Four Inspections To Do Before Buying a Used Car

March 24th, 2017 by

Man in a blue jacket, jeans, and hat, is leaning over the open hood of a black vehicle with a clipboard.

Shopping for a used car comes with its fair share of risks, especially if you’re considering a vehicle from a private seller. There’s no way to really evaluate the mechanics of the car, so a customer may not truly recognize any issues until after they’ve made a purchase.

Fortunately, there are a number of steps that a potential buyer can take prior to making a purchase. Whether you’re buying from a reputable dealership or an unknown seller, a thorough self-inspection is absolutely necessary. Buyers can identify warning signs in multiple places, including the interior, exterior, and under the hood. Clear causes for concern should be noted, as they may be enough to dissuade you from making a purchase.

We’ve provided a thorough checklist for you below, which should come in handy as you start to search for a used vehicle. When you finally decide to visit used car dealers, this information could be the difference between purchasing a reliable vehicle or (gulp) a lemon.

Inspection #1: Pre-Visit Research

Your research on a used car should start much earlier than your first encounter with the vehicle. Before you commit to any test drive or visit, make sure you do an extensive search of the car’s history. Major gaps in trips to the mechanic could be a cause for concern, especially if the vehicle is older. These reports should flood you with information, so a scant history record may not be legitimate.

Furthermore, these history reports could clue you in to unreliable mileage. Some sellers will predictably manipulate their odometer to reflect a younger and fresher vehicle. There’s no easy way to detect whether this is the case, but a potential buyer may be able to identify a particularly egregious listing.

Inspection #2: Exterior

There are some general features you’ll want to inspect when you’re looking at a used car, including the quality of the windshield wipers, the paint job, rust, and any pieces of the trim. While these inadequacies won’t indicate a more sinister problem with the car, they could at least be used to negotiate a lower asking price.

Some of these body issues could be a warning sign, however. Consistent rust is a clear sign that the vehicle wasn’t taken care of, and there’s a good chance that those signs of decline have worked their way into the car’s mechanics. Meanwhile, odd paint jobs may signal any accidents or fender benders.

Once you work your way down to the wheels, you may be able to identify larger problems. Curb damage on the base of the wheels could be a reflection on a poor driver, which may mean the mechanics are more taxed than those in a usual used car. Furthermore, they could be an indication of a larger accident that may have gone unreported. While you’re down there, shoddy tires are an obvious warning sign, as are any loose or missing lug nuts.

Inspection #3: Interior

Most car buyers can expect to spend much of their time inside their car, so it’s important that the interior is to their liking. Tears and cracks are certainly unsightly, and you could save yourself a chunk of cash if you point these issues out while negotiating. Worn or uneven upholstery could also be an indication of extensive interior damage.

For instance, water damage would have resulted in soggy and moldy carpet, so an owner surely would have replaced the worst parts. Water damage is a particularly worrisome issue that could have been hidden by the seller, and potential buyers can also find traces of such damage under the seats or in the glove box.

Speaking of moldy, that musty smell is an indication that much of the interior needs to be replaced. Sure, these issues may not impact the drive quality, but it’s unsafe to consistently drive in these conditions. As a result, you’ll likely have to dish out additional money for a renovation after you’ve made the purchase.

Meanwhile, potential buyers will also want to check that every feature is working properly. This includes automatic windows or interior climate control, as these both impact the car’s ride quality.

An extensive inspection of the engine and underbody is essential when you’re in the market for a used car. There are plenty of minor problems that may present cause for concern, but those are easily overshadowed by the absolute deal-breakers.

Any sludge or grime that’s accumulated around the engine is a problem, as are any parts that show obvious signs of decay. When you’re inspecting the engine, you’ll also want to check the dipstick. A gooey, dark substance on the stick could clue you into possible issues with oil, as could a distinct gasoline smell. Furthermore, a thorough look at the automatic transmission dipstick (if applicable) is also necessary, as black particles or dark liquids prove that the system hasn’t been serviced in a while.

A test drive will provide more warning signs regarding the vehicle’s mechanics. An odd knocking sign coming from the engine could be indicative of a major problem, and it’s especially worrisome if the sound gets louder or more rapid as you accelerate. A car may also have a general dragging feeling that’s natural with age, and that could be a clear indication that the car is on its final leg.

If you follow these steps, you should reduce the chance that you drive home in an inadequate vehicle. You’re making a pretty large purchase, even if you are opting for a used car. Therefore, it’s important that you dedicate the necessary time and research to get yourself a reliable, working ride.

Buyers can further minimize their risk by avoiding private sellers entirely and visiting an actual dealership instead. Often times, dealerships will require that their used vehicles undergo significant tests to demonstrate their quality, and these dealers may even attach some type of warranty to their used options.

If you live in the Cincinnati, Ohio area, you shouldn’t consider any other option than McCluskey. Their used vehicles are both reliable and affordable, so you should have absolutely zero worries as you drive off the lot in one of their used cars.


update: 5/2021

Key Questions to Ask About a Used Car

A salesman and a woman are looking at a brochure next to a car at a used car dealer.

Visual inspections of a used car are important, of course, as is checking out the vehicle history report of any model you’re interested in before heading to a used car dealer. Just as important as the things you can see and check out on a vehicle, however, are the sorts of questions that you should ask when looking at it. By knowing what to ask and what the answer can tell you, you can more easily make sure you get the right car with everything you need.

