How to inspect a used car before buying [PDF Checklist]
Going to view cars can be great fun. But the number one thing to do before you get behind the wheel is research. Go online and get a good feel for the car you want, know a fair price and be aware of any of the model’s weak spots.
Things to do before any car viewings
- Check maintenance costs, insurance, and petrol pricing.
- Know the value of the car and also estimate the resale value.
- Know the running costs of the car and that you can meet them. (The AA have a helpful guide to running costs here)
- Understand financing costs and what payments could be. Check out our guide to financing here.
How to thoroughly check a used car before buying
You’ve done your homework, know what car you want, how much it should cost and you’ve got loan pre-approval. You’ve got the car’s history. You’re almost ready to test drive.
Before you hop in and go for a spin, have a closer inspection of the vehicle using our Inspecting a used car checklist. Download it and take a copy along with you when you go to inspect the car.
Make sure you schedule a test drive and inspection outside and in daylight. Flaws show up better natural light. Wear clothes you don’t mind getting a bit dirty and bring along a torch for extra light.
Questions to ask the seller
- Why they are selling the car?
- How many kilometres are on the clock?
- How many owners has the car had?
- Are there complete service records?
- Have had any issues with the vehicle?
- What has their day-to-day use of the car been like?
- Has it been in an accident?
- How old are the tires?
- When was the oil last changed?
- When were the breaks last maintained?
Used car checklist
Check the car’s history
- Check used cars history. Run a VIN report (or use the plate number) to check it’s not stolen or a cut and shut. Carjam is easy to use and inexpensive to run reports.
- Also check if the vehicle has been in an accident.
Outside the car
Do this outside in the daylight. Flaws show up better natural light. Wear clothes you don’t mind getting a bit dirty and bring along a torch for extra light.
- Start at the bottom looking for rust and leaks. A little liquid on the ground could be a big repair job later.
- Do an inspection of everything from the engine to the door locks to make sure everything is working properly.
- Get underneath the car to inspect the structure of the vehicle and for signs that it may have been in an accident.
- Tires tell a story. If they are worn unevenly then the car might be out of alignment. Tires are illegal if less than 1.5mm deep over 75% of the tread.
- Check the shock absorbers – push down on each corner of the car – it’s a bad sign if it bounces more than twice.
- Open the doors looking for rust.
- Check for signs of accident damage. Are there colour variations in the paintwork, or bumps and ripples along the panels?
- Look for rust, dents and dings.
Inside the car
- Is the car tidy inside? This is a good indication of how the vehicle was cared for overall.
- Sit in the drivers seat – is it easy to adjust, with enough leg room?
- Is the steering wheel adjustable or at a good height?
- Are all the gauges working, indicators/lights?
- Test the air con and heat.
- Do the mirrors adjust easily?
- Does it smell of cigarette smoke (hard to get rid off).
- Check that the registration label (rego) and Warrant of Fitness (WOF) are current. They should both be clearly visible on the inside of the front windscreen. Be wary of buying a car without a current WOF.
Under the bonnet
- Check the engine, belts, fluids, and battery.
- Is the oil low on dipstick? (Could be an oil burner or a leak.)
- Oil a milky looking? (Water in oil might indicate a blown head gasket.)
- Is there rusty water in radiator or over low tank?
- Is the radiator rusty?
- Is there any corrosion?
- Are there any leaks?
Go for a test drive
Don’t just do a quick drive around the block. You should spend around half an hour in the car. Think about how you would drive it every day and put it through its paces. Parallel park a lot? Give it a go to see what visibility and tight steering is like.
- Are controls are stiff to move?
- Hard to start or sluggish?
- Is there drift to the steering wheel?
- Are the gears smooth? Or change automatically easily?
- Wheels wobbly?
- Test the brakes.
- Test the handbrake on a steep hill.
- Does the clutch slip?
- Are there any odd engine noises?
- How’s the suspension over bumps?
- Get it on the motorway and accelerate to make sure it has some zip.
- Does the car overheat?
- Are there any odd petrol smells?
- Check engine smoke. Idle the engine for a while then rev it – blue smoke indicates an oil burner, black means problems with the fuel mixture. White (once the engine is warmed up) could point to water leaking in the engine.
- Does the engine run on when you turn it off?
Sounding too complicated? Take it a mechanic to get a professional safety inspection for a fee. This should cost you around $120.
Get it fixed
If using our checklist you find problems, ask to have them fixed before you commit to anything. Don’t forget to recheck (or have the car rechecked) again before you buy. There’s a lot to think about when buying a car.
But take the time to get it right – the last thing you want to buy is a lemon.