Buy a used car instead of a new one and you could unearth a real gem of a deal.  But there’s also the possibility that the brightest, shiniest gems you find turn out to be nothing more than camouflaged lemons.

How do you sort out the duds from the studs in your search for used cars? A professional mechanic you trust should perform an inspection on any used car you’re thinking of buying. This applies not only to used cars for sale by owner, but to vehicles from used car dealerships as well.

But before you make an appointment to take that used Honda, used BMW, or whatever kind of used car for sale that has piqued your interest to your trusted mechanic, you could perform a basic inspection yourself.  If you spot a lemon early enough, you can skip the professional inspection, saving you time and money.

So make sure you bring along a flashlight, some paper towels, a hand-held mirror, and a small magnet. It’s a good idea to bring a notebook and writing utensil as well to record your results and some hand sanitizer to clean up. If the car has a stereo, you might want to bring a CD or cassette, too, to test to see if the system still works. With all of this on hand, here is used car inspection checklist for the eleven points you should inspect before deciding to buy the used car.  It could also help you in your negotiations depending on the issues you find. Click the following link to download the Used Car Checklist: Used Car Checklist

1. Check the car history report

Ask for the used vehicle’s VIN number. The seller should have the number available on his or her insurance card or the vehicle title.  But you should still confirm the number yourself.  The number is typically located beneath the vehicle’s windshield. Use this VIN number to order a car history report.  You can visit an online service like Carfax or AutoCheck to get a full history report on the car.  This step is crucial; accident and repair history are essential in determining if that shiny coat of paint is hiding something!

2. Check the condition of the used vehicle’s body

Walk around the entire length of the car and bend down and use the flashlight and mirror to look at some out-of-sight seams. Are the gaps around the doors even? Are there signs of rust, particularly above the tires? (This is likely due to salt on the roads in the winter, but it could be signs of a previous accident.) Is the color mismatched in any place? Use the magnet to see if the body is actual metal or Bondo, which is often used in vehicle restoration.

3.  Check the tires

What’s the brand of the tires? Are they worn? Are there any cracks? What about the condition of the rims?

4.  Check the engine

Make sure the engine is off (and has been for a time) and pop the hood. Bring along your paper towels. Is the engine relatively clean? Are there any signs of rust? Pop off the oil filler cap. Are there any thick black deposits? (This isn’t a good sign.)

5.  Check the engine’s oil

Make sure the car is still off.  Pull out the dipstick, wipe it as clean as you can with the paper towel, insert the dipstick back into the engine, and pull it out again. There should be “full” and “low” indicators. How high is the current level of oil? Is it a pale amber color (good) or a dark, sludgy color (bad)?

6.  Check the automatic transmission fluid

Make sure the car is level, the transmission is in park, and the parking break is on. Turn on the car’s engine. After it idles for a time, pull out the transmission dipstick and wipe it with a paper towel. Place it back and pull it out again. If the car had just been turned on, the fluid should be in between the “cold” indicators. (If it had been driven for a time directly prior to this check, expect it to be within the “hot” indicators.) It should also be a clear reddish color. A brown, sludgy color means it has not been maintained.

If the transmission is manual, you can skip this step. However, when you take the used car for a test drive, make sure that all gear shifts are smooth and that, when driving in second or third gear, a sudden acceleration doesn’t make the clutch slip.

7.  Check the brake fluid level

If it’s low, it could be leaking and/or the brake pads could be wearing.

8.  Check the engine coolant

Make sure it’s relatively full and a yellowish-green color.

9.  Do a final under-hood check with the flashlight and mirror

Does the fan belt look worn? Is anything rusty or leaking? (The air conditioning condenser may be leaking slightly if it has just been used, but this is normal.)

10.   Check the interior of the car

Are the seats worn or stained? How about the flooring? Do the visors and cupholders stick? What’s the condition of the seatbelts?

11.  Test the electrical features

Make sure to try the car’s indoor lights and the power window controls. Turn on the car to test both the air conditioning and the heat. Here’s also when you can test the music system with the CD or cassette and rock out while you decide if you’ve got a real gem or lemon on your hands!

Click this link to download the Used Car Checklist: Used Car Checklist

For more information on used cars, visit which provides tips, advice, and commentary on searching and buying used cars.  The blog is written by the team at, a search engine for used cars for sale, created by guys who think buying used cars are better than buying new and who are passionate about building a better tool for users to search for used cars.

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