How To Inspect A Car Before Buying: A Guide

Buying a new car is a big deal. The last thing you want is to be stuck with a lemon because you accidentally missed a mechanical problem or were sold a car different from what you thought you were buying.

Everyone needs to know how to inspect a car before buying it, so read on to discover the six key steps to remember before signing on the dotted line.

How To Inspect a Car Before Buying: Six Key Steps

  • Do Your Research
  • Checking the Exterior
  • Checking the Interior
  • Examining Beneath the Hood
  • Examining Underneath the Vehicle
  • Getting in Touch with Specialists

Do Your Research

Before buying any new or used vehicle, do tons of research. Specifically, your research should key in on:

  • What kind of car do you want? How many seats do you need? What type of vehicle do you need in terms of horsepower or drivetrain? Do you want something new and luxurious or used and affordable?
  • What is your desired vehicle's average price, especially for used cars?

By researching average prices ahead of time, you won't accidentally pay more for a used car than you should. Research also helps you secure a stronger position when you go to the bargaining table with a salesperson or private seller.

You should also consider where you buy your car. Online listing sites like Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace are great for finding used vehicles sold by private sellers in your area, but you have to vet the other person and ensure the sale goes somewhere safe.

Car dealerships are more secure bets in many cases, although you may be limited in terms of what vehicle makes and models they have in their lots or inventory.

Checking the Exterior

Once you find a vehicle you may want to purchase, don’t immediately fork over your cash. Instead, take a long, slow walk around the vehicle’s exterior and take note of several key factors and attributes during your pre-purchase inspection:

  • Look for signs of cheap repair or accidents that might not be on the car accident report, such as strange paint discoloration, chipping, or panels that don’t seem like they fit perfectly.
  • Check for corrosion or rust, mainly if it has spent some time in icy or wet weather. You should specifically check around the wheel wells for signs of rust.
  • Check the windshields for cracks, chips, or pits.
  • Examine the lights by having someone turn the ignition key and watch the lights operate from outside.
  • Don’t forget to inspect the tires, as well. Ensure the tires are in reasonably good condition, or you'll have to purchase new ones right after buying a new vehicle (which can easily be several hundred dollars).

If you do see something, say something. Ask about the vehicle’s warranty, or take your car buying journey elsewhere. A good car warranty can save your wallet if you discover a problem later.

Checking the Interior

You’ll also want to assess a vehicle's interior before buying it thoroughly. There’s a lot to check and consider during your test drive, including:

  • The VIN stands for "vehicle identification number." This should be somewhere on the dashboard – check the vehicle's manual for a specific location. If you can't find the VIN, it's a bad sign, and you should purchase a different car.
  • The smell. If a car’s interior smells terrible, that might mean it hasn’t been adequately taken care of.
  • Rips, burn holes, stains, wear and tear, or other damage to the upholstery, the door panels, the steering wheel, and the dashboard.
  • Illuminated warning lights when you turn the key in the ignition. The engine should be in good condition whenever you buy a car (even a used vehicle); a warning light on the dashboard indicates the exact opposite.

As you sit in the car, test its various systems. Turn on the AC and radio, make sure the interior lights work, and turn the car on so you can listen to the engine. Trust your gut. If something seems off or doesn’t work, remember that you can always buy a different car later.

If you’re buying a car from another private seller, consider scrubbing at any marks you see to determine if they’re permanent or if you can clean them off.

Examining Beneath the Hood

Pop the hood of your soon-to-be new vehicle and look at the engine, even if you aren't an expert. Average folks without any mechanical experience can still do a few tests, such as:

  • Examining the oil. Pull out the dipstick to check the engine oil condition; it should be light to medium brown. If the oil is black, it needs to be changed.
  • Examining the transmission fluid. This also requires pulling out a dipstick. The suitable transmission fluid should be pink and not have a rancid smell.

Furthermore, smell the engine and make sure you don’t detect anything burning. If you do, it could mean that there’s a problem with the transmission, issues with belts and hoses, or something wrong with the battery.

Speaking of the battery, you should not notice any corrosion or scarring on the battery casing itself, especially around the plugs and ports. Don’t forget to listen to the engine while it runs, too. Grinding or strange noises could indicate that the machine is on its way out and needs to be fixed or replaced.

Examining Underneath the Vehicle

If you're comfortable with it, look at the undercarriage during your vehicle inspection and double-check for leaks, rust, oil puddles, or other potential problems. If you notice any signs that the vehicle has mechanical issues, be sure to get it checked out or ask the current owner what the symbols mean.

Getting in Touch With Specialists

Even if the vehicle looks great from your inspection, taking the car into a local mechanic’s shop and having them perform an official check-up may still be worthwhile. Even if the car seller already has an official report from a mechanic’s shop, a trip to the mechanic isn’t a bad idea.

Why bother contacting a mechanic? These specialists know what to look for and can tell you whether the car is in good condition and worth the price you are about to pay for it. Since the mechanic has no skin in the game, you can trust that their assessment will be accurate and honest.

Contacting a mechanic costs a little bit, but it’s much better than spending thousands of dollars because of an engine problem you missed before buying your vehicle.

Why It’s Important To Inspect a Car Before Buying

Simply put, it’s crucial to inspect a car before buying so you don’t get scammed.

Even when you purchase a brand-new vehicle, there's no guarantee that that car is 100% operational and has no flaws. You have to pay several thousand dollars for a car at a minimum. You don't need to waste your money by accidentally buying a car with, for example, bad tires, a busted engine, or a nonfunctional AC system.

Inspecting your car ensures that you get what you pay for. It’ll also save you a lot of money and headaches later down the road (literally).

However, you may not always be able to see a car in person before buying it, such as when buying a used car from out of state. If that’s the case, consider asking the current owner for a vehicle history report if you can’t do a used car inspection — that way, you can still catch red flags that might indicate issues.

Bottom Line

It’s your right to inspect any vehicle you purchase, especially from other public members or used car dealerships. Checking a vehicle can catch any issues before they affect you on the road and ensure you don’t get duped by a conniving salesperson.

Once you have your car, you can drive it home. Alternatively, you can rely on transportation experts like Carvaygo to get your new set of wheels where it needs to go in one piece. With Carvaygo, you can ship your new or used car anywhere in the country at affordable rates. Contact us today to learn more.

What is a VIN (Vehicle Identification Number)?| AutoCheck
What the different colors of motor oil mean | WBTV
How to Inspect a Used Car | Consumer Reports

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