How to Check a Used Car Before Buying it

In the United States, millions of people just want to buy a car, but they always feel like something is wrong with it or they suspect that the vehicle has been in an accident, damaged, repaired, or even come with hidden problems that need lots of money to repair. That being said, it’s also important to know how to check if a used car is really good to buy or not, and in this guide, we’ll talk about the right way of inspecting a Pre-owned car to avoid scammers and fraud.

14 things to check before buying a used car

Before starting this car inspection checklist, take your time when looking at each point, some things are more important than others in terms of verification, but all of them can help you to detect any hidden information or fraud, and in the end, you’ll be able to purchase the car at the right price if everything is working fine.

1. Check the car history

Without a doubt, this is what everyone should start with, by doing a VIN or license plate lookup, you get all the hidden information about the car despite the fact that it may look great to you. When reversing lookup that car’s serial number, there will be a report with previous owner accidents, car features, equipment, real value, and other important data that can save you a lot of time and money.

The car history report comes with an estimation of the car value, so, the buyer knows exactly the prices and if the seller’s suggested price is too high, then, it’s a bad deal for you. Instead, look for any negative points you find in the car history like the prices that it was sold for, etc… That way, you can tell if the car you want to buy is good or not, and if it’s the best deal for you, there is always a chance to take the price low because you know everything about it.

Now, after getting the used car VIN lookup and verifying the report, following the pre-purchase car inspection checklist is still important for you, so make sure you answer all the questions and compare things altogether.

Inspecting the condition of the vehicle is crucial to determine if you can proceed to other steps or not, it’s one of the most important vehicle checks before buying these days. Remember then the VIN check for an old car may not always return a report and it’s needed to type the license plate of the vehicle to get a full report that describes in detail the car technically.

2. Does the seller hide some things?

This should be on the top of your used car inspection checklist, and you don’t have to struggle with that, just see if the seller looks away when answering your question or not. Scammers usually avoid looking at their buyers’ eyes because they lie, and by looking at the way the guy answers questions or talks, it can be easier than what you thought to tell if his car is worth it for you to buy or not.

3. Inspect the car visually

This is what you should look for now when buying a used car, the car looks, tires, engine site….but that may not always be accurate as you’re not a mechanic. So, look for any visual damage in the doors, chassis, headlights, etc… And it’s a good idea to invite someone who is experienced in used car inspections to do the job for you.

In general, a used car inspection costs around $150 these days, and that’s valid for qualified mechanics and technicians who come with some type of documents or used car checklist to give you a final report about the vehicle and if it’s worth it or not.

If you don’t know any trusted mechanical inspection of a used car near your location, you can read reviews about shops and garages using Google before doing anything. In addition, you can get a cheap car inspection in your city if you ask others in your family but always look for trust and quality. The last thing you need is someone who is not qualified to find problems in the Pre-owned car you’re willing to buy and invest money in.

4. Is there any exhaust smoke?

By inspecting the exhaust smoke, the car can tell if it struggles with anything in the engine or not, blue smoke is not the same as black smoke when accelerating or at idle. Also, look for any light or white smoke coming from the exhaust, all these different colors of engine smoke from the exhaust can tell a different problem inside the engine like fuel pressure, oxygen sensor, turbocharger, or even others like the air filter and more.

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Now, don’t just let the seller test the car for you, that can be manipulated because he knows the issues and he’ll make things look normal. So, take someone you trust with you to check the car together, and start by looking for any smoke coming from both the engine bay and the exhaust at idle, then, accelerate and see what happens, also, you should look for any smoke when you drive the car and look carefully behind you, to see any smoke in the mirror.

If you see black smoke, that can be a problem of fuel-air ratio, or faulty air sensor, clogged air filter, bad injector, or even more, a turbocharger that’s not working properly. The cost when fixing each one of these possible problems can range from hundreds to thousands of dollars depending on the degree of failure and the parts, so, it’s not a thing that you can skip, just verify that carefully.

5. Diagnose the car

Even if the car looks great, in good condition, and that everything is working, other serious problems can be hidden until you run the diagnostic tool and test the car. By doing a professional car diagnosis, car buyers can see the full list of problems the vehicle has, and also, some tools show the exact steps and procedures to fix the issues and clear fault codes.

Lots of people skip this step and just inspect the car themselves and think they know how to tell if the car they buy is in good condition or not, however, they neglect the fact that many systems and sensors in the car may not work and that’s why the diagnostic scanner was built for.

