in an accident and been repaired. But there are plenty of things you can do to satisfy your own curiosity and get a better picture of the overall condition.
Visual Inspection – Exterior
Start off by looking around the exterior of the car. There are the obvious smaller signs of wear like shopping center dents, scratches, or faded paint which aren’t too big a problem to fix. You should however pay closer attention to irregular, mismatched paint or panels as these are signs of collision repair. Check under the bonnet, trunk door and around door frames when opened for any variation of color or indications of respraying having been done. Look out for rust around the doors, windscreen and other windows, as well as the bottom edges of the car. Small bubbles of paint are a sure sign of hidden rust underneath. Poorly-fitted doors, bonnet, or trunk could suggest replaced body parts. Take a close look at all the lights for cracks, chips, and broken parts. Do the same with the windscreen and all other windows. Has the window tint been poorly stuck on where it now blisters with bubbles? Is the front grill in good order and sitting straight? It’s a good idea to squat down a couple of meters in front of the car and check to see that the car is sitting even on the ground. Then kneel down and look under the car for any fresh leaks on the ground or signs of moisture on the undercarriage. Use your smartphone torch to help. Again look for proof of rust along with holes on the exhaust pipe. Tires are an essential part of moving the car, so check they are sitting straight (as tires that angle in towards the bottom mean the car has collided with something hard to knock the alignment out, and possibly worse like a cracked axle). Check that the tires have good tread and firmness (including the spare tire), and cast an eye over the age of the tires by checking the Tire Identification Number (TIN). When you spot the TIN, you will notice the last four digits on the tire indicate the week and year it was manufactured, e.g. a tire with ‘XXX4109’ was manufactured in the 41st week of 2009. While you’re at it, check the car jack and other tools needed are in the trunk as well. If the car is much older and needs a key to open it, make sure it fits and turns easily, and works on the trunk release as well. Scratches around the door handles usually mean people with long fingernails have unsuccessfully navigated opening the doors without scratching the duco (automotive lacquer that was used to seal a motor vehicle’s bodywork).
Visual Inspection – Interior
The first thing you notice when you open the door (besides the smell – whether good or bad) are the seats. Obvious signs of wear and tear are rips and stains, sometimes cigarette holes, and a common problem I’ve found is the side of the seat nearest the driver’s door can be sunken in meaning it needs replacing. After you’ve checked out all seats and they adjust as they should (including headrests), check all seat belts pull and retract and lock and unlock as they should. Pay attention to the carpet and how worn it is, especially on the driver’s side where it gets most use. Check the carpet for signs of dampness where water may be getting in and causing rust underneath – including under the front seats. Dampness also lets off a musty smell which you’d notice when opening the door. If the car has a manual sunroof – make sure it works and inspect the surrounds for signs of rust. Also check the interior roof lining for signs of sagging. This also applies to the door card fabric. Are there any cracks on the door plastic? Inspect the rubber surrounds of all door frames for cracks or slackness. Test out the sun visors and check the vanity mirrors are in-tact and not cracked or missing. If the car has wind-down windows, ensure they roll all the way down and back up smoothly and with ease, and that the manual door locks (including child safety locks) work. Moving onto the dashboard, check for cracks and faded plastic (signs that it’s been sitting in the full sun a lot). Do the air-vents open and close and move around as they should? If there is a center console, are there any cracks? What condition is the steering wheel in? Make sure the horn works. If there are manual side-mirrors, test them out for correct movement and do the rear-view mirror at the same time. Are there any loose screws or attachments in the glove-box or center console and where would they live? Cast an eye over the accelerator and brake pedals for extreme wear (this can show how hard the previous owner pushed this car).
Open up the trunk and pull up the carpet to check for signs of water or rust. Make sure the spare tire (if it lives there) is securely in place along with all necessary tools. Ask if there is a wheel-locking nut (if the wheels need one) as this can be expensive to replace. Also test the parcel shelf retracts as it should (as some wagons and SUV’s have this feature) or note if it’s missing. Open up the bonnet and check for splash marks on the underside (which could be a sign of overheating at some point). Be sure to take photos or make a note of both the ‘Built Date’ and ‘Vehicle Identification Number’ (VIN) metal plaques located in the engine bay (usually against the firewall under the windscreen). These help to verify the car is what it says. Ensure the gas struts that lift and hold the bonnet and trunk in place work and stay in place – otherwise these will need to be attended to.
When you get handed the keys/remotes to start the car, ask if there are any spare sets. Once you start the car, make sure it starts first time, the dashboard lights up as it should, and that warning signs are noted (if any light up). Check the speedometer against the listing, and make sure all gauges work (gas level, temperature etc). Listen to the motor – is it humming nicely and evenly, or does it sputter and groan. Look out the rear window and side mirrors to check for dark smoke from the exhaust. Turn on the fan and check the air flow works in all air vents – then check the heating, and the air-con. Test all internal lights, then, do the same for the headlights (low and full beam), brakes, and indicators (you will need the person you went with to help go round the exterior to confirm for you). Turn on the windscreen wipers (including any rear wipers usually found on hatchbacks and SUV’s), and squirt water out to see everything works as it should. It the wipers make a squeal, they probably need replacing which doesn’t cost much – as long as the wiper arms work correctly. If the car has electric windows, side mirrors and sunroof, check all these work easily. You can also check out the inbuilt Sat-Nav and infotainment system as well as the Bluetooth functionality (if it’s a newer car), and the stereo while you’re sitting there listening for any imperfections with the speakers. Check the volume control on the steering wheel works (if it has one). Turn the stereo off however before you take the car for a drive.
Once on the road, listen for any strange noises when changing gears or any knocks when doing a sharp u-turn (which I recommend you do from a stationary position). If the steering wheel is struggling against the direction you want to go, then something isn’t right. Make sure to do some form of reversing ensuring a smooth shift in gears and movement. Does the handbrake hold the car in place (try parking on an incline for best results), and are the brakes responsive to the touch? When you return to the starting point, check the speedometer has moved.
Ask for all service records and manuals to look through. If you are buying through a private seller, ask what they have done to the car (whether they have fitted new tires or replaced the engine with a reconditioned one which you should ask for all receipts of work for confirming mileage), and any modifications they may have done (such as lowered the car, added after-market wheels, or changed the engine out for a more powerful one). Also ask if any parts or accessories come with the car (such as roof racks, original tires, spare light globes, etc).
As you can see, there is a lot more to looking over a car than you probably thought. Make sure you inspect the car in full daylight when it isn’t raining. Take your time and don’t let the seller distract you. Take a friend to distract the seller if need be. Always take notes of any issues or parts that need replacing either on your smartphone or in a notebook. The best thing is to practice, and you can easily do all visual inspections inside and out at car auctions where there isn’t a staff member standing over you. You can take your time, get a real feel for how each car has been treated and driven, and best of all, you can look over a multitude of different cars brands you hadn’t even thought of.