How to Inspect a Used Car Before Buying

February 8, 2022

A Used Car Inspection Checklist

By Scott Bray

Credit Union Auto Consultant | KBB Team Lead

Auto House Tempe

At Auto House, it’s our job to know cars. Whether you’re interested in a used car for sale by a dealer or a private party, it’s critical to know how to inspect a used car before buying. We can tell you from experience there are more than a few things that should be on your used car inspection checklist. Some of them, you might not know to look for.

When you’re shopping for a used car, keep in mind there are probably going to be a few scratches, dents, or other issues that you can see with your own eyes. On the other hand, the car might look really good, the paint is nice, and there’s a well-maintained interior. You have to look deeper than the surface to be sure you’re getting the best wheels for your bucks. There could be problems lurking under the hood, or even in the vehicle history. Here are a few key tips for shopping for used vehicles, and how to inspect a used car before buying

Know the History

Higher mileage, prior accidents, and other factors can dramatically lower the value of a car. Some types of vehicles will be difficult to register or insure, and you have to know how to spot the red flags.

  • Get a Vehicle History report: CarFax tracks the VIN number of a vehicle for its lifetime and Auto House provides a CarFax vehicle history report for every car we have in our inventory. This report tells the story of the car, where it’s been, who has owned it, and how well it has been maintained. A CarFax report can flag issues with the title, show if the vehicle has been in accidents or had airbags deployed; list any major or minor damage reports, plus service records and routine maintenance. 
  • Steer clear of Salvage titles: Big red flag! This type of title shouts that the car has been damaged in a major accident, has fire, water, or other forms of severe damage, has been vandalized, stolen, or is missing parts. Whatever the circumstances, the insurance company declared it a total loss and paid out a claim. If a Salvage title is discovered, most major insurers will not provide coverage for the vehicle at all as it was previously declared a total loss.
  • Timesaver: With just a few clicks, Auto House provides a free vehicle history report, Auto House service inspection report, Kelley Blue Book report, and market analysis report for every car in our inventory. We do our homework because we want our clients to be able to rely on us for good cars at great prices for years to come. (It works.)
  • Peace of mind saver: We always recommend buying an Extended Service plan, especially with a vehicle that’s out of warranty. Less than $10 a month could save you a lot of money in the future.

The Test Drive

While you might be in love with the style, the model, or the price,  or even if you just always wanted *that car,* your test drive tells an important story. You have to drive a car to get a feel for it and make sure you’re comfortable. Of course, every car is different, but there are some common things to cover on a used car inspection checklist during the test drive. Here are just a few things to check if you decide to go the DIY route:

  • Check the exterior: Walk around the vehicle and take a good look at all sides, bumper to bumper–doors, locks, and wheel wells, noting any areas of damage. 
  • Look for rust: If the CarFax report shows that the vehicle comes from the Eastern States, areas with harsh winters and snow, or near a coastline, it’s important to check for rust and salt damage on the body and undercarriage. You’ll almost always find it.
  • Inspect the tires: measure the tread to determine how much wear is left in them.
  • Check the windshield and mirrors for pits, chips, or cracks, especially on newer models. There is a complex computerized network of safety systems, steering, navigation, and the drivetrain that are all carefully calibrated to operate together. Portions of the network are embedded in the windshield, so the integrity of the glass is essential.
  • Test the key fob: make sure it operates for keyless entry, as well as other operational points for remote starters and push-to-start vehicles and verify whether one or two key fobs are available. They can be expensive to purchase, so it’s always best to get two at the time of purchase whenever possible. 
  • Check the odometer reading. Is the mileage consistent with the age of the car? If it’s an older model with very few miles, you might have lucked out and found a true ‘they only drove it on Sundays and special occasions’ car. But if the mileage showing isn’t tracking with the CarFax records, the odometer may have been swapped out or tampered with. 
  • Test the interior vehicle systems: these include the sound and navigation systems, windows, mirrors, vents, phone jacks, etc. Make sure everything is in working order. 
  • Two words: Arizona summer. The AC has to be good. It will need to quickly cool the interior on hot days, and air should flow freely through the front and rear passenger areas. (It’s also why we have three climate-controlled indoor showrooms instead of a traditional dealer lot where every car sits and bakes in the sun.) 
  • Listen for any strange noises in the engine and cabin while driving or idling. Take note of vibrations, rattling, rumbling, or other sounds that could mean anything from a loose part to engine or exhaust problems. Remember, your vehicle must be able to pass state emissions inspection before it can be legally titled and registered. 
  • Check the handling, steering, and braking. Is the acceleration good? Does the vehicle pull to the right or left? Is there a vibration in the steering wheel or does something else just not feel right? Trust your gut. These signs can indicate alignment problems or hidden damage, or it’s simply not the right car for you. 
  • Check the lights: external headlights, parking/brake lights, hazard lights, interior lights.

Before You Buy: Get an Inspection

Depending on the age of the car, there could be a few cosmetic defects, and most can be fixed. But vehicle systems are far more complex than in the past, especially newer models with navigation, satellite radio, safety functions, and other advanced technology. Get an under the hood inspection, especially if the car is out of warranty. You’ll get a much better idea of the vehicle’s current condition, and whether it has original or aftermarket parts, or has been repaired or altered in any way. These factors could all impact the vehicle price, so they’re good things to know before you buy. If you have a trusted shop or mechanic, give them a call. If you don’t, we can help with an inspection in our own service center, or recommend a trusted third party. 

  • Shortcut: Schedule a pre-purchase inspection by ASE Certified Auto House Repair and Maintenance technicians.

The Ultimate Auto House Used Car Inspection Checklist 

As the KBB team lead for Tempe, everything involving cars, trade-ins, and market valuations is definitely in Scott’s lane, so if you have questions about anything just give him a shout. Here’s Scott’s contact info!


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