Car buyer's checklist

This checklist will help you inspect a used car. Remember, inspect the car in good light, never at night. Check each item yourself: don't rely on the seller to give you the information.

From the outside

  • Have you studied the bodywork? Be wary of bumps, ripples, mismatched colours and panels out of alignment.
  • Is there any rust around the doors, body, boot or under the carpet? Avoid cars with a lot of rust. Use a soft fridge magnet to check whether body filler has been used to fill rusted out areas (the magnet won't stick to body filler). Tip: Take a mat to lay on. Most rust will be around the lowest part of the car. This is a hands & knees job.
  • Is the suspension okay? Push down on one corner then let go. If it bounces more than once the car has worn shock absorbers.
  • Are the tyres worn unevenly? Check the spare tyre as well. Make sure there is plenty of tread and there are no splits, cuts, bulges or there is uneven wear. Uneven wear may mean the steering or suspension is worn or misaligned.
  • Do all the windows wind up and down and the locks work? Make sure all the doors fit properly and that the key works on both front doors.

Sit in the driver's seat

  • What is the reading on the speedo? A low distance reading is not a foolproof guide to the state of the engine. Worn pedal pads and floor mats often indicate extensive wear and tear.
  • Do all instrument gauges (like fuel level, temperature level) work?
  • Do the headlights work on high and low beam?
  • Do the tail lights work?
  • Do the brake lights work?
  • Do the indicators work?
  • Does the horn work?
  • Do the windscreen wipers work?
  • Are the seat belts in good condition?
  • Is the upholstery, headlining, trim and carpets in good condition?
  • Can the seats and headrests be adjusted?
  • Does the radio, air conditioning, fan and interior light work?

Open the bonnet

  • Does the VIN (vehicle identification number) and engine number match the numbers shown on the certificate of registration. Be wary of any signs of interference such as scratches, grind marks or drill holes. These may indicate illegal tampering with the numbers and the vehicle.
  • What does the water in the radiator look like? Clear or green is good. Rusty water or water at a low level means a lack of care taken or a faulty cooling system. Fins are the thin metal parts of the radiator. Check fins for rust and crumbling.
  • If the hoses are soft or spongy, they may need to be replaced.
  • Check the dipstick. The oil should be between the dipstick markers and blackish in colour. If the oil is milky or grey in colour there may be problems.
  • Check that the transmission oil is cherry pink.

Turn on the engine

  • Start the car and let it idle. Listen for strange noises - rattling or knocking in the engine compartment.
  • 'Rev' it several times while looking out the rear window. If there is smoke, it could mean engine problems.
  • Do the brakes feel firm when you press down? The clutch should have some free motion before resistance increases sharply.

Test drive

  • Check the car runs smoothly when cruising, accelerating and decelerating.
  • Are the gear changes smooth? Does the gearbox whine when you change into low gear?

Does the clutch squeak or respond jerkily

  • Watch the dashboard for any warning lights.
  • Relax your grip on the steering wheel and see if the car pulls to one side.
  • Press the brakes several times. The car should not pull to one side and the pedals should feel firm.

After running the engine

  • Look for signs of any radiator or oil leaks.
  • Open the oil filler cap and look for fumes (a bad sign).
  • Stand the car on a clean surface after you have test driven it to check for oil leaks.

To buy?

If there are any problems and you are buying from a car dealer, tell the dealer. If the car is under warranty, the dealer may have to fix them. if there is no warranty on the car, you may be able to negotiate with the dealer to make the repairs. If you do this, make sure that all repairs are listed on the sales contract as a condition of the sale. If the car seemed okay, pay an independent mechanic to do a detailed check.

Last Updated:
04 Jun 2019

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