Dear Ken, what kind of stuff do you recommend I take a look at before I test drive a used car?
- Robert G., CA
Robert, before you test drive a car it’s important you take a look at it to verify what condition it’s in and that that seller is actually telling the truth.
Here’s what to look for:
1. Signs of Rust
Always inspect used cars in daylight because “Rust bubbles,” which progress to full-scale rust spots and holes, are difficult to see at night.
Rust remains one of a used car’s greatest enemies, and is generally more damaging to a car’s appearance and value than to its ability to get you where you need to go. Plus, it’s expensive to repair well and nearly impossible to reverse.
2. Work from the Bottom Up
Start by looking underneath the car. Use a flashlight to inspect the floor pans (the metal that forms the floors) and frame rails (the structural members that run around the perimeter of the car’s underbelly). Look for rust. Also look for marked differences in the condition of different sections. One pristine or freshly painted section in an otherwise moderately rusty car is a reliable indication that part of the vehicle was repaired. Did the seller disclose any accidents in the car’s history?
While you’re down there, look up into the wheel wells for rust. Take note if the car seems to be dripping anything (check out the driveway and/or the garage floor if you can) and look for rust and signs of wear on the muffler and exhaust pipes.
3. Do a Walkaround
Look around the car for signs of rust, dents and dings. Check how well the hood, doors and trunk/hatch lid close. Do they seal well? Try all the doors and their windows and locks.
Some of these tests may seem unnecessary, but every little problem could become your problem, and every shortcoming can be used to drive the price down.
4. Check Out the Trunk
Lift the carpet and check for signs of rust. Will it hold enough to meet your needs? Is the spare tire in its proper location, full of air and in good condition? Pay attention to how simple or difficult it is to lift the trunk or hatch lid. Does it stay up or fall on your head? Will you be likely to hit your head on it even if it stays up?
5. The Engine Compartment
You don’t have to be a mechanic to learn something about a car — and its owner — by inspecting the engine compartment. Pop the hood and perform these checks:
- Take a good look at the overall condition. Is the engine clean, or are there signs of leaking oil or other fluids? Take a mental picture, because you’ll want to look again after you drive it.
- Check for rust, particularly on the shock or strut towers, the points at the corners near the windshield to which the front suspension is anchored.
- Do you see any sign of fresh paint (or paint that is clearly newer than elsewhere on the car)? Have any of the rubber bumpers been painted over? These can be signs of an accident or simply a re-paint job.
- With the engine turned off, check the underside of the fan belts (the surface that comes in contact with the pulleys) for cracks and obvious wear.
- Pull the oil dipstick, wipe it clean with a rag, and reinsert and remove it. Is the level correct? Is the oil dark and dirty? Both are signs that the car isn’t getting the care it deserves. You can also look for beads of water on the oil clinging to the dipstick, which could reflect a costly head gasket problem.
- If the engine hasn’t run for hours and the radiator is cool to the touch, remove the radiator cap carefully and slowly using a rag (the car’s coolant system is pressurized and can spray, causing injury; open it only if you know it’s cool). Is there a layer of oily film floating on the top? Is the coolant clean and green or rust-colored? A layer of film is caused by oil, which reflects a costly head gasket problem. A rusty color is caused by, you guessed it, rust, which reflects that the vehicle has been neglected.
6. Start It
Go ahead and start the car. Does it start easily? Run smoothly? Don’t hesitate to test all the lights and signals, inside the car and outside. Same thing for the wipers, heat and air conditioning, and cigarette lighter.
If you do all of these things you can not only save yourself some headaches down the line, but you can also use any problems to help get the seller lower the price.
- Ken the Car Guy