Never Overlook These 25 Things When Inspecting a Used Car

Shopping for a used car can be an arduous task, but you really need to make sure you do your homework or you could have an automotive money pit on your hands. If you decide to buy used, you need to make sure that the car doesn’t have any accidents on its record and check that it’s listed for a reasonable price.

used car
A used blue station wagon | Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

From there, schedule a time with the seller to see the car in person. This will let you look over the car and make sure it’s well-kept and meets your expectations. Anything that’s not satisfactory should be brought to the attention of the seller and can be used as collateral to get them to bring the price down. We won’t sugar coat it: There’s a lot that you need to look over. Luckily, here are the 25 parts of a used car you need to look over before buying.

1. Body panels

Hail on car
Damaged car because of hail |

Walk around the outside of the car. Look at the body panels from far away, then move in closer. Make a note of any rust or dents you see and where they are. Check out the fit and finish of the body panels. Are all the gaps uniform? If not, it may be a sign that the car was involved in an unreported accident.

2. Paint

Metallic sedan bodywork
Surface of silver sport sedan car |

As you inspect the body panels, keep an eye on the paint, too. Start out farther away from the car and then take a closer look. Some cars look fine far away, but when you get up close, you may start to see imperfections in the paint job. Look for bubbling and peeling paint as well as fading clearcoat. Also, look for any sheet metal that is a slightly different color than the factory paint job as that may also indicate an unreported repair.

3. Upholstery and carpet

brown leather interior
Leather interior | Land Rover

On the inside of the car, check out the seat upholstery and carpet, and ask yourself the following questions. Is the interior the correct color? Are there any tears on the seats? Are the surfaces of the upholstery and carpet clean and clear of stains and dirt? If everything looks good, think about how it smells. The last thing you want is a smelly car. If there’s an unwanted odor, try to get the seller to pay for detailing before you purchase the car. That way you won’t get stuck with the car if the smell is hard or impossible to get rid of.

4. Exterior lights

The 2018 Infiniti Q50
One of the 2018 Infiniti Q50 headlight | Infiniti

It almost goes without saying that a car’s lights are important. Without them, you’d be stuck doing daytime driving. As such, it’s important to make sure that each and every exterior light work on the car. Check the headlights, taillights, running lights, turn signals, and license plate lights. If any of them are not working, discuss it with the seller and see if he or she will adjust the price or fix the lights before the sale. Usually, all that needs to be replaced is a light bulb.

5. Interior lights

Close up interior light in car
Interior light in car |

Lighting serves a purpose on the inside of the cabin as well. Most cars have a few overhead lights and a myriad of lights on the dash and instrument cluster. It’s important to find out if all of the lights work. Turn them all on and off a few times. If you notice any lights malfunctioning, talk with the seller about them. Again, just like with the exterior lights, interior lighting issues are usually solved with a few new light bulbs.

6. Climate controls

Woman turns on air conditioning in a car
Woman turns on air conditioning in a car |

You want a car that blows hot air in the winter and cold air in the summer. When shopping for a used car, don’t just take the seller’s word for it that the heating or air conditioning works. Actually test it out for yourself. Make sure to test both the heater and the air conditioner no matter what the temperature is like. The last thing you want is to assume the heater works and then realize it doesn’t once snow flies.

7. Mirrors

Adjusting the rear view mirror
Driver adjusting the rear view mirror |

Most cars and trucks have three mirrors: a rearview and two side mirrors. Inspect all three closely. Are there any cracks in the mirror? Do the mirror adjustment controls work? Do the side mirrors easily fold in towards the body of the car? If you notice anything that doesn’t function as it’s designed to do, inform the seller and see what they’re willing to do.

8. Tires

New tires for sale at a tire store
New tires for sale at a tire store |

You can’t expect new tires when shopping for a used car, though sometimes you get lucky. Even if the tires aren’t new, you still need to check tread depth and estimate the amount of life left on them. Also, make sure to look closely at the tire sidewalls for damage. If the tires are damaged or near the end of their life, take that into consideration when discussing price with the seller.

9. Wheels

aluminium sport wheel on a black sport car
Aluminum sport wheel |

While you’re checking out the tires, make sure to also look closely at the wheels. Note any damage or cracks in the wheels. If the car has alloy wheels, take a close look at the outer edge of the wheel to see if the owner has rubbed curbs with his or her wheels. Curbs can chip or scuff up alloy wheels horribly. If the car you’re considering has hubcaps, inspect those and then see if the seller will remove the hubcaps so you can take a close look at the actual wheels. You should factor any damage into the price you’re willing to pay.

10. Brakes

Racing wheels and brakes
Racing wheels and brakes on the 2016 One Lap of America Toyota Sienna | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat

Brakes are something that you can’t really just look at. You have to actually drive the car to determine if there’s something wrong. When you’re behind the wheel, listen for any squeaking or squealing during braking as this could be a sign that the brakes need to be replaced. Also, notice how the brake pedal feels underfoot. If it feels mushy or the brakes underpowered, the braking system may need to be serviced.

11. Belts

closeup car timing belt in clean engine room
Car timing belt |

For this one, you’re going to have to get under the hood. While most things under the hood take the seasoned eye of a mechanic, belts are something you can easily check yourself. With the car off, look at the belts to see if they look old, worn, or frayed. Look closely at the rubber for any cracks. After you’ve done a visual check with the engine off, turn the car on and listen. If you hear belts squeaking or squealing, they may need to be replaced.

