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Used Car Evaluation
and Checklist

The process that I will describe here must be done with every used car that you seriously consider. Do not allow yourself to be hurried to the point that you neglect checking some item that could result in an expensive repair. Do a walkaround analysis of the vehicle before you drive it--if there are visible problems that eliminate a particular car from consideration, why spend the time taking it for a ride?

If you have any doubts or do not feel confident enough to make your own evaluation, consider a professional inspection.

Walk around the vehicle paying close attention to the paint finish and match and the overall fit of the body components.
Look at the tires for wear. Look at the headlights (a cracked halogen headlight can be expensive to replace). Check the windshield for scratches, cracks or stars (bullseyes).
Open the hood: look for signs of oil or water leaks. Check for evidence of previous body repair.
Open the trunk: make sure that there is a spare tire and jack. Lift the carpet or mat and check for dampness or evidence of previous body repair.
Sit in the driver's seat. Start the car and listen for abnormal engine sounds. Before, during, or after driving check the operation of:

  • Air conditioning and heater operation
  • Windshield wipers and washer
  • Turn signals
  • All power equipment: windows, locks, seats, and mirrors (if applicable)
  • Rear defroster
  • Radio, tape deck or Compact Disc player

During the driving of the vehicle check for:

  • Acceleration--adequate? Any abnormal noises?
  • Braking--adequate? Any abnormal noises?
  • Automatic transmission--smooth shifting? No frequent upshifts or downshifts?
  • Standard transmission and clutch--smooth operation? Any abnormal noises?
  • Steering response--smooth? Any abnormal noises?
  • Any vibrations or shimmies at different speeds?
  • Cruise control (if applicable)--is it operational?
  • Gauges (if equipped)--are the oil pressure gauge, water gauge and alternator gauge operational and showing normal ranges?

After the drive, let the vehicle idle for a few moments and listen to the engine again. Are there any abnormal sounds at this point? After turning the motor off, does the it continue to run before sputtering to a stop? This is known as dieseling or "run on" and indicates a problem.
Do a final inspection of the interior and then the exterior to make certain there is nothing you have missed in your first check.

Excerpted from
Smart Sense Car Buying

Another source of information on used cars is Experian Automotive, which will develop a "Lemon Report" for you. The used vehicle you may purchase can leave you asking many questions about its past – was it salvaged? Has it had flood damage? How about odometer fraud? Is there a clean title history? Experian Automotive provides the answers you need to proceed with confidence or steer clear of a problem car. Use the 17-character Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) found on dashboards and title documents to uncover costly hidden problems or guarantee a clean title history in seconds.

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