Used vehicle inspection - the ultimate checklist

By Chris Odogwu
Publish on November 30, 2018

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Vehicle inspection is truly important, especially when you intend to buy a used car. If there's no mechanic for help, bring along this ultimate checklist to do it yourself!

Why need to check cars?

All cars must be checked carefully before putting your money down, let alone pre-owned vehicles. Admittedly, buying used cars may be more affordable, but they are no match for brand new ones in condition. They most likely have hidden problems that aren’t detectable at a glance.

It’s prudent to thoroughly inspect the car by yourself, better with the help of an expert mechanic before purchase. A lot of underlying problems can only be identified when the vehicle is taken up on the hoist. Don’t get just any mechanic, but one who specializes in that particular brand of cars. And remember to bring along our comprehensive list to check car as below.

a clean car engine

A clean-looking car engine may cover potential problems inside

What to do in a used car diagnostic test?

There are two key things to look for when inspecting a used car: major and minor problems. Major problems are non-negotiable. Once detected, you should leave the car and go for another one. Minor problems can be managed, however, should be factored into your negotiations to get a better deal because you’ll have to spend more money to fix them.

Some examples of major car problems include the following:

  • Engine and transformation problems
  • Major rust
  • Electrical issues
  • Flood damage etc

Some examples of minor car problems include the following:

  • Brakes issues
  • Suspension issues
  • Dents
  • Worn tires etc

Items you may need for a used car pre-purchase inspection

There are a number of items you may need to aid your car pre-purchase inspection, including:

  • Flashlight: This is shone directly on objects to see them clearly.
  • Magnet: Is is to detect damaged corrosion spots.
  • Paper towel: This is used to check the engine oil.
  • USB cable/CD: It can help check the audio system.
  • Knowledgeable person: Besides the mechanic, you need to have someone else with you who is knowledgeable about used car inspection to get their opinion.

a girl inspecting car

Don't inspect car alone, you need someone to consult!

Steps in vehicle inspection checklist

1. Quick imagination of car history

Take a first look around the exterior of the car to identify anything that is out of place. Several cracks on the body is an indication that there may be more cracks in hidden parts. Also take a look at the objects in the interior such as the seats, inner door handles, and steering wheel among others. Are they in good condition? Sit in the driver’s seat to check if you are comfortable. Can you see the road clearly? Do you have enough leg room?

These quick glances can partly tell you some about the car history and all the incidents it has gone through. During the check, you may want to ask the seller questions of car history in different ways to see whether they give a consistent answer or not.

2. Start the car cold

Cold starting is a great way to detect a faulty engine. Take some time to check other aspects of the car. After a while, ask the salesperson to start the car. Do you see any smoke from the exhaust? How does the engine sound? If it produces a rough sound, forget about the car as this is an indication of a major problem. A good engine runs smoothly without a cracked sound.

3. Inspect the windshield

Pay close attention to the windshield. Look out for damages on it such as cracks and chips. Avoid big chips and cracks. If you want to replace the windshield, you need to budget between $320 - $1000, equivalent to N116,600 - N364,480. You may also need a calibration after replacement if the windshield has a sensor attached to it.

a cracked windshield

You might leave or stay to lower price after seeing this!

4. Inspect the body panels

What does the reflection from the body panels look like? Do you spot any difference in the paint texture? If yes, it’s an indication of the previous body works on the car. You may not spot this if you are very close to the car. Move backwards and look at it from afar in order to have a better view.

Open and close all doors. Do you notice any obstruction or sound? Doors should open swiftly. Lift the driver’s door on hinges while open. Do you notice any freeplay? That shouldn’t be. One more thing, avoid cars that have signs of excessive use because their transmission could be worn.

5. Inspect the tires

Car tires must always be in good condition. Do they have any cuts or look worn? Look out for the brand. All tires must be of the same brand for safety reasons.

Tires don’t last forever, they wear out, but the wearing out should be even. If they are more worn out on the inside, the car might have a wheel alignment problem.

Worn car tire

Car tire should be in good condition, not like this!

Look out for bulges on the sides. These are unrepairable and must be replaced as they could cause fatal accidents.

The tread depth of new tires ranges from 10/32' to 11/32', and can last up to 50, 000 miles. A new set of tires cost between $400 - $1200.

6. Inspect the interior

The interior of a car determines its level of comfort. First, you don’t want to have problems with your keys. Check if both key fobs are working properly. New cars have 2 or 3 key fobs. Be sure to ask the salesperson how many the car has.

You and your loved ones or passengers will be sitting in the car seats. Ensure that they are comfortable. Look out for damages such as burnt marks and tears.

