What to Look For When Buying a Used Car?

Most people will buy a second-hand vehicle first before they buy a brand-new one. Getting trouble-free vehicles is nothing to do with research or luck. The secret of getting a good second-hand vehicle is to know exactly what to look for when buying a used car. This will help you to identify potential problems and how reliable they will be. 

There are several risks involved in buying used cars, but that does not mean that you cannot get a good one. The rule of the thumb is to have a checklist that will guide you on what things to check for before you settle to buy. You should always be prepared to walk away when you are not convinced about an issue in the vehicle.

What to Look For When Buying a Used Car Checklist

When going to buy a used vehicle, it is important to carry a checklist with you. Here are what to look for when buying a used car from a dealership. This used car buying guide will make it easy for you to buy a good second-hand vehicle:

what to look for when buying a used car from a dealership


The engine works as the heart of a vehicle. Therefore, for you to enjoy a good driving experience, the engine needs to be in good condition. Therefore, before you settle down on a used car, the first thing to check is the engine. Here are the things to look out for in an engine:


One thing that will tell you about the condition of the vehicle is a leak. Several fluids run around the engine, like oil and coolant. Fluid leaks are evidence that there is something wrong with the engine of the vehicle. A well-maintained vehicle should not have any leakages. 

You can only see leaks from under the vehicle. If you notice sludge build-up under the vehicle or oil on the ground, the vehicle has an oil leak. Also, open the bonnet and check for any leaks around the engine. 

You can take a photo or a video, which will help you scrutinize the vehicle underneath easily. Everything around the engine and transmission system and underneath the vehicle should be dry. 

Head Gasket

The other thing that will help you determine the condition of the engine is the head gasket. The head gasket is a vital component of the combustion chamber located between the upper and lower parts of the engine. A head gasket prevents engine fluids from getting in the cylinders. 

A blown head gasket is a sign that there is fluid leakage in the area. This makes the engine lose power and also produces some noise when driving. Buying a vehicle with a blown head gasket may cost you a fortune to repair. 

Open the engine top when the engine is cool. If you notice any light brown or white sludge, then that is a result of a blown head gasket. If you note any of these signs, do not buy the vehicle. 

Exhaust Smoke Colors

Colored exhaust fumes are a sign of trouble in the vehicle engine system. You can get to know the problem in the engine depending on the color of smoke coming from the engine. 

The black smoke color from the exhaust pipe could result from a clogged air filter. This prevents fuel from mixing with air properly, thus preventing the engine from working smoothly. This, therefore, demands the vehicle to burn additional gasoline, thus lowering feel efficiency and causing major engine problems. 

White smoke coming out of the exhaust pipe is a sign of leaks in the cooling system. When coolant is burnt up in the engine, it results in engine overheating, thus causing system problems. 

Blue exhaust smoke signifies that there is an oil leak in the engine. Oil leaks reduce the lubrication of engine components, thus increasing their wear and tear. If you note any of the above smoke colors in the tailpipe, then know there is a problem with the engine. 

Gearbox and Clutch

A faulty gearbox will cost you a fortune to repair. The gearbox transmits torque from the engine to the wheels. It also provides different transmission ratios enabling the vehicle to adapt the engine speed in various driving situations.

You can only know the condition of the clutch and gearbox from what you feel then what you see. Some signs you check out for are any shaking, chattering, and whirring sounds, and a burning smell coming from the gearbox. 

Take time to engage the gear of the vehicle and ensure it is smooth and quiet. The gears of a good second-hand vehicle should also be easy to change. A damaged clutch pedal feels spongy, hard to engage, chatters when accelerating, pulsates, and remains on the floor when engaged. 

Engine Sounds 

Another thing that will enable you to know the condition of your engine is the sounds the vehicle engine is making. As the engine runs, be very careful to listen to the type of noise coming from it. In case you hear knocking, clicking and tapping, grinding, or squealing is a warning that something is wrong in the engine system. 


One of the main things sellers use to sell second-hand is making them as presentable as possible. Therefore, you need to be very careful when doing a visual inspection from the cars outside, underneath, and inside. A good bodywork check on the vehicle will help you get an idea of the vehicle’s past. 

Check if there are any dings, dents, or signs that the vehicle may have gotten into an accident. Do not forget to check door seals and panel gaps for any probable leaks. The gaps between panels should be the same all around the vehicle.

