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Exactly What To Look For When Buying A Used Car (With Checklist)

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Buying a used car is a great alternative to buying a new one if you want a good car without having to spend as much, but it’s difficult to know what to look for, or what to ask about when buying.

We’ve got you covered with a used car checklist that you can check when inspecting the second-hand vehicle.

Then we’ve got a more in-depth section that you can read prior to visiting the pre-owned car, and you can know exactly what to look for when buying a used car.

Buying a used car can be a headache, but it doesn’t have to be, and if you’re smart and use this used car checklist, and the rest of the article, you’ll be able to spot any potential problems.

Used Car Checklist

This used car inspection checklist can be used when buying a vehicle to check all aspects of its condition.

  • Check panels for dents, scratches and rust.
  • Check that panels all line up, and paint is even across car.
  • Look at the appearance of the car – is it consistent with it’s mileage and age?
  • Check shock absorbers by putting weight on car.
  • Look at all windows and lights for cracks.
  • Check rubber seals for tearing.
  • Check treadwear is even across the circumference of tires.
  • Check tread depth, which should be 1/16 inch.
  • Remember to check for spare tire and tire sealant kit.
  • Make sure the locking wheel nuts are fitted, and the special adapter supplied.
  • Look for leaks and spills.
  • Look for noticeable welding as a sign of repair.
  • Check the tailpipe for burnt oil.
  • Check the constant-velocity-joint boots for splits or leaks.
  • Look for corrosion on anything under the hood.
  • Check the rubber hoses are firm.
  • Check the fluid levels.
  • Look at the dipstick to check the fluid looks good.
  • Brake fluids and power steering must be within the safe zone.
  • Check the battery’s charge and the liquid level.
  • Catalytic converter – check condition and emissions test has been done.
  • Look at the oil filler cap for sludge – means poor servicing or short journey use.
  • Check the cam belt has been replaced according to the service schedule.
  • Check all locks and doors work properly.
  • Make sure you have all the keys you need.
  • Check the trunk for it’s general use.
  • Is the jack there as well as other tools?
  • Sit in all seats for comfort and try seat adjustments and seat belts – also look at condition.
  • Remove floor mats to check for wet spots.
  • Check dashboard warning lights, and that they go out when engine starts, especially air bags (check handbook for how they should operate.)
  • Make sure all lights are working, as well as the wipers/washers.
  • Check air conditioning and heater.
  • Check sound system and connections.
  • If electric, check how long it runs on a full charge.
  • Look at condition of pedals. A noisy clutch could mean repairs are needed.
  • Check gears and brakes on roads of different kinds, and if car pulls to one side.
  • The window sticker on the car shows if there’s a warranty.
  • Check you have the V5C registration document, that it’s consistent with the car (number plate, VIN etc), also so you can tax the car.
  • Check that the seller is the registered keeper on the V5C – ask why if not.
  • VIN numbers etched on the glass or lights should match number in the V5C.
  • Look for the mileage in MOT certificates, service records or other documents.
  • Check MOT status online with vehicle registration and car’s make.

What To Look For When Buying A Used Car

The following section is a more in-depth rundown of what to look for when buying a used car, going through all the necessary steps to make sure that the second-hand vehicle you have your eye on is for you.

In this section we check the outside, the panels, all windows, and doors, we look at the tires, for any leaks, and go right under the car. We look under the hood for the battery, brake fluid as well as other things. We go inside the car to check the seats, the pedals, the buttons, and all the warning lights.

We’ll help you know how to find a mechanic, look for the vehicle history report and explain why it might be good to buy a certified pre-owned vehicle.

This article will give you a full rundown of what to look for when buying a used car, so we hope you find it useful. If you’re at the place now, you might benefit from these Questions To Ask When Buying A Used Car.

Checking The Outside

You will need to have a look at the inside and outside of the pre-owned vehicle to make sure that what you’re buying doesn’t have any hidden problems, so dress in clothes you don’t mind getting dirty.

Inspect the second-hand car in daylight while it is dry, parked on a level surface and it shouldn’t have been driven for one hour before.

Check the entire outside of the car, looking at each panel plus the roof for any dents, scratches, or rust spots. Blistering paint is a sign of rust, and remember to look at the panels under the doors, the bottoms of the doors, and the wheel wells.


The panels of the car should be lined up correctly, and the paint shouldn’t be unaligned as this could be a sign of bad manufacturing or a bad repair job.