Torn car seat

If you see a torn car seat, mention it in your negotiation!

7. Inspect power windows, mirrors and locks

Power windows, mirrors, locks and other accessories are just as important. Old cars often have window regulator problems. Test them to be sure that they move up and down freely.

Used cars often have heated seat problems, and these are quite expensive to replace. Be sure to check that they are in good condition.

Pay close attention to the controls. How is the audio system? Is the CD Player or USB import in good condition?

8. Inspect the air conditioner and heater functions

Driving can be stressful, and you don’t want to be stuck in a car without good ventilation. Check the air conditioner thoroughly while the car engine is on. If cold air doesn’t emanate from the vents soon enough, it’s an indication that it’s faulty.

Next, check settings of the heater fan speed. Heater fans often have the problem of working only at high speed.

Also, what does the vents smell like? Burnt oil smell probably indicates leakage in the engine compartment.

9. Check flood damage

Flooded cars are prone to problems. There are many wireworks beneath modern cars, and these can cause problems when soaked in water. Look out for dampness or moisture under the carpet.

If you aren’t convinced, you should request for a history report to ascertain how the car has fared with flood.

flood-damaged car

Who knows the car you're buying used to go through this?

10. Inspect under the hood

Before doing this, you need to turn off the engine. Put the transmission in Park and apply parking brake. These are safety precautions to prevent casualty.

Go under the car and look out for the following:

  • Antifreeze
  • Leaks
  • Poor quality repairs
  • Indicators that the car has not been serviced regularly

Note that a clean look under the hood isn’t a guaranty that the car is in good condition. The salesperson might have given it a proper wash. Ensure that a mechanic does further inspection.

High mileage cars often have minor leakages, and these could be indicators of major problems. You should aim for cars that have no leakage at all to avoid reoccurring problems. Dripping water from a running AC is the only normal leakage in a car.

11. Inspect engine oil level

Checking the engine oil

Remember to check the engine oil with a dipstick!

If you aren’t cut out for this, it’s advisable to allow your mechanic to do it. First, turn off the car engine and apply parking brake. Locate the engine dipstick, and pull it out. How does the oil look? If it’s dirty, it’s a sign of poor maintenance. Lift the oil filler cap, and look into the engine with the aid of a flashlight. If you see thick black deposits, the engine is in a bad condition.

12. Inspect transmission fluid

Note that some cars don’t have transmission fluid dipstick. If the car has one, drop little fluid on white paper towel. How does it look? If it’s very dirty and smells bad, it’s an indication of excessive transmission wear.

Test drive

Having done all the checks, it’s time for a test drive.

Give it time. The longer you drive, the more hidden problems become noticeable. Engine overheating happens after long driving. Also, an automatic transmission acts up after about 20 - 30 minutes of driving.

a girl test driving a car

Test drive will help you feel more!

There are a number of things to look out for while rest driving:

  • Transmission engagement

With the car in a stand-still position and the engine idling, change the automatic transmission from Park to Drive. Does it take long before the transmission engages? If it does, it’s an indication of transmission issues.

  • Driving around the city

When you accelerate while driving, is there any delay? Do you hear an awkward sound during acceleration or declaration? Is there unusual smoke? The sound produced is meant to be smooth, and there shouldn’t be continuous smoke.

Does the car jolt when coming to a stop? If yes, it has transmission or AWD problems.

  • Driving at higher speed on the high way

When you are driving on the highway, is the car stable? Does it drift to one side? If yes, it has wheel alignment issues.

Does the car vibrate while you on high speed? If yes, it has wheel and tire issues.

Do you feel the steering wheel shaking while using the braking? If yes, it has rusted or warped brake problems.

Black woman driving car

Pay attention to the car sound as you drive around the city

Post words

Outline all issues noticed during test driving, and point them out to the salesperson. If the problems are minor, as discussed above, reach an agreement with the salesperson to have them fixed before making a commitment.

If the salesperson assures you of fixing the problems or replace damaged items, ask him/her about the particular brand(s) they intend to use, and be sure it aligns with the car brand.

Finally, thoroughly study the contract, and have someone else study it too before signing it. And you're done, as long as you've ticked all the boxes in the checklist above!

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Chris Odogwu

Chris Odogwu is a freelance Content Writer and Journalist. He holds a bachelor's degree in Mass Communication from University of Jos and a master's degree in Mass Communication (Public Relations and Advertising major) from University of Lagos. His works have been published in top local and international publications including Forbes, HuffPost, ThriveGlobal, TheNextScoop and Nigeria360 among others. A member of the Nigerian Institute of Public Relations (NIPR), the thrill he gets from writing about exotic cars feels almost the same as riding in them.

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