Used Car Inspection Checklist - Clever Customer

Used Car Inspection Checklist

Personally inspecting a used car you're considering purchasing is very important. Many times sellers will provide little or no information on certain details, or believe certain things unimportant which are important to you. Even though you may discuss the condition of the vehicle on the phone, keep in mind that you and the seller likely have different ideas of concepts like “clean interior”, “smooth idle”, “minor wear” and the like. Seeing is much closer to believing.

Once you've established interest, let the seller know you would like to come take a look at the car and test drive it as well. Set up a mutually agreeable time during daylight hours. You will see far more in the daylight than you will at night, or under a streetlight at night. Scratches in the paint and minor dents and dings easily disappear in the dark.

Used car inspection checklist

Arrange to meet where you'll have some space to move around the car. Meet at the dealership if the seller is a dealer, at the seller's home if a private party, or at a parking lot for a nearby park or shopping center. You want to be able to have space to walk around the car and maybe climb under it without having to worry about traffic on a busy downtown street.

When you go to do the inspection, take these with you:

  • Our used car inspection checklist
  • A pen or pencil
  • A white or light-colored rag or paper towels
  • A penny or quarter
  • A buddy if you can arrange it

Plan on taking 15 to 30 minutes to conduct the inspection.

Inspecting the Car's Exterior

Walk all the way around the outside of the vehicle, taking note of these items.

Paint Condition

The condition of the paint should correspond to the vehicle's age. If the paint is newer than the vehicle, it's likely to have been repainted. Sometimes new paint is intended to conceal body work done on the vehicle. If the vehicle's been repainted, ask about when and why it was repainted. Also, if it was it repainted with the vehicle's original color. Often times a different color will show up under the hood, in door jambs, under the trunk, or other spots the new paint job didn't reach. For cars that are considered collectible, being the original color is often more desirable.

When looking down the length of the car, or across any body panel, the surface of the paint should very smooth.

Normal wear for paint, depending on vehicle age, includes:

  • Chips across the front of the car where small stones and road debris strike the vehicle
  • Scratches behind or underneath door handles where fingernails and keys have slid across the paint repeatedly
  • Sun-fading on horizontal surfaces like the hood, roof, and trunk lid
  • Clear coat (top protective layer) starting to peel off the paint, allowing the paint underneath to start peeling

Indications of Potential Issues include:

  • Delamination, or large chunks of paint flaking off. This is often a symptom of a repair which was covered using incompatible paint products
  • Missing paint that exposes rust on the panel beneath
  • Uneven color changes due to portions of the paint being covered, by a bra, decal, or sticker for example.

Panel Alignment

It's easy to overlook, but misaligned panels are a big clue that some major repairs have been made, and not perfectly.

Make sure that every gap between body panels is the same width for the entire length of the gap. Look at the gaps on either side of the hood, on the front and back of of each door, the sides of the trunk lid, and the fenders or quarter panels. Each panel should create a consistent gap with its neighbor. No panel should be at a different height than it's neighbor. Also, check for proper alignment of bumpers in the same manner.

Inconsistent gaps can be an indicator of repairs made to underlying structural parts with inferior replacement parts. When the underlying parts aren't perfectly aligned, the body panels mounted to them cannot align properly either. It could be a sign of unrepaired or poorly repaired body damage.

Some people recommend taking a magnet and running it across body panels to detect areas of body filler (like Bondo) underneath. We disagree for a few reasons. First, it's a bit rude to run a magnet across someone else's car and likely scratch the paint. Second, unless the repaired is huge, you'll likely miss it anyway. Third, if you can't find evidence of a repair otherwise, then the repair is pretty good, what more could you ask for?

Tires and Wheels

Tires provide great insight into a car's condition if they've been on the car for a while. If the car you're looking at has brand new tires, you should be curious as to why someone would spend money for brand new tires on a car they're going to sell. Very possibly, to prevent that insight. Ideally, the tires will be in good condition, but not brand new.

The first thing to check is that all 4 tires are the same brand and model. If they're not, at least the two rear tires should be the same, and the two front tires should be the same. If all four aren't the same, ask why.

