Before you buy a vehicle, it’s always a good idea to have a mechanic check it over. But you can’t bring every vehicle in that you look at, that would be expensive. Here are a few things you can do on your own when you go out to look for a used vehicle.
Start with the body. Look at how the body panels fit. Uneven gaps, over-spray and mismatched paint are signs of prior substandard repairs. Check for rust, especially on the inside of the doors and on the lower part of the vehicle. Check for hail damage by getting the vehicle out of the direct sun and looking across the panels from the sides.
Open the hood and take a look around the engine compartment. Pay attention to things such as the condition of the battery and belts and hoses. If these look like they haven’t been touched in years, there is a decent chance that maintenance wasn’t a priority with the prior owner.
Pull the oil dipstick to check the level and condition of the engine oil. Black oil with sludge buildup is a sure sign that the oil wasn’t changed often enough. Transmission fluid should be pink in color; dark transmission fluid that smells burnt usually indicates a transmission that has been neglected.
Bring a flashlight and look for fluid leaks under the vehicle, which might be a sign of an expensive repair needed. Also, seeing any signs of under-car body damage are a definite red flag.
Check out the tires and see if they are wearing evenly and how much tread is left. If the tires are worn all of the way down to the wear bars in the tread, that means they need to be replaced.
Many times you can see some of the brake parts through the slots in the wheels. While you can’t get a good look at the brake pads in most cases, you can see if the rotors are in good shape. Rotors that are gouged or discolored are a sign that brake work is going to be needed very soon.
During your test drive, listen for noises and pay attention to how it feels as you drive down the road. You don't need to be a mechanic to know if something sounds wrong or that the vehicle is pulling one way or another. Turn on heating and air conditioning controls and make sure temperatures change and air comes out at all levels. Try all of the power accessories, including all windows. Bring a CD along as well to make sure the sound system works.
Once you get serious about a specific vehicle, it’s time for a mechanic to give it a thorough check. I have seen many horror stories over the years where someone already bought a vehicle, then had their mechanic look it over, only to find out that their dream vehicle was actually a nightmare.