What to Check When Buying a Used Car – Used Car Checklist

July 1st, 2021 by

The world of used cars is a diverse and fascinating place. Not only can you find vehicles from numerous decades and builders, but each one also has a unique ownership story. Perhaps one owner loved this vehicle and upgraded it before trading it in. Or maybe this vehicle was neglected and has hit every pothole in the road of life. Every used car is one of a kind, but for every special unicorn, there’s at least one donkey.

If you want to know how to choose the highest quality used car and protect yourself against a bad purchase, you need a used car checklist. Here are the major things to check when buying a used car.

Young woman shopping for used cars

The Car’s History

As you see, the internet is filled with car information. Educate yourself before you even approach a vehicle. Consider everything you need the machine to do so you can narrow your search. Then study specific models that fit your needs. Read about when they were new. You might find articles about the vehicle at three years old or a certain mileage.

Check car enthusiast forums and the vehicle’s crash history. Car people talk, especially about problems, like the most common and costly repairs and surprises owners had. The car you’re researching might have a reputation for durability, a strong community of mechanics, or a history of regret and sadness.

Also, consider who are you buying from. Private owners don’t have the resources dealers do for refurbishing used cars. If buying from a dealership, ask where the car came from.


If you’re buying from a dealership, a buyer’s guide should be clearly in the car’s window. You’ll find the make, model, year, stock number, and VIN. The car’s warranty status should be under the buyer’s guide. The car might have some existing original warranty or the dealership might offer a limited warranty of its own. However, if you buy the car as-is, there is no warranty and you take responsibility for all future repairs.

You might also find the original Monroney label in the glove box. It’s still a very handy way to identify what features and capabilities the car came with. Plus you’ll know the MSRP.


Your car will get more expensive instantly if it’s already on bad tires. It’s okay if one of the first things you do is put new tires on the car before buying. Just price tires first so you know how much extra you’ll pay.

Grab each tire firmly from the top and give it a shake. Nothing should move much. If you hear and feel clunking or looseness, there could be big problems.

Also note the wear of the tires, which should be even.

Improper inflation causes wear down the center or each side of the tread. This is a sign of overall neglect. The owner probably overlooked more than just tire pressure.

Additionally, check which type of tires are on the car. Those tires may look cool but create extra road-noise, which may decrease fuel economy. And if you will need winter tires, see if the car comes with a set.


Before a test drive, look under the car and under the hood.

  • Check the ground for drips or signs of leakage.
  • Check the level and quality of every fluid.
  • Of course, leave the radiator alone if it’s not cool.
  • The oil should be light brown with no particulate matter and certainly no milkiness.
  • The transmission should be clear pink or red.
  • Check to see any signs of spray or spatter.
  • Feel the inside of the tailpipe (again, while cold.) The smudge should be dry and gray. Greasiness indicates burnt oil.
  • Note the condition (and maybe take pictures) in the engine bay and under the car.

After the test drive, review.

  • See if driving around forces any leaks.
  • Figure out if the car leaked a bit but was cleaned before you saw it the first time.
  • Check for any coolant or burning smell.

Doors and Panels

Always inspect a used car under good light. If you can only view a car at night, you’ll never pick up on imperfections in the body. Chips and scratches are fine, if they’re fine with you, as long as you see them before paying.

See if the car’s paint matches all the way around. If not, at least one body panel has probably been replaced. The Carfax should indicate this, or the car dealer is hiding something about the car’s condition.

Open every door and lift it a little, especially on the driver’s side. Notice if the hinges are loose and check the rubber seals? Doors can be expensive to replace or more expensive when they leak. Any squeakiness or wobbliness now will only get worse. Ultimately, the trunk, hood, and all doors should close with a satisfying solidity. Be especially wary of power doors and hatches as they age.

Check for traces of rust, especially under the carpet of the trunk. Walk away from heavy rust.


Newer cars have more electronics, but this means more points of failure. While most electronic systems have few moving parts, heavily used systems can fail. Test every function you can reach from the driver’s seat then go in the back seat. Try the power windows, locks, and heated seats, if available.

If you are looking at an older luxury vehicle, You might get a host of special functions at a bargain price. You might also get a bunch of electrical gremlins. If you’re considering an older car with long mileage, the simplest might be the best.

Whatever you choose, get a used car from someone you trust. Sweeney Cars has been connecting buyers from Youngstown, Boardman, and the rest of Mahoning County with great used automobiles for 100 years. Bring your used car checklist, and we’ll find the right car for you.

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