The next thing to check is that the tires are worn evenly across the face of the tire. Look at the tread of the tire, the face that contacts the road. The inner edge, center, and outer edge should all have an even amount of tread remaining. If they don't, this is an indication of misalignment. The front wheels may need an alignment, or the vehicle may need a 4-wheel alignment. This, in addition to new tires, is an expense you should plan on making, and bear in mind during price negotiations. Keep in mind that not all alignment issues can be compensated for in a simple alignment, and more substantial underlying repairs may be needed.

Also check that the sidewalls of the tires are free from serious scrapes, slashes, or bulges. Try to get a look at the interior sidewalls as well as the exterior sidewalls. Also, make sure the tires look more or less properly inflated. Running on underinflated or overinflated tires can cause internal structural damage to the tire, and shorten its life.

The last thing to note is the amount of remaining tread on the tires. Tires have tread wear indicators molded into them. When the tread is worn down to the level of the tread wear indicator, the tire needs to be replaced. If the other checks were normal, there are probably no mechanical issues in terms of alignment. The amount of tread left is just for your information, so you know how soon before you will need to replace them. Tires have tread wear indicators built into them. If you look at the tread pattern, there are dominant vertical lines. These are channels to allow water to pass. Periodically across these vertical channels are low horizontal ridges. These are the tread wear indicators. When the top of the tread meets the top of these indicators, the tire is exhausted and must be replaced. If the top of the tread is well above the horizontal wear indicators, you have plenty of tire left. If they're at the same level, the tires need to be replaced as soon as possible. Also, if you see any white or metal threads, the tire needs to be replaced.

Check Tire Tread Wear Indicators when inspecting a used car

If you're having trouble identifying the tread wear indicators, you can use a quarter or a penny to determine if there's a safe amount of tread remaining. Simply place the coin in the tread with the head side facing you and the top of the head into the tread. If you can see the top of the President's head, the tread is too worn.

Inspecting Used car tire tread depth with a coin

While you're looking at the tires, take a look at the wheels too. Make sure each wheel has all of the lug nuts or bolts it's designed to have. You may have to remove a wheel cover or hubcap to see them. Ideally it has them all. If it's missing more than one, there could be damage to the studs or mounting holes in the wheel. Also look at the condition of the wheel. If it is missing a chunk or has a dent in it around the edge of the rim, it could fail to seal with the tire and be dangerous to drive. This is typically the result of hitting a curb at road speed.

To finish up Tires and Wheels, make sure there is a spare tire in good condition, a jack, and a lug wrench in the car. If the car has locking lug nuts, make sure the key or special socket is there as well.


The tires have hopefully told the story of the alignment of the vehicle. Now to check the suspension, which is connected and related to the alignment. Assuming the vehicle is on level ground, make sure that it sits relatively level front-to-back. The rear end should not sit lower or higher than the front end, and vice versa. Look at the distance from the ground to the bottom of the car behind the front tire and in front of the rear tire. It should be basically the same. Another area where you might be able to judge level is by looking at the distance from the top of the tire to the top of the wheel well. After looking for front-to-back level, stand in front and behind the car to judge if its level right-to-left.

Once you're satisfied the car is basically level, go to each corner of the car and push down on the car as far as you reasonably can, then let it go. The corner of the car should rise back to its original height and stop moving. It should not bounce up and down as it settles back into position. If it does, this means the struts or shocks are worn out and need replaced. Springs allow the car to move up and down, shock absorbers and struts are meant to dampen the bounce of the springs. Struts or shocks which need replaced are not necessarily a deal-breaker, but you should be aware of the repair expense.

Inspecting the Car's Interior

We'll come back to the exterior to look under the hood and check the lights. We'll want to start the car to do those checks correctly though. Which means it's time to move to the car's interior.


Check the seat coverings, front and back of the front seats, and every side you can see on back seats. Some wear-and-tear is normal and should be commensurate with the mileage on the vehicle. The most likely spot for wear is the outside edge of the driver's seat, where the driver slides in and out of the car. If the car has seat covers, look underneath them. Any chunks of missing foam or major upholstery issues will be expensive to fix.

Also look at the headliner and carpet. The headliner shouldn't be sagging. If there are stains on the headliner, they could be the result of a water leak. That could be a moderate to major expense. The wear on the carpet should be appropriate for the mileage on the car. Look under the floor mats.