Check the rear and front of the vehicle for any low-speed stunts. Open the boot and check the below the carpet. The panels under the boot carpet should be ripple-free and straight. 

If the panels are bent, it is an indication that the vehicle has had a front-end crash. In the event that the car documents say the vehicle has not had an accident and your bodywork checks show otherwise, do not buy the vehicle. 

Rust or Paint Issues

As you check the vehicle bodywork, look for any paint and rust issues. Look if the paint used on the vehicle is original. Having some shiny pain on an old car is an indication that the vehicle polished before the sale. 

Door jabs will help you know the vehicle’s original paint, and you can compare it with other body parts. Look out for is a paint overspray or some rough paint particles. This is a sign that bodywork or paintwork has been done on the vehicle. 

Rust is another course of concern on a second-hand vehicle. Check out the metal parts of the vehicle for any rust or blistered paint. Rust could have been triggered by stone chips and scratches that were left unattended. 

The other place to look out for rust is on the wheel arches, resulting from grit, road grime, salt, or water. 

Frame Issues

Another one of the used car buying tips and tricks is to check if it has any frame problems. At times car collisions and accidents do not always leave visible signs of damage. Walk around the vehicle and look for any creases, cracks, or rust on the frame. Check under the frame for any bent or missing components. 

Another thing to check when inspecting a second-hand car frame is the alignment. Park the vehicle on an evenly leveled ground and see if it is sitting evenly. Carefully check the rear and front bumpers for any dings and dents. Apply some pressure to ensure that they are well attached. 

Also, look at the undercarriage for any dangling or hanging parts. Poor alignment can cause doors to stick at odd angles. Make sure that the trunk and doors are closing and opening easily. It is advisable not to buy a vehicle with a damaged frame since it is risky to drive and may cost you a lot of money to repair. 


Most second-hand vehicle sellers tend to reduce the vehicle of a vehicle to make them more sellable. You should not always trust the mileage that the seller gives to you. It is good to confirm if the vehicle mileage has not been tampered with. 

Low mileage means that the vehicle has not been used much, but it does not always mean it is good. To confirm the mileage, divide the number on the odometer with the car’s age. In most cases, vehicles with a high mileage tend to have a lot of wear and tear on their mechanical parts. 

However, some vehicles with low mileage could have worn out plastic and rubber parts under the hood due to neglect. If the vehicle was left unused for a long time, the undercarriage dries and becomes brittle, thus needing replacement. 

Another thing to consider when buying a used luxury car mileage is where it has been used. For instance, a vehicle with a mileage of 75 000 miles on mountains tends to have more damage than that with 75,000 miles on the highway. 

Therefore, you really have to consider the factors above when settling on the vehicle mileage. It is better to buy a used vehicle with moderately high mileage but well-maintained than buying a low-mileage vehicle that has been neglected. 

Wheels and Tires

Another thing to look for when buying a used hybrid car is its tires and wheels. A vehicle may be used but still have decent tires. Some tires and wheels may be worn out due to alignment and suspension system issues; thus, you need to be careful. 

The tires can also help you know if the mileage stated is correct or not. Vehicles with a mileage of 20,000 mileages in most cases still have their original tires. A low-mileage vehicle with new tires is a red flag, and you should be quite cautious. 

Examine the wheels’ bulges, cracks, and scuffing and check the edge of each of the rims for cracks or dents. If the wheels and tires are worn out, you can negotiate to have the price reduced or replaced before purchasing the car. 


You have to be very careful when examining its interior before you buy a used smart car. This will help you to know if the mileage is genuine or not. The interior of a vehicle with low mileage should be almost new. These are the things you check from the used car interior:


The boot of the vehicle you want to buy should have enough space to serve your purpose. Normally, it should be able to fit at least a spare wheel, mechanic kit, and other items you may want to carry around. 

Lift the boot carpet and see if it is dry. If you notice some wetness in the boot, then it may be a sign of some leaks. Look for the folding mechanism of the rear seat to see if it will give you additional space when required.

Mileage and Warning Lights

Once you get in the car, turn on the ignition and check for any warning lights. At this point, check for the figure on the odometer and divide it by the vehicle’s age to get its mileage.  


