Checklist for Buying a Used Car

Visual inspections are important when evaluating a used car.

The purchase of a vehicle is a major investment, even if the car is used. Although used cars may offer a lower price tag than their new counterparts, potential maintenance repairs and out-of-warranty issues can still cost you a significant amount of money. When shopping for used cars, it is wise to create a checklist of hot-point issues most important to you before making a purchase.

Vehicle History Report

Vehicle history reports are run using the vehicle identification number (VIN) found on the dashboard of the car. Many used-car dealerships offer the reports at no cost to you. If you find a car that appeals to you, ask for the vehicle history report. It makes little sense to invest time into researching a vehicle if it has been involved in an accident or has had major repairs. Accidents are frequently covered up with bodywork, leaving unsuspecting or uninformed customers vulnerable to damaged wire malfunctions and other maintenance issues.

Exterior Inspection

Schedule an appointment to see a vehicle during daylight. Darkness or shoddy lighting may mask certain inadequacies such as rust. If a car’s paint is showing another color bleeding through underneath, ask why the car was painted. New paint could signify prior damage. Turn on the vehicle and inspect all lights and turn signals. If a light is not working, it could indicate a fuse issue rather than just a burned-out bulb. Open and close all doors to ensure there are no latching problems. Misaligned hinges or latches may indicate that a door was replaced poorly, likely after damage or an accident.

Interior Inspection

The interior inspection of a vehicle is primarily cosmetic, but be aware of some warning signs. Peel up the floor mats to see if there is any mold underneath. If so, that likely signifies previous water damage to the vehicle. Check the condition of the seat cushions and accessories within the vehicle. Although not important to the performance of the car, it may tell you how much the previous owner cared about the vehicle. Test all power windows and locks. Malfunctions could signal more serious mechanical problems. Also, test out the radio and look for any sun damage to the vehicle.


Take the car for a test drive. On your test drive, listen for any unusual sounds. Check for visibility issues; some cars are built with poor lines of sight that may not work for you. Also, make sure to test the brakes and steering with sharp turns. For your safety, this might best be accomplished in a vacant parking lot. Take the car onto the highway. Note how the vehicle merges and whether it can maintain higher speeds.


If you feel confident after test-driving the car and inspecting it, ensure the car has a clean title. If the owner or dealer owns the car outright, you can acquire the title at purchase. However, if an owner still owes money on the vehicle, the bank or financial institution that owns the title will not release it until any outstanding balance is paid. If the lien is greater than the amount the owner is receiving for the car, the owner will have to pay the remaining balance, meaning you will not get the title to the car until the bank releases it to the owner.