1.1 Make sure that the car is on level ground before checking it out. This is to ensure that you will be able to clearly
check the tires and to see if there is anything sagging on the car.
1.2 Carefully check the paint job of the car, taking note of any rust spots, dents or scratches. Look at the sides of the car from end-on for waviness; that indicates paint work. Run your finger along the edges of the joints between panels; roughness indicates residue left from masking tape.
1.3 Check the trunk of the car to make sure it is still in good condition. It should not show any sign of rust, or water entry due to cracks or holes. Wear inside of the trunk indicates usage of the car.
1.4 Check the tires. The tires should be worn evenly and they should match. Look at the surface of the tire for feathering (bad alignment). Bad alignment can be caused by worn steering/suspension components, the pothole down the street or frame damage. Also check the spare tire and compare the tread to the other tires if it is a full spare.
1.5 Never buy a frame damaged car. Check the saddle (connects the front fenders and holds the top of the radiator). It should not be welded on either side, it should be bolted in. Inspect the bolt heads at the top of the fenders inside the hood; scratch marks indicates that the fenders have been replaced or realigned (after a crash). Look for welds inside the door jambs.
1.6 If you are able, try to get under the car when it is safely raised and inspect the exhaust system or any under-body
rust. Look for any black spots on the exhaust system because this can indicate leaking. This is also a good time to
inspect for frame or unibody damage.
- Check the exhaust with your finger. Greasy grime means important problem. Turn the car on. White
vapor (not in a cold climate) is a bad sign too.
Part 2 Checking under the hood
2.1 Check under the hood of the car for any indication of dents, damage or rust. These can all be signs that the
car was either poorly taken care of or damaged. Each fender, just inside where the hood joins, should have a
decal with the VIN (Vehicle Identification Number) of the car; if it is missing, that fender was replaced.
2.2 Check the hoses and belts. They should not have cracks. The radiator hoses should not be soft.
2.3 Inspect the engine for any sort of leaks, or corrosion. On the engine block, look for any dark brown oil stains,
this will indicate that there is a leak in a gasket, and could possibly lead to an expensive repair in the future.
Check the brake fluid, and reservoir to make sure its is not leaking. The belts should look
new (i.e. not have cracks or signs of drying). Old belts can snap, and if you do not know how to replace them,
it will cost between $100-500 depending on which belt goes bad.
2.4 Remove the oil filler cap. A foam residue on the inside indicates a leaking head gasket. Forget that car.
Look at the condition of the coolant in the overflow jar; filthy brown coolant means it's never been flushed and often
means a leaky head gasket.
2.5 Pull the transmission dipstick; the fluid should be pink or red. An old car may be dark but it should not look or
smell burnt. It should also be full (check with the engine running).
2.6 Check the timing belt. This is the most important belt in the engine, and is also the most costly to replace.
If the car is equipped with a steel timing chain, you don't have to worry about this. Normal lifespan of a timing belt is
from 60-100+ thousand miles; this depends on the manufacturer.