Take a look at the interior trim and plastics as well. Cracks in the dash are sometimes covered by dash mats. Cracks and scrapes in door panels, broken center consoles, and the like are things you should be aware of so you can decide if you can live with them or not. Check both sides of the visors as well.

If the car is a convertible with a soft top, check for pinholes and tears in the top. Also check for a good seal around the rear window. The rear window should be in good enough condition to give you good visibility. New convertible tops are a large expense.

The one thing you will have noticed by this point is the smell of the inside of the car. A musty or moldy smell is a red flag. The vehicle may have been flooded and restored, but the damage is almost impossible to eradicate completely. Evidence of rodents is also a serious warning. Rodents make homes in cars sometimes, and they like to gnaw on the wiring. If rodents have made a home at some point in the vehicle, you have a good chance of experiencing electrical problems, which are expensive to repair. Cigarette smoke and wet dog smells are your call as to whether you can live with them or not.


Check the wear on the rubber coverings of the pedals, again to see if it's consistent with the mileage on the vehicle.

Sit in the driver's seat. You want to know that it's comfortable, and that all of the adjustments work. Also make sure you can position the seat in a position that allows to see the corners of the car to the extent you're comfortable with. Some vehicles are just designed in a way that makes it almost impossible to be able to judge where the front and back of the car are.

If you'll be carrying passengers on a regular basis, you may want to check all of the seats in the car to make sure all of the adjustments work for each seat.

Now it's time to start the car. Check that every light on the dash illuminates. They will stay on for a few seconds, and then they should all turn back off. Also note if it's hard, or slow, to start. Once it's running, you shouldn't feel any vibrating or shaking.

If the Check Engine light does not turn off and you live in an area that requires an emission inspection, you can stop right here. The Check Engine light is almost always indicating an emissions problem. This car will not pass the emissions inspection, and you will not be able to register it. If the seller says it's an “easy fix”, great, ask them to make the fix and call you when the light is off. If emissions aren't a concern, you can use a handheld diagnostic code reader to find out what issue has triggered the warning.

If the red Brake or Oil lights remain on, it may simply be that the fluid levels are low. That could indicate a leak in those systems, though. Do not drive the vehicle with an illuminated red Brake light. If the yellow ABS remains on, it means the Anti-lock braking system is not working properly. This can be expensive to fix.

Now check every single lever, knob, and dial in the car. Check the radio to make sure it gets reception. Make sure each speaker works. If there is a CD or cassette player, make sure it loads and ejects a disc.

Check the AC and make sure it blows cold air. Then check the heater and make sure it blows hot air, although it may take time until the engine warms up for heaters in many cars to work at their peak. Check the fan at all speeds.

Check each of the interior cabin lights, and visor lights.

Check the odometer reading. It should match what you were told. Normal mileage for a vehicle is considered between 10,000 and 12,000 miles per year. A 5-year old car should have 50,000 to 60,000 miles on it. If it has far more or far less mileage, you'll want to ask for an explanation. The reason low mileage is suspicious is because sometimes an odometer is “rolled back”, or set to a lower mileage in order to compensate for excessive mileage and to increase the resale value of the vehicle.

Press the brake pedal with your foot. You should not be able to push it to the floor, and it should not be solidly stuck in place.

Check the Car's Lights

While the car is still running, check all of the lights. This is where a buddy comes in handy. If you didn't bring one, have the seller help you out. Make sure you check:

  • Headlight low beams
  • Headlight high beams
  • Corner marker lights
  • Turn signals, front and back, left and right
  • Hazard lights (four-way flashers)
  • Reverse lights
  • Fog lights, cargo lights, others if equipped

Also, check the lenses for the lights. Check to see that there isn't evidence of moisture inside the lenses, indicating a poor seal. Headlights which have cloudy lenses may not be able to pass enough light for you to see well at night. Tail lights with cracked lenses will allow white light to show at night, which is not legal. Headlights have to be white, tail lights have to be red, and turn signals have to be yellow on the front and red or yellow on the back. Anything else is surefire way to get pulled over by your local Officer Friendly.

Under the Hood

You don't have to be a mechanic to see obvious issues under the hood. We'll walk you through the basics. Do as much as you're comfortable with. If you really like the car, you'll have a mechanic look at it anyway. At this point you're just discovering if there is a reason to stop considering the car before you get that far. There's no serious harm done in missing something at this point.

