Introduction to Used Car Buying Checklist:

Process Street - Used Car Buying Checklist

Picking up a new car is always a more complicated task than you want it to be. 

There are a series of checks which need to be done first before committing to the purchase.

Run this used car buying checklist when you need to inspect a car before purchase. 

Record the vehicle's details

Start off by noting down the basic details of the vehicle. Don't worry about getting into the specifics too much; for now, just fill in the form fields below.

Make sure the car is on level ground

Make sure that the car is on level ground before checking it out. This is to ensure you will be able to clearly see if there is anything sagging.

Check the paint

Carefully check the paint job of the car, taking note of any color variation, rust spots, dents or scratches. Note down your observations using the form field below.

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.

Examine the trunk

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).

Reference: and

Look under the hood

Check under the hood of the car for any indication of dents, damage or rust.

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.

Check the hoses and belts

The hoses and belts should not have cracks. The radiator hoses should not be soft.

Examine the seats and upholstery

Check the seats and upholstery of the car for any tears, rips, stains, or other type of damage. Verify that the belts, buckles, adjusters and child restraint anchorage points are in good condition by inspecting the parts.

Ensure any air conditioning works

Check to make sure the air conditioning and ventilation features of the car is working well by turning it on to see that these things work.

Check the mileage

Check the odometer of the car for the mileage - an indication of the car’s age. Note this down in the form field below.

Test drive the vehicle

Test driving the car is one of the best way to know the condition of the car. Hence, a buyer should make every effort to test drive first before making any decisions.

Go through the maintenance records

Check out the car's service or maintenance history which should give you vital information regarding the performances, repairs and problems of the car.

Check the brakes

Make sure to check the brakes of the car by pressing down hard enough on the brakes to decelerate rapidly, but not enough to slide.

Brakes that pulsate indicate the need for having the rotors resurfaced or replaced and new pads installed. It should not swerve; this can be caused by a bad brake caliper or worn steering components.

Inspect the engine

Next, you need to inspect the engine; follow the sub-checklist below to ensure that you don't miss anything.

  • 1
    Inspect the engine for any sort of leaks or corrosion. 
  • 2
    Look for any dark brown oil stains on the engine block. This will indicate that there is a leak in a gasket, and could possibly lead to an expensive repair in the future.
  • 3
    Check the brake fluid and reservoir to make sure its is not leaking.
  • 4
    Check the battery for acid corrosion.
  • 5
    Check ignition switches and keys.

Check the oil filler cap

Remove the oil filler cap. A foamy residue on the inside indicates a leaking head gasket. 

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.

Check the engine oil

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 fully checked with the engine running.

Ensure the timing belt is in good condition

The timing belt is the most important belt in the engine, and is also the most costly to replace. Make sure that it's in good condition.

Check the tires

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.

The tires should be worn evenly and they should match. 

Check the spare tire and compare the tread to the other tires if it is a full spare.

An example of feathering. The lighter areas of the tire are where the rubber is thinner and fatigued because the resistance from the road is being concentrated on just these patches.

Examine the frame

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.

Check for small trepidation

Check for small trepidation at 45 / 55 / 65 / 75 mph. Slight trepidation during a small speed interval may mean wear at the directional mechanical parts.

Check for sounds, trepidation or clunking noises

Check for sounds, trepidation or clunking noise when making a 90 degrees turn. Do this at low speed. This means wear at the front direction level: joints need to be changed.

Examine the computers on board

Some cars have computers on board. Bring with you an inexpensive computer to check for errors.

Pay attention to the warnings right when you start the car, when you turn the key or press the start button.

Check lights, sensors and other accessories

Verify the operation of all lights, both inside and outside the car and all the regular functions of the car when not moving. This includes: any sensors for parking, back parking camera, radio, CD, music installation, etc.

If the vehicle is fitted with ABS and/or SRS (air bag), check that the dashboard warning light(s) illuminates for a short time when the ignition is turned on. 

Inspect the exhaust system

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.

Consider bringing a mechanic

It is a highly recommended to bring along a mechanic to perform the inspection.

Other Items

Bring along a pen and paper in order to list down items that need replacement and check car ownership & registration papers to verify the following:

  • The clean car title: The vehicle has not been collateralized. 
  • The authenticity of ownership through updated registration with the concerned government agency.
  • Pertinent insurance coverages.

Negotiate the price

A used car is a negotiable item. Depending on the quality of the vehicle, feel free to negotiate the price. Be sure that it is a reasonable offer by considering the results of all previous checks, then record the price (original and negotiated) in the form fields below.

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