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Auto Buying Checklist

Finding the right vehicle is important. This list can help you choose.

Take a closer look under the hood, and everywhere else

When you're buying a used car, truck, SUV, van or any other vehicle, there are certain things to look for. We put together this list as a starting point to help you gather as much information as possible.

  1. Look down the side of vehicle, from the front fender, for ripples or a dull paint patch. This could indicate previous body damage from rust or an accident. A magnet can help expose bondo or fiberglass.
  2. Open and close all doors. Look for paint bubbles indicating rust. Look at rubber moldings… are they brittle or cracked?
  3. Check the trunk for rust, stains… look under the trunk mat/carpet. Check the spare tire to see if it matches the other tires. Is the jack in the trunk?
  4. Turn the wheels in one direction and look in the opposite wheel well. A fresh undercoating job could conceal rust. Scrape away some of the undercoating and see if there is rust underneath. Also look for bent up oil and transmission pans.
  5. With the car running, look under it with a flashlight, for leaks in the exhaust system, engine, or transmission. Note any holes in the exhaust system. Note any welding marks along the frame or underbody.
  6. Check the glass and plastic (windows, headlights, taillights, turn signals, etc.) for cracks and breaks. Make seller replace all burnt out lights and signals.
  7. Check vinyl roof for tears or lumps which can mean rust,
  8. With engine both cold and hot, start it several times during and after the test drive. Did the owner warm the car up before you arrived?
  9. Race the engine and check for blue smoke coming out of the exhaust.
  10. Check the following under the hood:
    1. Dry or cracked hoses or belts
    2. Corrosion and rust on the radiator or rusty coolant.
    3. Look for worn or corroded battery terminals or wiring. Is battery case cracked? Also check battery level.
  11. With the hood open and car running:
    1. Slowly accelerate. Listen for bad valve knocks. Look for leaking seals on the engine block. Also listen for clicking or grinding.
    2. Let the car idle for 5 minutes, then pull forward and check for red/brown or clear slippery puddles indicating leaks from the transmission or engine seals.
    3. With the engine running, check exhaust. If pulsing, could be valves. Hold a dollar bill over the end of the tail pipe; if it pulls in to the pipe, serious valve problems. Oil on the inside of pipe means engine is burning oil.
  12. Check interior: Look under the mats and carpet and look at the seats and headliner. Check for welding seams or leakage stains. Check for missing door handles/control knobs, which are important to the operation of the auto.
  13. Check the horn, radio, wipers and other electrical items. Check power steering, brakes, windows, door locks, antennas, and seats.
  14. With the engine running...Check A/C, heater, defroster, and all gauges.
  15. Brakes: Don't move vehicle, but apply pressure on brake… hold for 30 seconds… if pedal continues toward the floor, you probably have a leak.
  16. Check clutch (for standard transmission). Start engine, set parking brake, put car in first gear, slowly let out on the clutch. It should stall 1/2 to 3/4 of the way up.
  17. Automatic transmissions: With the engine idling, foot on brake, slip transmission from neutral to reverse and neutral to drive. Listen for clunking sounds.
  18. Mileage: 14,000+/year is average.
  19. Test drive for 30 – 45 minutes if you can. Go up and down hills, over rough bumpy roads, in city traffic, and on uncrowded ones.
    1. Engine performance should be smooth with no grinding sounds.
    2. Brakes should stop without pulling, fading, or making sounds. Check the emergency brake when going 5 mph.
    3. Steering: Lost motion when you move the wheel back and forth could mean linkage problems. Does the wheel jerk back and forth? Could mean power steering problems.
    4. Transmissions: Automatics should not hesitate or have jerky shifts. Standards should enter gear easily without grinding sounds.
    5. Check suspension by going over bumpy roads. Veer hard to the right and left. A large amount of bouncing or sway means bad shocks or struts.
  20. When you return form the test drive, check under the hood again for leaks, fluid on the engine, hissing or steam.
  21. Check for missing catalytic converters, which are expensive to replace.

Your Relationship with Your Mechanic

Finding a trustworthy mechanic helps you avoid expensive headaches. Proper maintenance is essential to extending the life of your vehicle. If you have a mechanic you trust, take the car to the shop for an inspection before you purchase it. If you can't, take the vehicle to your mechanic immediately after you buy it. Here's what your mechanic should do.

  1. Check the engine: Inspect transmission fluid; check spark plugs and ignition wire, leaks in engine, timing belt and chain
  2. Check fan and belts, charging system, power steering and air conditioner
  3. Check cooling system, radiator, heater, and by-pass hose
  4. Check battery, alternator, starter, voltage regulator and solenoid
  5. Check braking system, lining, wheel and master cylinders, drums and front disks, hoses, bearings, and grease seals
  6. Check the exhaust system for rust, cracks or holes
  7. Check suspension, ball joints, tie rod ends, and idler arm
  8. Remove differential plug and check lubricant
  9. Test drive vehicle
  10. Check engine compression, vacuum test on intake manifold
  11. Any other items you found questionable during your check

What Your Mechanic Should Tell You

  1. Specific problems with this vehicle
  2. Estimated repair costs for the problems
  3. If the car has ever been in an accident
  4. His/her overall opinion about the car (Ask this last)

Obtain Information About Your Vehicle's Previous Owner(s)

If possible, ask these question of the person selling you the vehicle. If you are purchasing from a dealer, ask for the previous owner's name and attempt to get as much detailed information as you can.

  1. What was the mileage at the time you traded it in?
  2. What was the car used for?
  3. How was most of the mileage acquired?
  4. How long did you own the car and did you buy it new?
  5. What kind of mechanical problems did you have?
  6. What work was done on it while you had it?
  7. How often was it serviced and who did it?
  8. Who else drove the car besides you?
  9. Did you use the car to pull trailers?
  10. How many owners has the car had?
  11. How much oil is it using?
  12. How many miles per gallon does it get?
  13. Why are you selling the car?

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