12. Frame structure

View from the bottom of a car
Bottom of a modern car |

When buying a used car, you want it to be structurally sound. This means you need to determine to the best of your ability if the frame has been damaged at any point in the car’s life. A detailed vehicle history report will let you know if the car has been in any reported accidents, but those reports aren’t always completely accurate. When inspecting a car look down the car’s side to determine if it’s straight. Also, walk around the car and notice the gaps on the body panels. Are they all about the same? If not, there may be underlying damage even if the body panels themselves look fine. Finally, drive the car. If you notice the car not tracking straight or handling unpredictably in turns, it may have structural damage.

13. Exhaust system

trd exhaust
TRD exhaust | Toyota

The exhaust system keeps harmful carbon monoxide from entering the cabin of your car. It also keeps the vehicle quiet and emissions compliant. When inspecting a car, take a look underneath to see if the exhaust system is rusted or damaged. Start with the tailpipe and follow it up from there. If you see excessive amounts of rust or some other sort of damage, it may need to be replaced soon. Also, drive the car. If the exhaust system is excessively loud or hisses during operation, it may have a leak and need to be serviced.

14. Dash

The dashboard of the Buick Envision
The dashboard of the Buick Envision | Buick

When you’re inside the car, take a look at the dash and ask yourself the following questions. Is it cracked or scuffed? How has the material held up over time? Does it look like the previous owner of the car took the time to keep the dash clean? If the dash looks fine, feel it with your hands and try to shake it to see if any part of it is loose. Also, take the car for a drive to see if bumps in the road will make the dash rattle or shake. If it does, there may be loose screws or fasteners holding it in place.

15. Climate control vents

Air car
Air car |

An operation heating and air conditioning system in a car is important, but if the vents don’t work, the system is utterly useless. When inspecting a used car, make sure that all the vents open and close as they’re designed. Look closely at all the little horizontal and vertical slats to ensure they’re not broken and the vent can move and direct air correctly.

16. Spare tire

spare tire in the trunk of a modern car
Spare tire in the trunk |

The spare tire often gets overlooked, but it’s important because without it, you could end up stranded on the side of the road. When looking over a vehicle, make sure to take note of the spare. Is it a full-size tire or just a donut? Is it properly inflated and in good condition or in need of attention? A missing or poor condition spare tire isn’t a deal breaker, but it should definitely be a consideration.

17. Trunk area

Car trunk |

The inside of the trunk can be easy to overlook, but you should really check it out before purchasing the car. Make sure the trunk liner is in place and that the trunk is free of rust, dirt or trash. Don’t let an unkept trunk let keep you from buying a car, but don’t assume it’s in tip top condition without looking.

18. Trunk lid and seal

On the Road
A businessman on a road, opening his trunk |

When you inspect the trunk, take a look at the lid. Look for any dents, make sure the latching mechanism functions properly, and that the seal around the trunk is in good condition. The seal is a rubberized material and can dry out and crack over time. If it’s damaged or in poor condition, it will need to be replaced at some point.

19. Hood

The 2017 Chevrolet Silverado HD
Hood of the Chevrolet Silverado 2500HD | Chevrolet

Make sure to look closely at the hood of the car as well. Does it close fully? Does it open easily? Does the prop bar work? Even if you don’t plan on getting under the hood of your car much, it needs to be in proper working order. When looking over the car, open and close the hood a few times to make sure it works as it should.

20. Owner’s manual

Woman reading owner's manual of her car
Woman reading owner’s manual of car |

This isn’t really a part of the car, but the owner’s manual is still very important. If the seller has all the owner’s manual literature, it means you’ll have most of your car’s vital information at your fingertips. Even with so much information online, it’s not always easy to find specific information about your car in a pinch. Of curse, getting a replacement owner’s manual isn’t too difficult. It’s not the end of the world if it’s missing, but it’s a real plus if your car has it.

21. Buttons and switches

Mazda steering wheel
Mazda steering wheel and dash | Mazda

Throughout the interior of the car, you’ll find buttons and switches for various car functions. All of those switches have a purpose and you need to make sure that each and every one of them works as designed. Make a note of anything that doesn’t function properly and bring it up to the seller.

22. Audio system

infotainment system of the GMC Acadia
2017 All-New GMC Acadia Denali Infotainment | GMC

With the car running, turn on the radio and try out all the buttons. Make sure that all of the audio system’s functions work. Turn up the volume and see how the speakers sound at different volumes and with different settings and different music genre’s playing. If you notice any buttons don’t work, talk with the seller. Also, pay close attention to the sound quality. If you notice buzzing or distortion, there’s a chance the speakers may be damaged.

23. Fluid levels

engine oil cap
Engine oil cap | Castrol via Facebook

Look under the hood at the fluid reservoirs to make sure they’re at the proper level. This is easy to see. Most have “min” and max” indicators. The fluid level should be up to the max indicator or somewhere between the two. Also, check the oil in the car and any other fluid that’s checked via a dipstick. Dipsticks are easy to read. Like with fluid reservoirs, there’s a “min” and “max” indicator on the stick. Pull the dipstick out and wipe it off. Then reinsert it and pull it out again and look at the indicators. The proper fluid level is just below the max marking. If you see low fluids that could be the sign of a leak somewhere.

24. Odd noises

Woman holds her hand near ear
Woman trying to listen | Source: iStock

Most people can tell when a car makes the wrong noises. Loud squeaks, squeals, grinding noises or other creaks or rattles are not the kind of thing you want to hear on a test drive. If you can hear any of the listed sounds, there may be something wrong with the car. You should discuss any odd noises with the seller and see if they have an explanation.

25. Uncommon driving characteristics

driving through the mountains
Woman holding the steering wheel driving a car on a rural road through the mountains | BrianAJackson

When you go on your test drive, pay attention to how the car handles. Does it pull left or right? Does the ride seem overly harsh or too soft? If you notice any odd characteristics, bring them up to the seller and see what they say about it. If something feels off, there may be issues with the vehicle that aren’t easy to see.