Most modern vehicles have a lot of electronics in them. Therefore, it is crucial to check if the vehicle has the electronics you desire and if they are in good condition when buying a used car. 

While the vehicle engine is running, turn on the car heater and see how quickly and hot it will become. You should also switch the air conditioner to ensure it is functioning properly. Some of the warning signs you should look out for are uneven beams or fogged lenses. 

A dim beam is an indication that the bulbs need to be changed. You need to check the locking system, infotainment system, radio, climate control, and other electronic gadgets in the vehicle. 


When you get in the vehicle, do not only concentrate on what you can see but also the smell that comes from the car. A mildew, moldy or musty smell is a sign of water leaks. Confirm this by lifting the car carpet and checking for wet spots. 


You definitely want to buy a vehicle with good-looking and clean seats. The vehicle may be second-hand, but the seats should not be torn or ripped off. Vehicles with torn-out seats are most probably a high mileage. Ensure that the seat adjustments are working properly. Seat on the driver seat, and make sure that you can adjust it to your most comfortable driving condition. 


The clutch, brake, and gas pedals will give you an idea of how long the vehicle has been in use. Check out for any wear and tear on the pedals. Worn-out pedals are a sign that the vehicle has been in use for a long time. 

Sound System

Check if the vehicle radio is functioning in both FM and AM receptions. If it has a CD player, load and eject the disc to see if it works well. Also, test if your iPod or MP3 player connects with the sound system. 


When still in the vehicle, have a careful look at the roof of the vehicle. Check the roof trim and headliner for any sags or stains. Stains are signs that the sunroom could be leaking. Also, ensure that the doors and windows are well-fitting. 

If the vehicle has a moon roof or sunroof, make sure that it opens and closes properly. After closing, check if it seals perfectly to avoid any leaks. Light a flashlight passes over the roof from the inside to examine if there are small tears.  


The exterior includes the parts of the vehicle that you can see from the outside. So the exterior parts you should examine before you purchase a second-hand vehicle include:


The glasses of a good second-hand vehicle should not have cracks or pocked areas. If the vehicle has cracks on the windshield, the best thing is to leave it since it will worsen with time. You can overlook small issues like a stone chimp but, of course, use it to negotiate your price down. 

Lights and Lenses

Make sure that the reflectors and light lenses of the vehicle are intact and are not missing, fogged with moisture, or cracked. Also, let someone confirm to you if the lights are working perfectly. 

Under the Hood

Before buying a second-hand vehicle, you should check its underhood. From that position, you will see if there are any hanging hoses or wires and signs of corrosion. Always do this inspection when the engine is cool. They include:

Hoses and Belts

When inspecting the underhood, squeeze the rubber hoses going to the air conditioner, radiator, and other components. The hoses should feel supple and firm. If they are mushy, cracked, or rock-hard, then they have an issue. Also, feel if the belts are frayed or are in good condition. 


Various parts of the vehicle work with the help of different fluids, mostly for lubrication. Check if the fluids are at the right levels. Also, check the oil colors to see if they need to be replaced. If the oil is amber in color, it shows that it was recently changed.

Watch out if the oil is foamy or grey or the dipstick has water droplets. This could be a sign of a blown head gasket or cracked engine block. Check the color and level of the transmission fluid. It should be pinkish and should not have a burnt odor. 

If the dipstick leaves some metal particles on the rag, it is an indication of a problem in the system. Inspect the automatic transmission fluid when the engine is running and hot. The brake and power steering fluid should be within the safe level. 


You cannot forget to check the battery of a second-hand vehicle before the purchase. You, of course, don’t want to get stuck as you go through your business due to a dead or weak battery

Most maintenance-free car batteries these days feature an inbuilt charge indicator. A green indicator means that the battery is in good shape. A black or yellow indicator, on the other hand, means that the battery is weak or dead. 

The indicators, however, only reveal the condition and thus may not give accurate results on the health of the entire battery. If possible, unscrew the battery caps and check the level of the liquid electrolyte. 

A low liquid electrolyte level means that the car battery has been used for hard tasks. Also, ask a mechanic to do a load test and also check the battery’s charging system. 


