What to Know Before Performing a Pre-Purchase Car Inspection

Unless you’re looking at an independently certified, perfectly pristine used car (or a wreck you plan to rebuild), chances are you’re going to want to inspect the used car you’re interested in before you put in an offer on it. 

Most times, we recommend spending a few bucks to have a certified mechanic get it up on the lift and give it a professional once-over. There are often shops that specialize in specific makes and even models, so taking advantage of their expertise can help save you big money by recognizing any major issues in the car—or it can give you the confidence to know you’re getting a good vehicle with plenty of miles ahead of it.

But what if you want to go it alone, or don’t have time to send it to the shop for an afternoon? Or maybe you’ve found your dream car online and have to drive a few states over to take a look at it? Perhaps you’re fairly familiar with the potential pitfalls of the type of car you’re interested in, and feel like you know enough to do a quick inspection yourself. 

Even if you’ve bought a few classics in the past, it can be hard to know just what to look for when buying a used car. Grab a notebook, a flashlight, and some paper towels to check the oil before you head out—here are a few tips on how to inspect a car to make sure you’re getting what you pay for: 

Check the Vehicle Paperwork First 

Before you start checking for dings and dents, make sure the seller has everything they need to make a sale. They should have the title in hand, it should be clear and preferably with no outstanding debt on the vehicle. A smart seller will also have maintenance records available, documenting all necessary repairs to the vehicle all the way down to regular oil changes. Many states also require emissions testing or smog checks, so ask about the last time the vehicle passed any state inspections and know when it might be due for another check. 

Next, Eye the Car's Exterior 

Start your review of the vehicle from the bottom up: Do the tires have a decent amount of tread left to them—and are the tires the same kind, or are any that are mismatched? Are the rims scratched or scuffed as if they’ve been up against a few too many curbs? 

Look at the paint job: Are there any parts that look significantly different than the rest, indicating it might have been replaced? Are there inconsistent sizes in the gaps between body panels? That also could indicate some damage along the way. 

Is all the glass in good shape, and are all the mirrors intact as well? Are the lights all operational or did the seller leave a blinker or a brake light burnt out? Any of these might tell you more about the overall care of the vehicle. 

Inspect the Car's Interior

Your first indicator of interior issues probably won’t come from your eyes but from your nose. When you enter the car, take note of any odors: not just of tobacco or food, but any moldy, musty, damp smells that might tell you this car has had some water damage or has been stored in a suboptimal area for a bit too long.

A car with upholstery in good shape doesn’t just look nice: it’s a strong indicator of how much the vehicle has been driven, and in what way. If there are a lot of miles on a used car but it has a decent-looking driver's seat, that could be a sign that it’s got a lot of highway miles without excessive exits and entries from the driver. The converse is a car with average mileage but a rough interior could signal poor general maintenance or that the vehicle was used for deliveries or rideshare driving. 

Check every door to make sure it opens and closes freely, and check every window to make sure of the same. Make a note of any gauges, dials, indicator lights, and any other option on the vehicle that might not be operating properly. Test the windshield wipers and the seatbelts. If it’s a newer vehicle, there’s probably a display in the dash that should be tested for touchscreen response and any flickering that could mean a loose connection

Check Under the Hood

Interior and exterior inspections are one thing, but looking into the mechanical systems of a car can be confusing if you aren’t terribly familiar with their operations. Before you head out for your inspection, there are a number of online resources that can show you what to expect under the hood and what parts are located where: a V-8 engine is going to have a different setup than an inline 4-cylinder, so familiarize yourself with what you’re looking at. 

Don’t just look at the outside of the engine, either: Check all of the fluid levels. Make sure everything from the coolant to transmission fluid to brakes all look good and is at its proper level (no leaks!). Be particularly attentive to the oil, as that’s a great indication of the general health of the engine: Brown and smooth is good; you don’t want to see oil that’s gritty, black, or even milky. 

Only now should you fire up the engine itself and listen for any concerning sounds. A squealing belt is one thing, but any excessive or odd-sounding vibration, rattling, squeaking, or knocking sounds could mean a difficult repair is imminent. Run the heating and air conditioning to see if that adds any extra concerning noises … assuming it works at all. 

Finally, the Test Drive

If the owner is okay with you taking the car for a spin, don’t just drive it around the block to see how cool you might look (though we admit that is an important factor). Before you roll out of the parking lot, shift through each gear to see if there is any resistance, grinding, or “clunking” noises coming from the transmission. Turn the steering wheel as far as it’ll go in each direction, feeling for any travel in the wheel or any whining from the power steering pump (if it has one).

When you finally hit the road, now’s the time to test the brakes, not the acceleration—there’s plenty of time for that later. See how far the brake pedal travels before the brakes engage, making sure it doesn’t go all the way to the floor. Listen for any grinding, scraping, or squealing when you brake and feel for any vibrations that might occur when braking: all these are indications of potential issues. 

Doing your own pre-purchase inspection is tough, and there’s a lot to keep in mind to make sure you’re getting a quality used vehicle. If you find anything during your inspection that makes you consider lowering your offer, you should probably know what price to start from. Luckily, Hagerty’s Valuation Tools have the data you need.

The resources you get with a Hagerty Drivers Club membership include hundreds of thousands of data points on vehicle transactions. This lets you know not just how much the car might be worth, but whether the pricing trends are on the way up … or if they’ve started to drop. Knowing the vehicle’s worth before you set eyes on it is a great way to get the best possible value, so sign up today for the best info before your next purchase.