When doing this, look to see if the car is level. Put your weight down on each side of the car, making sure the shore absorbers are working, just making the car bounce up once.

Windows and Doors

Check each and every door, window, hood, and trunk to make sure none of them are loose, plus don’t forget to look at rubber seals for tearing.

When looking at the windows, make sure there are no cracks, but a small chip might be OK – this is something to bring up when negotiating the right price. Also check light lenses and reflectors aren’t cracked, missing, or fogged up.


If the second-hand car has less than 20,000 miles on the clock, then it should have its original tires. If its mileage is low and it has new tires, query this and also check all the tires are the same.

Check the tires’ treadwear which should be even across the circumference of the tire. If it’s not even, then that could show the car has been driven aggressively, the tires have been over or underinflated, or that there’s a problem with the steering, suspension, or brakes.

The tread depth of the tires should be at least 1/16 inch to be legal, and this can be checked with a tread-depth tool, which can be bought at auto-parts stores. Also, remember to check the spare too.


Look around for any leaks. If you see a black leak, this will be oil, whereas green, yellow or pink liquid will be anti-freeze. If you see some red liquid, that will be transmission or power-steering fluid.

If you can get right under the car, look for any leaks or spillage of any kind, as well as any large dents or kinks. Noticeable welding would show that something has been replaced or repaired, and a fresh undercoat could hide some structural repairs.

Under The Car

Feel the tailpipe. It should be dry and dark gray. If there is discoloration or it’s greasy, this will be a sign of burnt oil. Heavy rust means it needs a new exhaust system, but a little rust is to be expected.

Have a look at the constant-velocity-joint boots, the round, black bellows on the end of the axle shafts. If they are split or leaking, that will be a costly repair.

Checking Under The Hood

Check under the hood when the engine is cool. Look for any corrosion, especially on the battery, or other damage or wear.

Feel the rubber hoses to make sure they are firm, but not hard, and check the drive belts to see if they are frayed.

Checking The Fluid

Check the fluid levels, (this information can be found in the owner’s manual), and the oil should be brown or black and not gritty. If yellowy, it will have just been changed.

If when removing the dipstick, it has water or gray and foamy oil on it, this could be down to a blown head gasket or a cracked engine block, which you want neither of.

Look at the automatic transmission fluid when the engine has been on and is warm. The fluid should be pinkish and smell of oil. When wiping the dipstick with a rag, it should not leave metal particles on it.

Brake fluids and power steering must be within the safe zone.

Battery and Radiator

Have a look at the plastic container that’s connected to the radiator. The coolant shouldn’t be white or brown, but green or orange in color. Any stains could be a sign of leaks.

Have a look at the battery. Some have built-in charge indication, with yellow or black meaning it’s dying and green meaning it’s in good shape. Unscrew the filler caps to check the liquid level. If low, it might mean the battery has been worked too hard.

Checking The Trunk

Check the trunk, as this gives an indication of how previous owners kept it, and look for signs of water entry. Check the carpeting for a wet or musty smell, and look at the spare-tire well for rust or water damage.

Checking The Inside

Inside the car, make sure you sit in all the seats, to make sure they’re all comfortable and that none of them are damaged, and try all the seat adjustments to make sure they work correctly.


If you can get a whiff of a musty smell, that could be down to a leak or water damage.

If you can, take off the floor mats so you can look for wet spots on the carpet. If you smell a bitter smell, it might be evidence of being last owned by a smoker. You could check the ashtray for further evidence, as some of these smells are tricky to get rid of.


Look at the rubber on the different pedals, as if it’s a car with low miles, they shouldn’t show much wear and tear. If the rubber is worn or brand new (so replaced), it’s an indication that the mileage is pretty high.


Look at the headliner and roof trim to see if you can spot any stains or sags as water could be leaking through badly-fitted windows and doors. If it has a sunroof, check it to see if it opens and closes correctly and seals properly when shut. If a convertible, check for tears in the top by shining a torch through it.

Test Driving The Used Car

It’s important that you test drive a used car yourself before buying, partly so that you can see if you enjoy driving it, but mainly because it will show up any hidden problems the car might have.

Warning Lights and Car Lights

Before you set off, turn the key to the ‘accessory’ position, and all the dashboard warning lights should go on. If the lights don’t come on or stay on once you’ve turned the key, that’s something to make sure is inspected.

See whether the engine starts smoothly and try out each button, switch, and lever to see if they’re all working.