  • How many miles are on the vehicle? This might seem like a silly question since it should already be on a label on the vehicle, and you can find this information on the dealer’s website. You’re asking this not because you don’t know the answer but because you already do. The salesperson should give you a clear, honest answer to this question – if they can’t or they tell you something other than what’s advertised, then that’s a bad sign.
  • Are service records available? A good dealership should absolutely have service records available on every vehicle, as long as the previous owner had kept them. While a vehicle history report is important, having actual service records is too because they give you more information. If they don’t have the records, keep looking for a different model.
  • Are there any features that don’t work? Car dealerships want to sell vehicles, so they’re going to put each model’s best proverbial foot forward. A good dealership won’t lie, however, so you should ask if anything doesn’t work – as long as you trust the dealer and your salesperson, you can trust the answer. This gives you a good sense of if anything needs to be replaced or if the price should be lower than they’re asking.
  • What is the price based on? Your salesperson will probably have a good answer to this, but if they seem to flounder or they’re unsure, then that’s a red flag. Before going to see a vehicle, do some research to see what fair pricing on any model you’re interested in should be – you can even do research on the fly with your phone. You should be able to tell if the price seems fair and makes sense or if they’re asking too much.
  • Are there any issues that need to be fixed? The question earlier about “features that don’t work” will reveal problems with a stereo, air conditioning, or something similar. Asking if anything needs to be fixed could reveal any mechanical issues that might not be immediately obvious. There’s a lot of information to look at when considering a used car, so anything that can be specifically brought up is good to know.
  • Would you drive this car cross-country? Pretty much every salesperson you ask this to will probably say “yes,” but look for information beyond the simple answer. Do they seem to hesitate, or are they unsure when they answer you? That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but you should follow up on that – if they seem unsure, comment on it and ask them why they hesitated. It might not be a deal-breaker, but it could reveal something about the vehicle that you didn’t know.
  • Are there any promotions available? While most car dealerships are going to put their promotions out there as a way to boost sales, it never hurts to ask. There’s always a chance that your salesperson has forgotten about something that you can take advantage of, or they might have some options that aren’t being advertised yet. Whatever the case, you have nothing to lose from asking and plenty to potentially gain.

To be honest, there are many more questions that you should be ready to ask when looking at a used car, but these are a good place to start. The questions you ask are all about getting you more information – the more you know, the better the decision you can make when shopping for a used car. Some things you can answer by looking at the inventory on the website of a used car dealer, but don’t be afraid to ask repeat questions or questions where you already know the answer to make sure the salesperson you’re working with is being honest. It often helps to have a checklist prepared ahead of time, so you don’t forget anything in the moment.

Important Features to Check For

We can’t tell you what features you should absolutely look for since it will really depend on your preferences and what you need from a vehicle. That being said, there are still some general things to keep in mind – but you can decide on if these are make-or-break items for you when shopping at a used car dealer. Rather than hurl a long list at you, we’ll break them up into categories and specific features to consider.

  • Comfort – These features include things like air conditioning or climate control – if you choose a large vehicle, then look for multi-zone options. Other comfort features include power-adjustable seating, ventilated and heated seating, lumbar support, and more.
  • Functionality – These sorts of features let you get the most out of your ride and include things like power-opening tailgates and rear doors, remote start functionality, and more. Although not completely essential, they make enjoying your vehicle easier.
  • Size Considerations – You always want to look for a model that’s big enough without going overboard. Ultimately, make sure it’s not too small – it needs to be able to fit all of your passengers, with enough cargo space to be functional.
  • Capability – This is mostly a consideration with vehicles like SUVs and trucks: make sure they can tow any weight you might need. Always give yourself some wiggle room, so if you need to tow 6,000 lbs, then pick a model that can handle 7,000 lbs or more.

All of these things can really improve just how much you get out of your vehicle.

A buyer and salesman are looking under the hood of a silver car.

Important Technology to Check For

Much like with the features of a vehicle, we cannot say for sure what tech options are perfect for you. We can, however, give you some ideas of what’s out there and what to look for, then you can decide on how important any of these are to you. Just keep in mind that impressive technology will let you enjoy your vehicle more than you might expect, but it can also make a used model more expensive.

  • Entertainment – There are a lot of different types of entertainment tech available these days, including amazing sound systems and displays with media players for your passengers. While not essential, this can make long road trips, with kids, much nicer.
  • Navigation – Simple navigation with your vehicle can make getting where you need to go a lot easier. Some models will even feature head-up displays on the windshield that provide navigation information right in your field of view.
  • Safety – Modern safety features and technology go well beyond seatbelts, airbags, and anti-lock brakes. Look for used cars with advanced systems like side-blind zone alerts, rear cross-traffic alerts, and automatic emergency braking. A used car with the latest safety technology can really make a difference in protecting you and your loved ones.

Of the above options, safety technology is one we suggest prioritizing for every customer. Entertainment and navigation features are nice, but nothing is more important than your safety. However, you are probably going to be spending a lot of time in this vehicle, so you still are going to want fun entertainment features for when you are on the road.

Posted in Used Car Dealers