Used Car Inspection Checklist: A Complete Overview

Before buying a used car, it's always smart to conduct a pre-purchasing inspection. This move will save you time and money in the future.

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Pre-Purchasing Inspection: Used Car Inspection Checklist

Sean C. Resident Copy Writer/Editor

Compared to buying brand new, purchasing a used car is usually much easier on the wallet – but only if you take the time to research your options. You never know what a used vehicle has been through, and without thorough assessment, you could end up with a car that burns right through your pocket with repairs and replacements.

This is why many car-savvy folks choose to get pre-purchasing inspections (PPI) before buying used cars. These comprehensive examinations can help determine not only a car's roadworthiness, but its estimated value too. For many, they're an essential step in the process of buying a used car.

PPIs don't come cheap, though. One can cost anywhere between $100 to $200. So to make sure you're getting the most bang for your buck, it's always a good idea to carry a used car checklist with you.

Here's a checklist highlighting seven important steps in the PPI process, from securing the necessary paperwork to the proper way to test drive a used car.

What Is A Used Car Pre-Purchasing Inspection?

A used car pre-purchase inspection is a thorough checkup of a vehicle's overall condition. This is usually done by a licensed mechanic or technician who is familiar with the car's make and model, as well as the mechanical and safety issues that commonly affect the vehicle.

By commissioning a qualified expert to review the entire car, you can find faults and damages that may not be obvious at face value, along with repairs or conditions that may not have been disclosed by the seller.

Benefits Of A Used Car Inspection

One of the biggest benefits of a PPI is peace of mind. Used car buying can be a gamble, and if you don't do a thorough sweep before buying, car trouble could hit you when you least expect it. 

A seasoned mechanic can also give you their expert opinion on the car's estimated value. With a mechanic's report, you can haggle the price of the vehicle with the dealership based on any existing conditions.

All this is especially important for folks who are looking at car financing options from either banks or dealerships. If a buyer purchases a fixer-upper at a high-interest rate and longer terms, they could end up juggling the interest, monthly fees, and repair costs all at once. Those on a tight budget definitely don't want their used car buying to turn into a money pit.

1. Check The Papers And Documents

Before buying a used car, make sure to check these five important items:

Vehicle Identification Number. This is like your car's fingerprint. It includes basic information about your vehicle and also helps you track the car's history. Having a car's VIN also makes it easier for insurance companies to give you the right rates, and makes it easier for you to claim ownership in the event of an accident.

Safety Standards Certificate. If you're buying a used car in Ontario, you need to ensure that the vehicle meets the minimum safety standards enforced by the province. 

Used Vehicle Information Packet. This is Ontario's version of a vehicle history report. In Ontario, nobody is allowed to sell a used car without providing potential buyers with a complete UVIP. The packet should include the vehicle's registration history, lien information, sales tax information, and vehicle details such as the make, model, year, body type, and the like.

Ontario Drive Clean Emissions Test. Also known as the ODCET, this form is required for heavy diesel commercial vehicles and cars that are at least seven model years old.

Vehicle History Report. While not entirely necessary, this report should give you a complete overview of the car's condition and history. It includes accident history, lien history, and any safety recalls issued by the manufacturer. Depending on where you purchase a report, it could also tell you the average price for vehicles of the same make, model, and year.

2. Inspect The Exterior Of The Car

When inspecting the exterior of a used vehicle, make sure you thoroughly examine the underbody and the outer body, as well as the lights, tires, and mirrors.

You want to ensure that the undercarriage is free of rust. Corrosion can do irreparable damage to a vehicle's underbody, and replacement can be incredibly expensive. Next, check the body surface for dents and scratches – these don't just affect the value of a used car, but could indicate whether it's been in some kind of accident. Mismatched paint and panels that don't align could also mean that the affected area was damaged and repaired.

Next, test all the lights, especially the brake lights. Make sure there are no cracks or fogging on the headlights and taillights. Check the condition of the mirrors, windows, and windshield too, looking out for cracks and scratches.

