how to inspect a car

How to Inspect a Used Car Before Purchase


VIEW POST Would You Buy a Car With a Engine Light on?A Car needs to be thoroughly inspected before you even consider a purchase, this becomes even more critical when looking to buy a privately. You are covered by far fewer rights when buying a Car Privately, therefore, you certainly need to apply the ‘Buyer Beware’ caution.

Below we talk through in detail on the things you need to pay attention to, remember every car is unique and not all cars will have the same issues, use this article as an overall guide and not an exhaustive list.

Let’s get to it.

Pre-inspection Checks

  • Google and obtain a buyer’s guide for the vehicle you are going to inspect e.g.‘Ford Focus 2009 Buyers Guide’, this will provide you great information on that particular model and most importantly provide with ‘common faults the car has which you need to be aware of.
  • Watch a Youtube ‘Buyers guide video again with the intention of obtaining as much information on the make and model of the Car you are going to look at.
  • Google [Make/Model] ‘Common Faults into Google as a final cover all to see if you have all the information you need, to highlight the importance of this. If you don’t know anything about subframe issues on an E46 BMW M3 then you have no business looking to purchase an E46 M3 or if you don’t know anything about an IMS bearing issue on a 996 Porsche 911, then you have no business looking to buy a 996 Porsche!
  • Car Buyer Forums are a great resource if you’re looking to purchase a vehicle and contain a wealth of knowledge you can tap into. Another great way to obtain ‘common fault’ or ‘what to look for information’.

Arrange Inspection

Here are a few guidelines to follow when setting up a Car Inspection.

The first thing you need to decide is if you are going to be inspecting the car yourself or having a Pre Purchase Inspection (PPI) carried out on the car. if the later then you need to cover the following things with the seller

  • Ask permission for a Pre Purchase Inspection to be carried out before agreeing to buy the car, the inspection will be at your expense.
  • Will the inspection be carried out in your presence or your absence?
  • Will the car be inspected at the seller’s address or taken away and inspected at a garage? (usually, high-performance type cars are taken to specialists who will have to ramp them up and examine them)

If You are going to be inspecting the car yourself then you need to cover the following points with the seller.

  • Get permission to come and inspect the vehicle
  • Instruct seller that you wish to check the vehicle when its cold and has not already been driven
  • Get Permission for a test drive
  • Bring a copy of your insurance and licence to show the seller if requested

Now let’s get to the actual inspection

Tools you will need

Exterior Car examination


Begin with the exterior which is the first thing you will notice

  • Walk around the entire car slowly looking for any signs of Dents, Scratches, Scuffs, take time to examine every panel on the car
  • Look at all panels from different angles in the light to see if you can see any dents or misalignment anywhere, often certain dents can only be seen from certain angles
  • Run your fingers down all join lines of each panel, all lines should be straight and even in width, if you find they are not, then this could be a sign of accident damage.
  • Open all doors, bonnet and boot and close them again, do they all open and close smoothly and sit back in their original place? If not it could suggest signs of prior damage
  • Do the headlights and tail
  • Run your hand over the paint on each panel, the paint should feel smooth and not unequal or rough
  • Check the body for signs of corrosion, especially around the wheel arches and roofline of the Car.
  • Check for visible signs of any paintwork touch up or respray, do all the panels appear to be the same colour? A slightly different colour panel could suggest signs of a replacement or respray.
  • Examine all the glass on the exterior such as the windscreen, windows, headlights for signs of chips and cracks, all the lights should work as they should

Checking for signs of respray

  • Look along the edges of all panels such as the doors and bonnet, does there seem to be a difference in the colour? Can you feel any powder type substance which could be primer?
  • Check the plastic trims around the car for any signs of overspray
  • Open the doors and look in the ‘hard to reach’ gaps to ensure all the colour matches and there is no sign of leftover primer
  • (Optional Step) Use a paint meter on the panels all around the Car, from the factory the car is given a very even coat of paint all the way around, all of the panels (if not been resprayed) should be a similar thickness. A paint meter uses magnetic induction to verify the thickness of paint so If you notice a massive inconsistency in paint thickness between panels then there is a good chance some paint work has taken place.

underneath car check

Underside of car

Once you have finished with the exterior the next step is to examine the underside of the car, this is obviously more difficult as you cant ramp the car up, however, you still cannot use that as an excuse not to conduct the checks

  • Use your examination board to kneel on to look under the front of the car and look to see if the car is not leaking any oil or coolant from the front
  • Use your examination light to shine under the car to check for any obvious oil staining or wet patches on the underside of the car.
  • Use the light to look on the floor directly under the car to look for any oil stains or wet patches to signify a historic leak.
  • Check to see any signs of cracks or damage on the under trays or any signs or loose hanging components or obvious damage.
  • Check to see any obvious signs of excessive corrosion
  • Move to the rear of the car and lie on the examination board, examine the condition of the exhaust, check for any cracks damage or heavy corrosion on the brackets
  • Tug on the exhaust slightly to ensure it is fixed firmly in place with no excessive movement
  • Use the examine the underside of the rear bumper or cracks or damage consistent with accident damage.
  • Use the examination torch to check the condition of the shock absorbers above each wheel, there should be no evidence cracks and not be covered in oil.