Examine the plastic reservoir that is joined to the radiator using a plastic hose. Check the color of the coolant. The coolant should be orange or greenish. A rusty or milky colored coolant needs to be changed. If you note a greenish stain on the radiator, it is an indicator of pinhole coolant leaks

Test Drive

It is very important to go for a test drive before you purchase a used vehicle. This will give you an experience of the vehicle. It may also help you discover some things you may not have noted from the visual inspection. 

A good vehicle should give you an intuitive and natural feel. You should also feel safe and secure when driving the vehicle. Feel how the vehicle accelerates and how it brakes. The test drive will also help you feel how good the steering is. 

As you go for a test drive, take the vehicle on sharp bends to see how balanced it is. Try the vehicle on different driving conditions and speeds. As you drive, listen if there are any irritating rattles or engine noises that are signs of engine problems. 


When you are done with the visual inspection and test drive, you have to check the vehicle’s documentation. The documentations should give show the entire history of the vehicle. 

The car documents should also come along with receipts of work carried out in the vehicle. Check the mileage on the document and see if it matches with what had calculated earlier. 

It should not also have a service book that shows when and where the vehicle has been serviced. Make sure that they have the vehicle logbook to ensure that they are the rightful owner of the vehicle. 

Car History

Before you buy a second-hand vehicle, you need to know its history. Get the correct details of the vehicle by asking the seller questions about the vehicle. In most cases, they will have braced themselves with answers; thus, you need to be very intelligent. 

Ask the seller when the vehicle was purchased first. If it has been involved in an accident before, how many times it has exchanged hands and also their reason for selling. 

You can also do some personal research about the vehicle just to ensure you are doing it right. See if the information that the seller gives matches what is on the documents. Check online free 

How to Check Used Car Before Buying – DIY Inspection YouTube Video

Things to Avoid While Buying a Used Car: Tips for a Better Purchase

When someone needs a car and is on a budget, they tend to go for a secondhand vehicle. Some people have landed to vehicles of their dreams from buying a used car, while others have their worst nightmare. These points on what to avoid when buying a used vehicle will make your purchasing process easier and better:

Prioritizing Aesthetics Rather Than your Needs

Even before you decide to get a vehicle, you already know what and how you want to use it. You should always remember the size and type of vehicle even before you start searching for the right one. Understanding your needs will prevent you from making an impulse purchase. 

At times someone may be very attracted to the vehicle’s looks, and they forget that it will not serve their purpose. For instance, if you need a truck for business purposes, you find yourself settling on a commuter vehicle. D not ever makes a mistake settling on a car before you know exactly what you need.

Ignoring a Test Drive

Someone may be in such a hurry to, but a vehicle and just assume that the vehicle is in good condition. You may have checked the physical aspects, but a test drive is the only way to get the feel of the vehicle. 

There are issues that you may not discover by looking but only come to know of them when you drive the vehicle. This gives you time to connect with the vehicle and ensure that it is functioning perfectly. 

Shoddy Title Evidence

Before you even get attached to the vehicle, ensure that the seller is the vehicle’s rightful owner. Make sure that they have the title of the vehicle and they are not just giving stories. 

You, of course, do not want to buy a stolen vehicle and start having problems with the authorities. If you realize something that is not clear about the cars, title the best thing to do is leave it. 

Ignoring Obvious Defects

One mistake you do not want to make is to buy a second-hand vehicle with issues. Sellers are so good at convincing you that it is no big deal, but you only come to regret it after you have closed the deal. 

Avoid vehicles with engine problems, dead batteries, rusty exhaust system, bald tires, cracked tail lenses and other issues. Some of these issues may cost you a fortune to fix them. The best way is to have the seller fix the problems in the vehicle before the sale. 

Failing to Have a Mechanic Inspection

We can at times be in a hurry or excited to buy a vehicle that we forget to have a professional mechanic check the vehicle. The truth is, even after doing a visual inspection of the vehicle, some issues can only be detected by an expert. 

Do not always depend on the information given by the sellers’ mechanic. Go with your personal mechanic and have the vehicle subjected to a pre-purchase inspection. The mechanics will do a compression test, performance evaluation, and charging system analyzing among other tests.

A pre-purchase inspection will help you to discover the mechanical issues in the vehicle. Of course, you will pay something for the checks, but it will save you a lot of hassle and help you negotiate. 