Initial Observations

While the car is running, open the hood and prop it open. Take a look at the engine as a whole. It should not be shaking around inside the engine compartment. Some vibration is normal, but moving inches in one direction or another is a sign of broken motor mounts, an expensive repair. Also take a look at the belt (or belts) on the front of the engine as they are turning. Does it look like it's moving smoothly in a straight line? It shouldn't be shaking back and forth.

Turn the vehicle off.

Dust and dirt inside the engine compartment are normal. Take a look for obvious problems first:

  • Signs of oil splattered around the engine compartment or the underside of the hood
  • Corroded battery terminals
  • Disconnected, frayed, exposed, or clearly homemade repairs to wires
  • Disconnected, cracked hoses
  • Residue from leakage around hose connections
  • Evidence of leakage from the radiator, in the fins or at the corners and connections.
  • Look at the belt or belts, and make sure the edges aren't frayed, and the underside of the belt isn't cracked or dry-rotted. These conditions mean the belt needs replacement, which is typically inexpensive.

Check the Fluids

There are four main fluids in a vehicle, and they can tell you about the condition of the internals of the systems they operate inside. In more modern cars, all of the fluid check points will be made of the same color plastic, typically yellow. This helps you pick them out among all the different things under the hood.

  • Engine Oil
    • Pull out the oil dipstick and look at the color of the oil. If it is a transparent light brown color, it is brand new oil, so you won't be able to tell much more until it's spent some time circulating through the engine. It should be dark brown, almost black.
    • If the oil is foamy or milky this is an indicator of a serious internal engine problem. You should not buy this car. Repairs will likely rival the cost of another vehicle.
    • Use your rag or paper towel to wipe the oil off of the end of the dipstick. Replace the dipstick all they way into the tube, and then pull it back out, holding the tip of the dipstick down. Look at the level of the oil on the stick in comparison to the level indicators one the stick. It should not be too low or too high. It should be in the “Safe” range. Replace the dipstick.
  • Transmission Fluid
    • Most cars also have a dipstick for transmission fluid, although some late-model cars do not. It will be near the firewall at the back of the engine compartment, closest to the cabin.
    • Pull the dipstick and look at the color. It should be red or pink. It should not be dark.
    • Smell (yes, smell) the fluid. It should not have a burnt smell. It should smell like a petroleum product – oil, grease, etc.
    • To properly check the level, the engine needs to be running at idle and at normal operating temperature with the transmission in Park. From the time it was running during the earlier check, you should be able to see if it's close. If you're concerned check it that way.
    • A burnt smell or dark fluid is evidence of a transmission which is overworked, runs too hot, or has overheated. This causes internal damage to the transmission, which will not be less than thousands of dollars to fix. Repairing transmission internals properly is a specialty, and those who do it charge for it accordingly.
    • If the car has a manual transmission (stick shift), you can't check the transmission fluid easily. Leave it to a mechanic.
    • If the car has a “sealed transmission” then the fluid can only be checked and serviced by a mechanic.
  • Coolant / Anti-Freeze
    • Look in the coolant overflow reservoir. It's made of semi-opaque white plastic and resembles a jug of sorts. There should be coolant in the reservoir, and it should be between the hot and cold indicators.
    • The color of the coolant should be
      • Green
      • Yellow
      • Orange
      • Pink
      • Blue
      • Purple (2005 and later Audi and VW)
      • If the coolant is clear, it's just water and not effective as a coolant or anti-freeze agent. People usually use plain water when there is a coolant leak that they are not planning to repair and want to save the cost of refilling with coolant/anti-freeze. This is a warning sign to ask about.
  • Brake Fluid
    • The brake fluid reservoir is typically mounted high near the back of the engine compartment on the driver's side.
    • The level of the brake fluid should be above the Low line on the reservoir, nearly to the top of the container.
    • Brake fluid starts out clear. As it is used, it gets a light brown tint. You should be able to see through it, like iced tea. That is normal. It should not be completely opaque.

Inspecting Used car tire tread depth with a coin

Under the Car

Now that the car has run for a few minutes while you checked the inside electrics and the lights, any larger leaks that exist should be apparent under the car.

Look for puddles underneath the car, or anything still dripping. If you see even a small puddle, check the color of the liquid. Clear liquid at the front of the vehicle or out the tailpipe is OK. Green is a coolant leak, red is transmission fluid, and brown/black is oil.