Lastly, don't forget to check the tires. Assess whether the tread has endured enough wear to need replacement. While you're at it, take note of how worn each tire's tread is, and compare. Uneven treading could be a sign of alignment or suspension issues that could cost you a lot of money down the line.

3. Inspect The Interiors Of The Car

For the interiors, you'll have to use your senses – namely, your sense of smell, sight, hearing, and touch. Once you open the car door, take a whiff and observe if the car smells mouldy or musty. This is a tell-tale sign of flood-damage.

Next, take a look around the interiors, checking the upholstery and carpets for any stains or tears. More signs of flooding include rust and corrosion along the door hinges and screws, along with a greyish water line along the windows and walls. Check the dashboard, AC controls, and radio to make sure everything is in order too.

Finally, turn on the car and try all the controls, from the lights to the wipers. Observe if any of the warning lights stay on. Listen for any rattling or sputtering sounds coming from the dashboard and the AC. Watch out for any foul smells coming from the AC too – this could mean mould is growing in the air vents. Make sure the AC gets cold enough too.

4. Check The Engine And Transmission

When you pop open the hood, you really only need to take two simple steps:

Do a visual examination. Watch out for signs of rust or corrosion, as well as dark brown stains around the engine. This could be a sign of a head gasket leak. Then, check for cracks along the belts, alternator, and fluid tanks. 

Check the fluids. Inspect the levels of the oil and transmission fluid – low levels could mean that the previous owner wasn't consistent at maintaining things under the hood. Check the color of the fluids as well. Neither engine oil nor transmission fluid should be dark or muddy since this indicates trapped dirt or even damage. Dirty or brown coolant is also a sign of a head gasket leak.

5. Check For Any Warning Lights

Before you buy a car – especially if it's a used car from a dealership or private seller – you should always ask if you can test it. A seller who is adamant about not letting you test drive is most likely hiding something, so turn down a deal like that right away.

Before test driving, the first thing you should do is to take note of any warning lights that don't go off. An oil light that won't go off despite there being enough oil could mean that there's something wrong with the oil pump. Another light you should never ignore is the check engine light, which could indicate anything from a cracked gas cap to overheating.

Other red flags include the battery alert symbol, the anti-lock brakes or "ABS" warning light, and the engine temperature warning.

6. Test Drive The Used Car

Now you're officially ready for the test drive. Ask for 30 minutes to an hour so you can get a real feel of the car on the road. Take your mechanic with you so you have an extra pair of eyes and ears to watch out for anything concerning.

Remember: Before your test, plan a route that includes small roads with minimal traffic, busy streets, and highways. That way, you can see how the car runs at both slow and fast speeds.

As you switch on the car, get a feel of the seats to see if they're comfortable for you. Check for issues with the seat adjustment and seat belts as well. When buying a car, always consider whether you'll be comfortable driving around in it for hours.

During the drive, you need to listen to how the engine and transmission perform at different speeds – clunking, whining, or loud humming are all cause for concern. Aside from listening, observe if the car feels heavy or as if it's having a hard time whenever you shift gears or accelerate. Note any shaking or grinding when you switch gears, as well as a burning smell. All of these can point to transmission and gearbox issues.

7. Inspect The Brakes And Suspension

Lastly, don't forget to check the brakes and suspension during your drive. You don't want brakes that pulsate or cause the car to lurch forward – these could be signs of rotor and suspension problems, respectively. A car that rides bumpier than usual, drifts or pulls to the side likely has suspension issues too.

One simple way to check the suspension is to park the car and do a "bounce test". Place one foot or knee on the front of your car and push it down with your full weight. The car should simply bounce back into place. If it bobs up and down a few times, it could mean that the shock absorbers are worn. Repeat the process at the back of the car.

Conclusion

Before you buy that car, it's always a good idea to conduct a thorough pre-purchase examination. Without one, you could land yourself in some serious hot water with future breakdowns. Not only is this a huge hassle when you're on the road – it'll likely cost you a hefty price.