Inspecting Second Hand Cars: What To Check Before Buying


To save yourself time and agony of looking at more second hand cars than necessary, here are some steps to help you find that hidden gem in the market.

Before you get behind the wheel, your first step should be inspecting the outside of the vehicle.


External Inspection

Start by checking for obvious problems such as crooked lines, body panels and seams that don’t line up properly, and discrepancies in shades of paint from one section to another. Run your hand over the body of the car to feel for bulges, rough patches, or bumps. These are all clues to body work that may have been performed.

Look for rust. Some minor rusting is to be expected on second hand cars, but major rust patches or rust on the frame are not good signs.

Check all of the glass on the vehicle for cracks, nicks, and loose or worn out weather seals. Don’t forget to check the headlamp, as a leaky headlamp will become cloudy and less effective over time.


Your next step will be to check the tires. It is worthwhile to invest in a tread depth gauge which can be purchased for around £5, but if you don’t have one on hand you can use a 20p coin. Insert the coin into the tread. If the outer band of the coin is showing, the tread is too low. Check all around each tyre to make sure the wear is even. If you find uneven wear, this can indicate problems with the alignment, ball joints, or even more serious issues.

Open the bonnet and take a look at the engine. If you see oil built up on outside of the engine this likely indicates an oil leak. Now locate and remove the dipstick. The oil should look clean and at the proper fill level indicated on the dipstick. Locate the tanks for other fluids such as power steering and radiator which will have fill lines marked outside of the tank, and make sure they are properly filled.

Now to check the boot for the spare tyre, jack, and lug wrench – often these are missing from second hand cars. Inspect the carpeting and under the carpeting for signs of water damage. A previously flooded car will have many issues and is usually not worth the money.


Interior Inspection

Check the interior carpeting for signs of flooding as well, and the upholstery for general damage. Turn the ignition to the power position without starting the engine yet to test all internal electrical instruments and switches now so you can give them your full attention. Save the test of the heating and air-conditioning for last.



Test Drive

On the test drive, leave the radio and air off and listen to the engine. Make sure it is shifting, braking, and accelerating smoothly and evenly, and that it is idling smoothly at a stop. Take both left and right corners and listen for any clunking or odd noises. Check the alignment while on a straight, flat and non-busy street by carefully lightening your grip on the steering to see if the car pulls to one side or the other. Pull over and check the parking brake and reverse gears. Sit for a few minutes, then pull out and if it’s safe get out and look where you just parked. Are there any puddles? On the way back you may check the heating and air-conditioning.


Follow these steps and you can make a more informed and confident choice of which second hand car to buy.