The Ultimate Used Car Checklist: How to Inspect a Used Car For Issues

October 1, 2019

Today, the used car market is very robust and a great place to look when you want value for money. But the outdated perception of used car sales is that, compared to a brand new car, you run a higher risk of ending up with something that’s going to leave you stranded on the highway in rush hour traffic. Follow these steps to ensure you find an amazing deal and don’t end up with a dud or lemon car.

It’s true that car dealerships are a trusted source for reliable pre-owned cars. Any dealership worth its salt understands the value of brand loyalty. They won’t sacrifice the customer relationship for the sake of short-term profit. 

They also have their reputations to consider; those 5-star Google ratings don’t designate themselves you know! Internet reviews and ratings are increasingly important in today’s online shopping landscape, so you know that it’s in the dealership’s best interests to keep you happy. 

Many dealerships offer certified pre-owned vehicles for that extra stamp of assurance. But even if the gently used vehicle you have your eye on isn’t a CPO, you can still be confident that the car received professional-grade detailing, servicing, and maintenance.

Private sellers, on the other hand, aren't held to such a high standard. Many of them are just making one-off sales and don’t need to worry about customer loyalty and online reviews.

With this information in mind, it’s important to know what you’re looking at when you go to view a used car, especially when you’re working with a private seller. Follow these 9 steps to ensure you cover all your bases and find a vehicle that’s worth your hard-earned money. 

1. Check the year and mileage

On average, a car should put in 20,000km per year. Any more than that is going to start putting the vehicle at above average kilometers for its model year and should warrant a discount to its less-driven peers. Canadian Black Book is the ace up your sleeve when determining the market value of a used vehicle.

2. Check the vehicles's history report

Investigate the car history to see if there has been any previous damage. The seller might have the history report ready to view. If not, you can download it at CARFAX Canada

Downloading a CARFAX report is a good idea, but it doesn’t always tell the full story. There are other ways to find out more about a car’s background...

3. Examine the paint job

A close look at the paint job can reveal hidden truths. Compare panels for colour uniformity. If the panels aren’t matching exactly, the vehicle was probably in an accident.

Check for rust. If you find rust on the bodywork of the vehicle, it may just be an aesthetic problem, but it might also indicate deeper issues that are costly to repair. Frame rust, for example, could impact the integrity of the vehicle and poses a threat to the car's longevity. If you see rust on the body of the vehicle, check under the hood and the undercarriage for further signs.

4. Inspect the tires for any wear patterns

The ’Toonie Tire Test’ is a quick way to check your tread depth with a coin. If the grip is worn down, the tires may need to be replaced soon at extra cost to you. There may also be an alignment issue if the wear on the tires do not look even.

5. Check the ground and undercarriage

Check the ground and undercarriage for any signs of leakage while you're examining the tires. You don’t want to be forking out of your own pocket for any leak repairs.

6. Perform under-the-hood checks

  • Look for any general signs of rust or corrosion under the hood. These signs are a good indication of the car’s past treatment, current condition, and life expectancy.
  • Inspect belts for any signs of wear. If any of the belts are frayed or torn, they may need to be replaced soon. You don’t want to pay for that yourself, so make sure you factor it into your negotiation. 
  • Check transmission fluid. Ensure that levels are high. The fluid should be a clear reddish colour. Do a sniff test. Any burnt smell indicates that the transmission is overheating.
  • Check oil levels. If the car has been running, wait at least 10 minutes for the engine to settle. Remove the dipstick and wipe it clean. Push the dipstick in again and then withdraw it. If the oil is really dark or looks muddy in texture, it hasn't been changed in a while.
  • Check brake fluid. You can predict how worn your brakes are based on how much fluid is left in your reservoir. Low brake fluid levels mean the brakes are in need of some repairs or restoration.
  • Check antifreeze. Make sure there’s no oil contamination and that the colour is clear.
  • Check the battery. Does the car battery have any frayed cables, damage, or corrosion?

7. Check lights

Ensure brake lights, turn signals, headlights, and taillights are all in working order. Then, ensure all interior lights are working too.

8. Listen out for any unusual noises during your test drive

Any tapping or rattling sounds are a legitimate cause for concern. Also, check how the vehicle handles on different road surfaces. Practice parking, reversing, and other tricky manoeuvres to see how your style of driving gels with the car.

9. Book a professional inspection

If you’re not confident performing these checks yourself, bring a knowledgeable friend who knows what to look out for. It’s also a good idea to take it to a mechanic to get it checked out. Any problems that the mechanic identifies with the vehicle can be used as points of negotiation if you decide to make an offer. The mechanic’s fee is a small price to pay compared to buying a problem-ridden vehicle.

Canada Drives can help you find the best used cars

Canada Drives can connect you with hundreds of certified dealerships across Canada. Each one of our partner dealerships guarantees a safer option for consumers compared to private sales.

Canada Drives’ dealers have the highest quality standards that private sales lack, and we’ve helped thousands of Canadians get behind the wheel of safe and reliable vehicles.

Visit Canada Drives to fill out our quick online application and secure finance for your new car within a day.

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