Used Car Checklist
a good idea to have a used car youre thinking about buying
checked out by a mechanic before you buy it. But you dont
have to be a mechanic to do a few basic checks yourself checks
that can uncover red flags about the cars condition and prior
treatment. Find several of these, and you can save yourself the
trouble of paying a mechanic to dig deeper because you already
know the cars probably a stinker. For example:
know to pull the dipstick to check the condition of the engine oil.
Black oil or a tarnished dipstick indicates few and
far between oil changes, which suggests rough treatment of the engine.
But keep in mind that its fairly easy (and inexpensive) for
a seller/dealer to change a vehicles oil just before putting
it on the market. And its not hard, either, to wipe off/clean
off a tarnished dipstick to make it look like new and give
you the impression the car was well-maintained. And it may
have been. But you want further confirmation.
An oil change
is easy; flushing out the brake lines/master cylinder (and clutch
slave cylinder in manual transmission-equipped cars) isnt.
Its also both important routine maintenance and if
not done a strong indication the car wasnt well-cared-for.
checking is easy. First, find the brake master cylinder.
It is usually mounted on the firewall, drivers side. It will
typically have a plastic/translucent reservoir and a screw on (or
pry off) lid. Open the lid and look inside. If the brake fluid is
other than a light honey-color it is probably contaminated and the
entire system is due for a flush at the very least (not cheap, by
the way). If the fluid is dark, its a big red flag.
Its probably very old and very contaminated. This not
only suggests poor maintenance, it increases the chances youre
facing costly repairs if you buy the car. Failure to regularly change
out the brake fluid can ruin the ABS pump (in cars with ABS brakes,
which is almost every late-model car) among other big ticket items.
Watch out. The same goes for the clutch fluid reservoir, which is
usually mounted somewhere near the brake master cylinder. All modern
cars with manual transmissions have hydraulically assisted clutches.
The system uses brake fluid and it must be changed out regularly,
too for the same reasons. Look in the reservoir. If it is
dark/dirty looking, at minimum, the fluid will need to be flushed/replaced
with fresh fluid. And its entirely possible more work
and more expense will be involved.
another good place to search for clues as to a cars prior
life and for possible red flags. With the engine cold (be
sure!) open the radiator cap and take a look in there. The coolant
should be bright green (or red-orange, in some cases) but never
brown or (much worse) oily. Brown coolant indicates
old coolant that should have been replaced and wasnt replaced;
oily coolant indicates engine problems and is your cue to
say thanks for your time and walk way.
oil, though, it is fairly easy to change coolant prior to sale.
You want to look a little deeper. Specifically, you want to look
inside the radiator at the lattice structure that the coolant flows
through. Assuming the coolant is not opaque (and if its fresh
it should not be) you should be able to clearly see the first few
rows of the internal coolant passages. These should be free of scale
and build-up. If they appear clogged up, even partially, the radiator
may need to be replaced and the car may have been running
hot, which amounts to abusive treatment. Red flag. At the very least,
youll want your mechanic to give the entire cooling system
a complete work-up before you commit to buying.
Find the dipstick
for the automatic transmission and pull it out. It usually has a
red handle or is otherwise marked. The fluid should be translucent
reddish (typically; there are other colors but the colors
are never black or brown) and not smell burned. Here, too,
it is possible the fluid was changed out just prior to putting the
car on the market. But its something you want to check anyhow
because if the fluid is brown or black then you know the
cars not for you unless youre ok with the high
likelihood it will need a new/rebuilt transmission in the near future
and on your nickle. If the fluid looks and smells
ok, you can further ease your mind by getting in, starting the engine
and taking note of what happens when you move the gear selector
from Park to Drive and then from Drive to Reverse. The transmission
should engage almost immediately. If there is any significant lag
between the time you move the gear selector from one range to the
next and engagement of the gear chosen, its a red flag. Take
the car for a drive. There should be no sensation of slippage as
you accelerate and each gear change should be positive and free
of any clunking or other obviously not-normal sounds. Get out on
the open road and floor the gas pedal. This is an important test
of normal transmission function. The unit should shift down to the
next lowest gear and the car should accelerate normally. If there
is any hesitation, or (worse) the engine seems to rev but the car
doesnt seem to be responding , youll want to make sure
an expert mechanic gives the transmission a very close once-over
before any money changes hands.
It is harder
to immediately notice evidence of a prior wreck these days because
of much better color-matching by auto body shops. However, there
are still often clues, especially signs of respray (overspray) underneath
the car, or in the inner fenders, around weatherstripping and exterior
trim/badges which are often not removed before a car is painted
but just masked over. Closely eyeball each fender, each part of
the car, for signs of respray and if you find any, ask the seller
about it. It might have been a minor fender bender and so no big
deal. But if it was a major accident, its possible the car
has leaks or squeaks or problems much worse than that. Either way,
you want to know whats up before you come to terms. Its
another thing to mention to your mechanic, if it gets to that point.
You want to
be sure the seller has a clear title to the vehicle and ideally,
that the title is in the sellers name (if its a private
party sale). Not all curbstoners people who sell
used cars on their own, but who are not dealers are shady.
But some are and its good reason to be wary. Generally, be
on your guard if the seller is selling it for a friend.
Reason? In the event theres some problem, youve got
less recourse than you would otherwise because the seller wasnt
legally the previous owner. Also, curbstoners are pros. So are dealers,
of course. But dealers are more restrained by dint of being more
accountable. They have a physical storefront, a formal business.
The curbstoner you just bought that lemon from can easily just vanish
and leave you holding said lemon.
So, be careful.
with permission from EricPetersAutos.com.
[send him mail] is an automotive
columnist and author of Automotive
Atrocities and Road Hogs (2011). Visit his
© 2011 Eric Peters
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