At this point, have a friend check that the lights are in working order,

Buttons and Dials

Turn the heater on to its fullest and see how hot it gets and how quickly. Put on the air conditioning for the same reasons.

Look at the sound system, checking the radio, and CD player if it has one. Use your phone or MP3 player and try using that to play music plugged in or through Bluetooth.

If the car is electric, make sure it has a full charge so you can see how long it runs.

Checking In Motion

While driving the pre-owned car, listen out for any clicking noises or taps you might hear, or strange engine or brake noises, as they could be further signs of a hidden problem.

It’s a good idea to drive on different kinds of roads and at varying speeds to see if the gears transition smoothly. Make sure that the brakes work well and don’t pull the car over to one side.

Have a Mechanic Inspect the Used Car

Even doing all these checks yourself, it’s worth taking it to a mechanic for a complete inspection. The dealer should be fine with having it inspected, and even if they say they’ve had their own mechanic have a look at it, it’s still worth doing.

If you take it yourself, leave a form of ID with them, but if they are reluctant to let you take it away, you could always follow them as they drive it to the shop themselves.

The inspection should cost between $100 to $150 but check in advance to make sure they don’t swindle you.

Where To Find A Mechanic

If you don’t know a good shop or mechanic to take it to, research online by looking at websites and also reviews to make sure they are a reputable establishment. Look for certificates and awards on their site too, as this can be a good indication of excellence.

Once the inspection has been done, you should be able to get a written report on the condition of the second-hand car and use this to help negotiate the price with the seller.

Low Mileage On A Used Car

It might be that you’re going to be more attracted to cars with lower mileage, and while it’s true that if it has more mileage, it’s been used more, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s in worse condition. Let me explain.

If a car has been driven sporadically, the plastic and rubber parts of the car can dry out and become brittle, as it’s actually healthy for a car to be used regularly. So, don’t be put off by a higher mileage if the car seems to be in good working order.

Check out our handy guide on how many miles is too many for a used car before you decide on buying a car.

Price Of The Used Car

Even if you’ve found a model you like, it’s still good to compare prices with different stores and locations as other shops might have the same model for a cheaper price, and it might be in better working order.

There are lots of good websites or online tools where you can compare the prices of used cars, so you can do it from the comfort of your own home.

It’s also good to be able to see if you’re being asked way too much for the model you’ve found. Though condition and mileage play a factor in the price of the pre-owned car, you can still get a round figure of the general market value.

The Window Sticker On The Used Car

The car should have a window sticker, its buyer’s guide, that will show you if the vehicle is being sold as it is or with a warranty, plus it’ll outline what percentage of repair costs the current owner is required to pay and if there are any needed at all.

If the car is being sold without a warranty, then if there are any issues with the car after buying, they will be your problem, and the seller won’t be responsible for any cost of repairs or willing to refund you.

This guide supersedes any and all information on the sales contract, so if there’s a contradiction and problem, whatever is said on the buyer’s guide will win out.

Review Vehicle History Report

It’s a good idea to review the vehicle history report to check the ownership history, services done to the car, and previous accidents. This can be done online on many websites, by putting in the Vehicle Identification Number or license plate number, but it’s worth checking if the dealer will provide this service for free.

Having said all of this, even though it’s worth doing, the report is only as good as the information provided to it, so, unfortunately, it might not be a full history of the vehicle.

It’s also a good idea to research the specific model of the car, whether it’s known for any specific problems or if it’s had any recalls on it in the past due to safety concerns.

Buying A Certified Pre-Owned Vehicle

It might be a good idea to buy a Certified Pre-Owned car as it means that you as the customer can have a greater amount of quality assurance.

Manufacturers have differing standards for CPO cars, but they will usually be less than five years old and have less than 7500 miles on the clock.

Usually, the dealer has checked the car, reconditioned it, and may provide a warranty, from either the dealership or the manufacturers.

Disclosure: Some of the links in this article may be affiliate links. This means I earn a commission if you make a qualifying purchase, but this is at no additional cost to you. Thank you for supporting The Road Trip Expert.

Image of Iain The Founder Of The Road Trip Expert

Iain Salter

Founder & Editor of The Road Trip Expert

Iain founded The Road Trip Expert in 2019 and continues to manage the website to this day. The inspiration to start the blog came during an extensive road trip around Europe with two friends that spanned several months and involved over 25,000km of driving. He first developed a passion for backpacking in 2014 and has had the pleasure of exploring over 60 countries.