If there is any fault sensor or electrical device failure in the car, you can find it and then, look for the repair cost, part price, etc… Sometimes, the price of the part and the labor cost may be as high as $10K and that happens, especially for European carmakers, including BMW, Mercedes, Porsche, and others, so, never neglect this important checking point when buying a used car again.

6. Check for dashboard warnings

Here is a pro-tip, never believe what they say about the cause of any warning you see in the car’s instrument cluster, always ask yourself why that happens? Sellers may give you all the explanations they want when the truth is completely different.

I remember once someone told me that a fault fastening belt and airbag in the passenger area are caused by wirings that someone forgets to reconnect after repairing the seat leather, then, what happened is that the full module that controls the passenger airbag and belt fastener is completely out of service which means thousands of dollars to fix it.

As a piece of advice here, always take note of all the dashboard warnings and show them to a mechanic, he can tell you the possible reasons, also, have a look at some warning while you drive, is there any sound, light, etc…?

7. Check for oil leaks

Oil leaks can be tricky, even for a mechanic, the engine can be fully covered by oil, and in general, the problem can be caused by bad joints, warn seals, or old gaskets and the list goes on, however, the car seller may clean the engine bay completely, and once you drive the car for few miles, the leak will come again, so, there is a chance to notice that. Thus, verifying the car from the exterior and interior, then driving it and looking for any oil leaks in the engine bay is what works better.

Oil leaks can also happen from the transmission, and that oil is not burned like the engine one, so it should look colored, and never look black. If the leaks come from a worn seal, they can be replaced easily, but always, add the repair cost to your list to lower the price later.

8. What does the car’s Undercarriage look like?

By looking underneath any car, people can get a clue on how the owner treats the vehicle, or at least, they get an idea of how bad or how good the car is. It’s simply because most people won’t even look at that hidden car cover that’s not easy to watch or to verify, and if the car has cracks, damages, leaks, or lots of corrosion, then, the guy is not taking things seriously when maintaining his vehicle.

At the same time, by verifying underneath the car, you can see any leak in oil, water, etc… But keep in mind that even if the car has a small oil leak, you’ll find all underneath the covers oiled because of the wind when driving the car. So, sometimes, even with lots of oil underneath the car, the cause can be a simple seal, just verify all that.

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9. Check and test all headlights

Buying a used car for a cheap price may look like a good deal for many, but once they drive the car at night, it will be a nightmare. In fact, car owners may install bad low-quality LED or HID bulbs or kits which can destroy all the headlights, that’s why many cars won’t exceed the 30 Miles/hour when driving at night because of dead headlights.

Now, when you test the car in daylight, inspect the condition of the headlight, and if they look yellowish because of the oxidized plastic, that can reduce up to 80% of the lights coming from the projector or reflector.

That also indicates poor vehicle maintenance habits, if the car is exposed to sunlight and rain in winter, then, many hidden problems can happen, for that reason, you should turn ON the lights, turning signals, etc., and also, when reversing, see if the light works or not. Additionally, turn on the low beam and high beam and see the reflection on a wall and see if everything looks working well, you don’t want to find that you just bought a car without light at night.

Talking about headlight reflectors, they are cheap compared to projectors, and replacing one car projector with a HID or LED bulb can cost twice as much as all the regular car headlights, especially for luxury cars and SUVs. That’s why inspecting the headlights is crucial when buying a second-hand car from someone you don’t know is highly recommended.

10. Always test-drive the car

Who knows what the car is hiding as problems, you won’t say anything until you drive it yourself, feel it and turn on the AC and see if it works properly, listen to the engine sound when idling or accelerating, and verify that you drive at both low and high speed.

Some car problems happen only when reaching a speed of 100 M/h when other issues come and go without a clear reason. In addition, we recommend driving the car at high speed and seeing if the steering wheel vibrates or not, even a small vibration can indicate bad tires or wheels that are not balanced or damaged completely, these should be included on everyone’s used vehicle inspection checklist because safety is the number one thing to look for.

Take advantage of your test drive and see if the car suspension is good over bumps and holes and when accelerating, and braking. If the car moves a lot, or jerks, that’s not supposed to happen, and that could indicate a problem with the suspension, brakes, etc…. Also, listen for any squeezes when applying the brake, then switch all the transmission gears one by one, and see if it’s smooth or not easy to manage.

Because the automatic transmission is costly to fix and buy, someone who wants to buy a used car for the first time should never mess with it, always listen for any hard clunk when switching from Parking to Drive or Reverse or from Reverse to Drive, that could mean small issue or low level of ATF (Automatic Transmission Fluid) and all that repair come with cash to add.

