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If you can fix your own car—good for you—you're one of the lucky ones. Most people know how to change the oil and fill the tires, but not much else past that. However, you don't have to be a mechanic to inspect a vehicle you want to purchase. We're not talking about assessing the condition of the engine—that's a job for a professional—but checking the general condition of a vehicle is within everyone's ability. Small inspections will allow you to save a lot of money when it comes to buying a used vehicle.
Prior to attempting the inspection, make sure you're well prepared. Put on something you don't mind getting dirty—you don't want to inspect vehicles in a new suit. Take the following things with you:
Start by inspecting the body of the vehicle. Walk around the car and make note of its general appearance. Pay close attention to the car's paint—you may notice that certain car parts are covered in different paint.
The difference in paint can be obvious or subtle. All parts of the vehicle should be the same color and equally shiny or dull. If you notice color differentiation, it's a good chance that the vehicle was in an accident. Look for these things at a distance—you will not be able to see the full picture when standing too close. Mark this down and ask the seller about the issue, especially if the seller stated that the vehicle had never been in an accident. Vehicles that have been in an accident should be avoided since they are more prone to breakdowns, even if the vehicle has been well-repaired. Potential malfunctions aren't always obvious during your inspection or test drive. Problems may appear a few days or months later. There is no way to be certain.
You can run another test that will allow you to determine if the car has been in an accident. If the vehicle's paint is shiny, it should act as a mirror and reflect everything around. Stand at the front of the vehicle and look at the body towards the hood. The reflection should be smooth. If you notice any ripples, it means there are small indentations on the vehicle's surface. In most cases, these indentations are signs of repairs, indicating that the vehicle was damaged in an accident.
Got that magnet? Now is the time to use it. Place it on all metal body parts. If the magnet doesn't stick, it means fiberglass or some other car filler is under the paint. Car fillers are used to repair damages. Note: it might be a good idea to put a sheet of paper between the magnet and the vehicle's body, otherwise you may scratch the paint.
Once you're done, you should start looking for rust. The amount of rust will show you how well the previous owner cared for the vehicle and may be a good indication of the vehicle's overall condition. If the seller didn't bother to repair rust when it first appeared, how can you know that the oil was changed regularly or anything else was taken care of? Look for rust where it most commonly appears (door panels, the undercarriage, and wheel arches), and don't look just for large spots—even a small amount of corrosion can mean the beginning of big trouble.
You should also assess the underside of the vehicle for any leaks. That's when your flashlight comes in handy. Moist spots may be the sign of break fluid or fuel leakage, which is dangerous for anyone who drives the car.
Done with the underside? While you're down there, check if all tires are inflated properly. Sellers usually keep their vehicles ready for test driving and if the tires have low pressure, they might be faulty. Check if all tires are the same and observe the amount of wear. If you notice that some tires have less wear than others, you should talk about it with the seller. Some vehicle problems may cause uneven wear and the seller might be trying to hide these problems with a new tire set. The tread on new tires is approximately 8 mm deep. The depths should never be less than 1.5-2 mm. If it reaches this level, you should change your tires. Look for signs of physical damage on all tires—cuts, cracks, or bubbles may cause blowouts while driving.
The engine is one thing that should be inspected by a professional. However, you can still do a few things: pop the hood and take a good look at the engine. Is it dirty? Does it have any signs of fluid leakage? Any corrosion? If the engine is clean and there is no oil to be seen, it may mean two things. It might be in good condition or it could have been cleaned just for this occasion to hide some malfunction. If you see that the engine is dirty, covered in oil or rust, it usually means that the owner did not look after the vehicle and it could be expensive to maintain.
Make sure that the engine is cold and not running. Start by checking the oil. The oil must be clean, cloudy-yellowish in appearance, not black. The oil level on the dipstick can be indicative as well—if too low it could mean the car has an oil leak, or the seller has not replaced the oil for an extended period of time, which can cause future engine trouble.
Check the coolant in the radiator when the engine is cold. The coolant must also be clean and its levels must always be observed. If you notice that coolant is cloudy, dirty, or has rust particles in it, you may want to look at another vehicle.
Before getting in the car, check the condition and contents of the trunk. Check for rust and a spare tire. Make sure the trunk size is adequate.
Finally, look at the interior. Start by opening and inspecting each door for rust. With the door open, check the strength of the hinges by lifting it—there should be minimal movement.
Take the floor pads out of the car. If the pads are damaged or stained they can be replaced, but more important is the condition of the floor underneath for wear. Here, accumulated water and dirt can cause damage, making reupholstering more expensive than replacing floor pads. Use the flashlight to inspect under the steering wheel, do the same on the passenger side, and check all panels on the dash and doors.
Close the doors and get into the driver's seat. Start by testing all systems—the air conditioning, radio, and all lights and switches. Once you're done, get approval from the seller to go for a test drive (read more in our "Test driving a used vehicle" section).
When you come back from the test drive, don't rush to make your decision. Pop the hood again and take another look at the engine. Do you notice any changes? Any new spots? Wait for the engine to cool and take another look at the oil and coolant. Does it look like it did before the drive? Never try to open engine compartments while the engine is running or while hot—opening a cap on the radiator or oil compartment can cause severe burns and bodily damage.
Following these simple tips can help you rule out some low-quality cars without paying for a mechanic. If you do decide to purchase a vehicle, get a mechanic to take a look at it—you'll never regret a thorough inspection.
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