How to Inspect a Used Car

When you find a used car online or in the auto classifieds, inspect it to ensure you are buying a good car at a good value.

How to Inspect a Used Car
Twelvizm, Sonnett, Steve Keys, Lee Coursey, www.Flickr.com
Overview
When buying a used car, it is vital to determine what problems the car has. Few used cars are perfect, and you need to know what issues you will have to address in the future so that you can ask the seller to lower the price accordingly. A background report on the car will reveal any major accidents, and a professional inspection service can offer you expert advice. But nothing can replace a watchful eye and a basic knowledge of how to inspect a used car.
Step 1
Examine the frame and body to make sure everything is straight and shows no signs of unusual welds or major repairs. Unreported accidents may not show up on background reports, so it is important to examine the entire car for any sign that it has been in a major accident.
Step 2
Check the engine and the ground underneath it for evidence of oil, transmission or other fluid leaks. Oil is light or dark brown, radiator coolant is bright green, transmission fluid is red, and brake fluid is light yellow (but may gradually turn brown over time). Both power steering fluid and the water from the A/C unit are clear. Windshield washing fluid can be blue, orange, pink or yellow. Note that the colors of these fluids can sometimes vary, so if you are at all unsure, it's best to consult a mechanic.
Step 3
Look at all the engine fluid reservoirs (transmission, oil, antifreeze, etc.). Discoloration or debris in any of these fluids can be a sign of serious engine problems. Examine all rubber gaskets and tubes connected to the fluid reservoirs for signs of cracking or wear.
Step 4
Examine the exhaust system. With the car running, look at the smoke coming from the exhaust pipe. White smoke indicates water or antifreeze in the cylinder, blue smoke indicates engine oil in the cylinder, and black smoke indicates excess fuel in the cylinder.
Step 5
Drive the car around the block. Test the brakes and the steering system. Pay close attention to the sounds of the transmission, listening for signs of roughness or irregularity. Also, test all the electrical devices, such as the radio, interior lights, and defroster, while the car is running to ensure there is no problem with the electrical system.
Step 6
Watch all dashboard gauges to make sure they are functioning properly and within normal limits. There should be no warning lights illuminated. Watch the temperature gauge to make sure the engine is not overheating. Make sure the speedometer is accurately relating your speed as you drive. And check the odometer readout against the car's title to make sure it has not been tampered with.
Step 7
Check the tires for signs of uneven or excessive wear. Most states require tire tread depths to be over 2/32 of an inch. At that point, driving with the tires can be hazardous. To test tread depth, place an upside-down penny into the tire treads. If part of Lincoln's head is covered, then the tread is over 2/32 of an inch deep.
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Resources
reference
FCIC used car buying guide
reference
Exhaust colors and what they mean
reference
Proper tire tread depth guide
resource
Florida DHSMV guide to buying a used car