Using a rag or paper towel, swab the inside of the tailpipe. Be careful, depending on how long the car was running it may be very hot. What you want to see is dry, gray, ashy soot. What you do not want is oily residue. Oily residue means that engine oil is getting into the exhaust, which is an indication that there engine internals are overly worn, a very expensive problem to fix. Ask how much supplemental oil the car has needed between oil changes. None is perfect, the closer to that answer the better.

If you're adventurous and comfortable lying down and peeking under the car, there are a few things to check underneath. If you're not, it's no problem. Again, we're just trying to see if there are any reasons to stop considering this car now. You'll have a mechanic look it over, and they'll catch anything you miss.

The most obvious thing to see under the car is the exhaust system. It runs the length of the car from the engine to the back bumper. Don't touch it, it may be hot. Rust is normal on exhaust systems. What you want to see is that the system seems properly suspended, not held up with coat hangers and locking pliers or swinging freely underneath. You also want to see that it doesn't have any holes or cracks in it.

The next thing to look at is the frame of the vehicle. This is comprised of two long rectangular metal beams that run the length of the vehicle from bumper to bumper. If you see that any repairs have been made to the frame, any evidence of welding or that looks non-original, this is a serious issue and you should probably walk away from this car. Any car which has had frame repairs is very prone to a long list of problems. There are too many other cars for sale in the world to keep this one on your candidate list.

The last thing to try to see underneath the car are the CV boots. These black rubber boots resembling bellows, located just inside the front wheels. The boots should be in good condition, without rips or tears. If you see a tear in one of these boots, the CV (constant velocity) joint will need replaced soon, at which time you may as well replace both of them, which in turn will also very possibly necessitate an alignment. A torn piece of rubber may be several hundred dollars in repair soon. It's not deal breaker. These parts wear out naturally. Just be aware of the expense as you plan your budget and your offer for the vehicle.

Inspecting the Paperwork

Each car and private-party seller you encounter will give a varying level of skepticism or confidence. Depending on your level of uncertainty in a particular situation, you may want to do some basic checking of paperwork to make sure you are dealing with who you think you are dealing with. Do these checks at your own discretion:

  • The VIN on the dash of the car should match the VIN on the sticker inside the driver's door
  • The VIN from the car should match the VIN on the title and on the registration.
  • The owner listed on the vehicle registration should match the Driver's License of the person selling you the car. There is a practice called curbstoning wherein the person selling the car is not actually the owner. He or she is actually a dealer trying to skirt legal obligations of dealers, or a person who flips enough cars to be legally required to become a licensed dealer, but does not get the license. Regardless of the scenario they present or how they twist it, there is no ethical motivation for curbstoning. If they are dishonest about something so basic as who they are, they will absolutely lie about everything related to the car. This may be their first time seeing the car as well, in fact.

The last bit of documentation you may get to see is a history of service records, if the owner has them. Vehicles with more than one owner rarely have them. Some people do their own maintenance, some people don't keep receipts. Not having service records is not a negative. Having them is definitely a positive. You can see if the vehicle has been regularly maintained, such as oil changes and scheduled maintenance like a “60,000 mile checkup”. You can also see any major systems which have been replaced. This is not a negative, as it a component that likely has plenty of life left in it. Any repeated repairs of the same component or system may be a warning sign. Ask about anything like that.

Used Car Inspection Checklist

Hopefully you've read through this list. It's long, but it's good information that could save you a bundle in buying a used car. Expect that some things will need repair attention. That's normal for used cars. Small and moderate repair needs are fine if you're willing to take on the expense, and can use those expenses to improve the price of the vehicle.

When you go for your used car inspection, take our checklist along with you. It will help you remember to check everything while you're there. And if you look at a few different cars (as you should) it will help you compare them side by side later.

Once you complete the inspection, it's time to take a test drive. We want you to be a Clever Customer. We'll explain how to test drive the car, and the types of things to look for during the test drive.

Used Car Buying Guide

The Proven Used Car Buying Process for Clever Customers - Follow our detailed steps, and you'll be confident in your used car purchase. Avoid that sinking feeling of buyer's remorse. You'll know exactly what you bought, and that it was the best option for you.