Failing to Run a Vehicle History Report

This is a major thing that people forget to do when buying a used car and it is a big mistake. On top of performing a driving test, it is crucial to learn the history of the vehicle. This will help you know the number of previous owners, prior accidents, and other car issues. 

Buying Without Clear Financing Strategy

This is one mistake you need to avoid when buying a vehicle if you want to remain sane. Even before you decide to buy a vehicle, always figure out where the finances will come from and the payment method. 

Consider the different options of payment and see the one that works best for you. At times paying in cash is much cheaper than hire a purchase since the latter attracts some interest rates. Only buy a vehicle that is within your budget. how to find a mechanic to inspect a used car

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs):

Q. What Should I Look Out for When Buying a Used Car?

Buying a used car can be a little tricky, and you need to be very cautious during the purchase. Before you start looking for a vehicle, get to know your exact need. This will guide you in deciding on the type of vehicle to buy.

Once you have known your needs, check the vehicle’s exterior, interior, engine, and underhood to ensure they are in good conditions. Look out for any types of leaks, odor, or noises coming from the vehicle. These are signs that there is something wrong. 

If you are not an expert in this, carry your mechanic, and they will help you inspect the vehicle. If the vehicle issues are major, it is advisable not to continue with the purchase. If the issues are small, you can use them to negotiate the price downwards or have the seller fix them first. 

Q. What Used Car Not to Buy?

The used car you should not buy is the one with major mechanical problems. Buying a vehicle with mechanical problems means that you will spend most of your money and time servicing it. 

It is therefore important to learn the history of a used car before you buy it. Get to know if it has had an accident before and how it was being used. Also, if you realize that the mileage written on the documentation does not match your calculation, don’t buy it.

In most cases out intuitions will help us know when something is not right. If the documentation is not available, that is a red flag. Also, go through customer reports to see what used car models you should avoid. 

Q. What Is the Best Mileage to Buy a Used Car?

The best mileage for a used car will depend on different factors. Sometimes a car can have high mileage, but it has been well taken care of. Others have low mileage because they were neglected, and this comes with its problems. 

The most reasonable mileage for a used car is 12,000 miles per year. However, do not shy away from vehicles with high mileage as long as they have been well maintained. 

Q. What Used SUV Should I Avoid?

Some of the reasons you should avoid buying a particular SUV are due to mechanical problems, lack of documentation, engine problems, and other problems with the braking systems. If you notice an issue that will take you a huge amount of money to fix, the prudent thing is to walk away. 

According to research, some used SUV models have been reviewed negatively, and you should be careful when buying one. Some of them include Buick Enclave Years: 2008-2009, Ford Explorer Years: 2002-2004, Chevrolet Equinox 3.4L V6 Year: 2005, Dodge Journey Years: 2009-2010, and Dodge Durango Years: 1999-2000 & 2011-2013.

Q. How Do You Talk Down a Used Car Price?

When buying a used car, you need to be very well braced with information to help you in the negotiation process. Go through the online platform and research the market price of the vehicle before negotiating. This will give you an upper hand in negotiating. 

When the seller gives their initial offer, compare it with the values you have from your research. Also, you can use some of the small issues you noted to negotiate the price downwards from your inspection and test drive. 

You can go to car listing sites and ask for quotes from different local dealers on the car you want to purchase. Carry the lowest quotations and use them to negotiate for a better price. Always be respectful when negotiating for a used car but also do not be afraid to walk away.


With the above information, we have answered the most asked question on what to look for when buying a used car. You should always have a checklist when going to buy a vehicle. This will help you not to forget everything you need to check. It is also prudent to carry your mechanic with you. They will help you look out for any mechanical issues the used vehicle might have. Also, be careful not to buy a used vehicle without the right documentation, for it might put you in trouble.


Hi there, I am R. Hasan Tito, a mechanic, and owner of this website. My friend and I created this website to share our knowledge, expertise, and experience with our fellow mechanics' community and car users. I am a specialist and certified automotive mechanic (Both Heavy Commercial and Private Cars). I worked as a Mechanic and Mechanic Supervisor for over fifteen years at Global Rebound Automotive companies - Toyota, TATA, BMW, Nissan, TVs, and Others. Now, I enjoy my new role of leading a team of automotive experts (in their respective fields) and publish new content on a regular basis on my website and social media.

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