Inspect a used car like a used car dealer.

inspect a used car
Being thorough when you inspect a used car is critical.


Inspect a used car well before buying it. A quality inspection can make buying a used a great financial choice, skipping this car can be a daunting experience. Unlike a new car, every used car is different. Different owners, different driving styles, different locations… no two used cars are the same.

As a used car dealership, we have to inspect thousands of cars every year. Sometimes we only get minutes to look at a car before it runs through the auction. This has led to many tips and tricks we use to minimize mistakes.

You HAVE to inspect any used car you buy. You want to buy someone else’s cherished car, not their mistake. – Tina, owner – Queen MotorCars

Here is our process, we are going to break it down by areas of the car.


Exterior is easy. The only thing you need to check is for massive body damage in the past. Small fender benders are common and not an issue, but a large accident is something to be avoided.

Too many people rely on carfax and autocheck reports, but these reports are not always accurate. Only accident’s that are reported to insurance companies are put on these reports, so you must check yourself.

A good way is to look at the car in the reflection of the light, look for any weird waves or different textures in the paint. Also run your fingers around the edges of the doors and the hood. You’re trying to feel for overspray, it will feel rough. Either of these things point to damage.

The other thing is the tires. Look for tread depth (the more the better but you want at least 3/16″). Take a look at the tread, is it dried and cracking? Are there any weird bubbles on the tires? These all indicate that you will be buying tires soon.


Arguably the most important part of any vehicle inspection, the drivetrain. For our purposes, the drivetrain includes anything that helps the vehicle move. Engine, transmission, axles, suspension etc. If when you inspect a used car, you only do this part you will probably be ok.

The first things is noise. When the car is running does it all sound ok? If you hear an angry dwarf with a hammer banging on the engine, that indicates a rod knock. You should hear nothing but a normal running engine. Be careful, some new cars sound like sewing machines because of the new direct injection systems, this is completely normal.

The next is fluids. Engine oil should look like honey. If it’s black, it could indicate a shoddy maintenance history. Also, look for any sparkles in the oil, this indicates metal shavings, a huge red flag. Any kind of milk chocolate or foaming is a sure sign of a head gasket. The coolant should be a vibrant red or green and the transmission fluid should be nice and red too.

Check the fluid levels and cleanliness of the fluids. There is always a line indicating where the fluid should be at, check it!

Feel the floorboard of the passenger compartment, it should be dry. If it’s wet or if you see condensation on the windshield on the passenger side, it usually means a bad heater core. Also, I feel the exhaust coming out of the engine and give my hand a quick sniff. It should not smell sweet or be sticky, that can be a head gasket.

Now time for the drive. The engine should shift smoothly, no jerking or yanking. There should still be no noise, or any weird things happening. Drive it on the freeway and side streets, turn both directions, go over speed bumps, really work it out. Loud squeaks or clunks usually means bushings or shocks are needed.


Weirdly enough, more issues come up on the interior most of the time. Most of these things are expensive so you want to find them before you buy the car.

First, a quick check of all mirrors and windows. Then a check of all seats, knobs and buttons. Check the A/C and heater, wipers, stereo, moonroof, if it has a button… push it!


Autocheck and carfax are good tools to use when buying a car. They don’t show everything that could have happened to a vehicle, but they do show most.

A recent state inspection and smog certificate usually shows that the vehicle has at least passed the minimum requirements for the state.

Any service history is great to have too. People that keep their maintenance records almost always are taking care of their cars and are proud of it,


So, this is a bit advanced. Scan tools are a great tool in the used car buyers arsenal. Honestly, as a dealer, you cannot inspect a used car well without using one.

They don’t have to be expensive, we use this cheap one on amazon OBD2 Scan Tool. It’s less than 20 bucks and works great. It’s cheap insurance.

Basically a scan tool can show you any engine codes, current and past. A few minutes with this tool can show you problems that may not be apparent from a visual inspection.


The saying, if it walks like a duck, looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck, holds true in used cars too. When a customer comes in with a car full of fast food wrappers and dirty, the car’s usually rough. But when someone comes in with a freshly waxed and detailed car, it’s usually in great condition.

If the car looks clean, the interior is in good shape, and it drives well, then you’re probably looking at a good car.

We have used this method to buy thousands of cars over the years, and we are rarely surprised any more.

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