13 Negotiation Tips When Buying a Used Car

Tyres, Wheels and Brake Pads

  • Check all 4 tyres are the same brand
  • Use a tread depth gauge to determine the thickness of each tyre (road legal limit is 1.6mm)
  • Check for any bulges, rips or cracks in the rubber of each tyre (including the spare)
  • Check for even tread wear on all tyres, uneven wear could indicate an issue with the alignment
  • Check the condition of each rim, are they severely damaged in terms of being bent, cracked or chipped? Minor scuffing can be repaired by a wheel refurbishment which you need to factor into the price.
  • Check to see if all centre caps and wheel bolts are present and have not been worn away to the point they cannot be removed, also check to see if a locking nut is present if applicable.
  • Use the examination light to shine behind each rim and look between the brake calliper. Try and determine the thickness of each brake pad, the thinner it is the more wear it has head meaning it will need replacing sooner.
  • Check the condition of each brake disc, if you see severe scoring marks and a ‘lip’ around the outer edge then the disc will need replacing imminently. New discs are often smooth and shiny with no scoring marks present.

Engine Bay (Before starting)

  • Open the bonnet and check the metal work around the edges of the engine bay, it should be straight and uncrumpled, if there has been a front-end collision it’s hard for a body shop to fix this.
  • Unscrew the oil cap and examine the underside of the cap for a milky white substance which could indicate a blown head gasket
  • Use your examination light to look into the engine oil hole and look for any cloudy or milky looking substance which again could signify serious engine issues.
  • Check the engine oil level via the dipstick, the oil level should be between the min-max level and not contain any dirt, grit or metallic shavings.
  • Check the level of Coolant, again it should be between the min-max level, coolant should be clear with no signs of oil or water mixed into it.
  • Use the examination light to check the condition of the serpentine belt and look for any cracks or tears in the material.
  • Use the examination light around the bay looking for any signs of fluid leaks on any components
  • Check the condition of the power steering fluid, again it could be clean without signs of debris
  • Check the condition of all the hoses and tubes, there should be no obvious leaks or cracks.

Leave the bonnet up and Start the Car

  • Ensure all warning lights on dash go out apart from handbrake and seat belt light
  • Connect diagnostic tool to the cars diagnostic port and read to see if there any engine fault code stored (if there are run the codes through google to see what they relate to)
  • Return to the engine bay and listen for any unusual sounds such as grinding, clicking or knocking sounds.
  • Check to see if there is no fluid leaking around the engine bay as the car is running
  • Check to see if there is no fluid leaking under the front of the car as the car is running
  • Walk to the rear of the vehicle to check the colour of the smoke coming from the exhaust on startup, it should be thick white, light blue or dark black which could signify issues with the engine components. (its normal for a small amount of white smoke and possibly water to appear from the exhaust initially, but it should not be prolonged
  • Rev the Car Slightly and listen for unusual engine noise
  • Rev the Car Slightly and again check the colour of smoke from the exhaust
  • Listen to the exhaust note to see if you can hear any hissing or unusual sounds which could be a ‘blown’ exhaust which leads to exhaust gasses escaping in a hole caused by damage or corrosion

Interior Check

  • Start by touching the carpets to feel for any damp which could indicate leaks from the doors
  • Examine the seats and checking the driver’s side bolster for excessive amounts of wear and tear
  • Look for heavy staining, rips, cigarette burns etc in all seats
  • Check all seats operate correctly in turns of movement positions, and click all seatbelts into place
  • Check that all the electric windows work by checking each window individually not just from the master control on the driver’s side
  • Check all the instruments work on the dash including indicators, washers, headlights
  • Check Climate control blows both hot and cold
  • Check the AC blows gold, if it does not it could signify a faulty AC pump or simply a re-gas being required
  • Check items such as Sat Nav, Radio, Aux Connection, Bluetooth and heated seats all work (If applicable)
  • Check all the central locking, boot/bonnet release all works from within the car and also the key fob
  • If applicable check the service indicator information if its available from within the infotainment system

Things you need to do next

The following articles will help you with the next stage of what you need to do


Examining a car is a thorough process, you need to be confident in what you are investing your money is, don’t be hurried along by a seller and take as much time as you need. If you feel you are not comfortable in doing these checks then either taken someone along with you or book a pre-purchase inspection which is where a qualified mechanic will conduct these checks on your behalf.


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