How To Buy A Used Car – Part 3

The Inspection

When you have done your research and decided to inspect a vehicle or two, ask the right questions on the first phone call.

This could save you a trip:

  • Is the car in your name and owned by yourself? (Private buying only – dealers must assure title by law).
  • Do you have a logbook and receipted proof of regular maintenance?
  • Are there any non-standard modifications? (Beware of these for compliance and/or insurance issues).
  • I will thoroughly check if I inspect the car, but before I come, can you tell me if it has ever been in an accident you are aware of?
  • Why are you selling it / Where did you buy it? / How many owners has it had?
  • Does the car need any work to get a Roadworthy/Safety Certificate? Will you be providing this for the price advertised?
  • Is there any damage? What is worn or not functioning and could need replacing?

All used cars have a level of wear and tear. It is good to get a feel for the condition of the vehicle before inspecting.

Make sure you inspect a car in full daylight in a place free from excessive noise.

Rain, poor light or excessive ambient noise can conceal various body and mechanical defects.

Print the following pages, or access them on your smartphone to use as a checklist on your inspection.

A smartphone is very useful to have to look items up on the Internet and to take pictures of things to check later.

In case you are sure the car is a good buy, take a small cash deposit (say $50-$100) to hold it for you.

You may also use the camera to photograph the seller’s license and to copy paperwork E.g. a deposit receipt.

Mechanical Inspection

Whilst the engine is off and cool, remove the radiator cap slowly with a rag. Check the colour. It should be green (most common), red or yellow. Check it is not a rusty brown colour, has no film across the surface and is free from loose particles. Also run your finger inside the radiator neck to check for oil deposits – which could mean head gasket problems ($$$).

Look at the battery. Its terminal housings and mountings should be free of rust, corrosion and other damage.

With the engine turned off, check the underside of the fan belts (the surface that comes in contact with the pulleys) for cracks or fraying.

Check the engine oil quality and level like it is shown in this video: Make sure the car is on a level surface, pull the oil dipstick and wipe it clean with your rag. Insert it again then carefully remove it.

It should be full and honey coloured. If the oil level is low, or the colour of the oil or the dipstick itself is very dark, this can suggest the car has not been serviced for a long time or at periodic intervals. Check the oil is not too thick and sticky which could be an attempt to mask engine noise (see previous section). Make certain there are no beads of water clinging to the dipstick, indicating possible head gasket problems.

Check around and underneath the oil filler cap for either a white foamy substance or dark dry clumps of oil. The presence of these could mean head gasket trouble or the engine has previously overheated.

Are all rubber hoses firm and in good condition?

Whilst the engine is still cold, wipe your finger (or rag) around the inside of the exhaust. If there is excessive black soot it could be burning too much oil signalling engine wear.

Look closely at the wiring harnesses? Is there any new electrical tape? If so ask why.

Before starting the car, check for any leaks or stains on the concrete. You will compare this again after the car has been running for a few minutes.


Does it start easily when the engine is cold?

Turn the car off. Does it restart again easily?

Is it running smoothly when the engine is cold?

Turn the steering wheel from one side to the other completely, checking there are no unusual noises.

If it is a manual transmission, press and depress the clutch several times. Listen for any significant noise differences.

Put the car in neutral gear. Listen carefully for a while for unusual noise whilst it is idling.

If it is an automatic car, check the transmission oil whilst the car is running. Pull the transmission dipstick (usually towards the windscreen side of the engine). As well as being full, the fluid should be pink or reddish in colour. It should not look or smell burnt.

Crouch down and get a good view of the undercarriage. Use your torch and check both the concrete the car is over and the car itself for new oil drips forming. Repeat the check for oil drips after your test drive also.

Body Inspection

Check the tyres including the spare. Use your air pressure gauge to ensure the tyres are at normal pressure. Remember high pressures can make the ride seem smoother.

Check the tyres for uneven wear. Put a coin in the grooves on the outside and the inside. Is the depth even? Unevenly worn tyres can indicate the car has been in an accident and/or is out of alignment.

Check for rust, particularly at corner points. Rusting usually starts near the front/rear window seams and in areas immediately adjacent to the wheel hubs (E.g. shock absorber struts and sills/corners around the door bottoms).

Look for fresh paint or slightly different coloured areas. Look closely along the length of panels and bumpers for any unevenness. Place your fridge magnet on parts of all panels to check for filler repairs (the magnet will not stick to these areas).

Using your torch if necessary, inspect under the car, the bonnet, boot and inside doorjambs for signs of rust or welding repairs.

Check under the spare wheel and the general condition of the boot. Look for rust, which may mean water has been stagnant in there.

Get down in front of each front wheel and look straight down the length of the car. Do the front wheels line up directly with the rear wheels?

Check the front-end-support saddle and where the front guards (also known as guards) bolt to the chassis as shown below. The front-end support should NOT be welded on either side, or have mismatching colours. Inspect all the bolt heads inside the hood and look for spanner wear or paint scratched around them. This is the best way to know if the front of the car has been in a smash.

Check the gaps between body panels and doors are even, with no signs of rubbing.

Open and close every door.

Internal Inspection

Check logbooks and registration papers. Is the person you meet the registered owner? If not why not?

Look at the car’s compliance plate, which is usually found on the firewall between the engine area and the inside of the car. Match the vehicle identification number (VIN) and date of manufacture with those on the registration papers.

Is there a service history and are there receipts to prove it?

Does the radio have a PIN? Is it documented?

Check the odometer reading and compare this with the service history.

Verify the lights and all the regular functions of the car work. This includes indicators, hazard lights, headlights, central locking, power mirrors, seat adjustment, Bluetooth connectivity, GPS, parking sensors, radio, CD, wipers, cigarette lighter, etc.

Air conditioning – Make sure this works and do not accept it “It just needs re-gassing” unless it is receipted as such. Fixing AC can be expensive.

If the car has seat covers, check the underneath is in good condition.

Make sure the seatbelts are in good condition.

Find and open the fuse box. Check if anything is missing.

Get right under and look below the seats to see the springs aren’t rusty or the tracks have excess fine debris/sand in there which may indicate water damage. Also check inside the glove compartment for the same.

Check the interior carpet. Does it look like it has been removed/repaired? Or is it brand new? Does it match the interior? If you suspect it may have been repaired or replaced, investigate further.

Check the jack and toolkit are there and in good condition.