If the RPM of the engine goes all the way without switching the gearbox, you may feel it struggling to pass the next gear, so, verify that you test the standard driving mode and the others if available like Sport mode, Comfort, etc…

11. Don’t test the car if the engine is warmed when arriving

Scammers know that engine problems may go away when reaching the engine operating temperature, so they can prepare the car for the test because you won’t notice anything unless you buy the vehicle and find it unable to start in the morning.

So, when coming and testing the car, put your hand on the engine bay and see if it’s warmed or not, if that’s the case, tell the seller that you want to test it again tomorrow at clod, and you may be surprised by the annoying ticking noises from lifters or find lots of exhaust smoke and even bad smells at cold, you won’t be able to notice that until you start engine yourself the next day.

12. Check all tires and wheels

Don’t just make the same mistake as others by looking at all car tires and seeing them all right and thinking everything will be okay, in fact, many hidden problems can happen like tire calibration, balancing, or suspension can cause serious damage to the full car.

So, check every wheel and see if it’s damaged, if there is a bent, etc… That can cause continuous deflating and you may find the tire with no air on it when leaving the vehicle in the garage for a few days. Also, bad tire wheels can cause a vibration when driving and even more, the whole car body may be affected and be unbalanced at high speed.

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Here is a trick to check if there is a tiny invisible air leak in the wheel of the car you want to buy, take any sprayer and fill it with water and add some shampoo (any), then take it and spray all over the surface of the contact area between the tire and the wheel.

Next, wait for a minute or so, and look for any air bubbles, if that happens, then, the car tire is losing air and the contact between wheel and tire is not good. Mechanic shops can repair these issues, but that’s not a thing to skip for your security and overall car health.

The penny rule for checking if a tire is bad or good is still valid, but only if the tire is not cracked, you don’t need a tire that’s exposed 365 days to hot summer and just think it’s good because of the depth of the lines. A good tire should look good with no cuts, bulges, or wear.

Verifying every tire and wheel can save money when negotiating the used car price, if there is any problem, that will add more money to repair and you can take advantage of that to take the price down.

13. Check for cracks and scratches

This is not for design, paint, and interior only, look also for any clear cracks on the engine bay, and scratches on the windshield or window, and don’t skip the dashboard, if it’s cracked and you can feel it broken from the inside, that’s a bad sign of poor maintenance and there should be more coming failures in wirings, etc…

A car that’s exposed to hot summer in California will struggle with paint, general condition, and dashboard cracks more than a car in New York. Weather can negatively impact the car and cause deep scratches on the dashboard wood or aluminum that are not repairable. So, prepare yourself for additional expenses to get the car clean and look good again, even more, poor vehicle storage can cause wiring issues, and electronics may not work all the time well.

14. Can you trust the mileage?

Trusting a used car mileage just because its digital is not a good way, to tell the truth, in fact, car agencies and individuals can reverse it in many ways, and it’s your responsibility, in the end, to compare the general car condition with what you see as miles on it. The best way to tell if the mileage is correct or not is always by getting the car history report using the VIN or plate number, which can uncover hidden things you don’t know about the Pre-owned vehicle.

Other than that, if the car has less than 100K miles on it and it looks like there is a 300K mileage in reality, then, that’s a sign of fraud, be careful with that. In general, the condition of a used car that has less than 100K miles should be acceptable from the interior, and anything with wear-everywhere could mean you see the reduced mileage in reality, the car has many more miles on it.

When buying a used car, the best mileage is below 100K if you want a good vehicle condition and avoid high costs for repair and replacing parts. At that mileage, car parts should work properly if the car is well maintained, and after that, let’s say something like 160K of mileage, the expense of repairs or replacing parts will be higher.

That said, Japanese cars like Toyota or Honda sells well-built vehicles, so, nothing will be wrong when buying a used Land Cruiser even after 200K miles on it, however, buying a Preowned European car is not the same, that’s without talking about bad quality cars that come with all the issues and problems, that’s what you don’t need at all.


The best way to get a deal on a used car is always to check its background and history report using the first step above, which can make the price go down as you find all the problems that the vehicle comes with. In other words, the seller will negotiate the vehicle price and make an effort to sell the car if it’s really in good condition. Otherwise, never sign or buy the car in a hurry, the seller can make their effort to close the deal as fast as possible, and you have to think twice before giving your money.

About Cartipso Writing Team

When every piece of information should be verified, we have the best experts in automobile, and car-related topics to share their latest tips, tricks, and guides with you, every writer double-checks the article, so, readers get real how-to's from mechanics, engineers, and technicians.

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