If you are reading this article, chances are, you have already narrowed down your used-car research to the final list of vehicles that you are interested in. If you are still at an early stage of searching for a used car, you might be interested in first checking out how to research for a used car and what the advantages and disadvantages of buying a used vehicle are.
Moving forward, it is necessary to go for a personal inspection before coming to a decision. Make sure not to base your verdict only on the looks. At times, you might find a car quite attractive and worth going for, but you might want to rethink your opinion after a careful inspection.
The biggest problem many of us face while inspecting a car at a dealership or at the seller’s place is how to make sure that we are not duped with a faulty car. Below are some easy steps to help you inspect a car thoroughly and more conveniently before you go for professional or outside help.
Even before you start...
Go for a sunny day!
It’s always better to go for a physical inspection during daytime, especially when there is bright sunshine. You will not be able to carefully check certain aspects such as paint and dents when inspecting a car in low-light conditions.
See it in the open
Make sure that you get the car parked at a place where you can get a complete 360-degree view. This will help you look from all possible angles and to inspect the vehicle thoroughly. If it is parked towards a wall or on an uneven surface, you can always ask the seller to drive it to an open area.
Go for level ground
Make sure that the car is on level ground so that you can check the straight-line areas better. Uneven surfaces make spotting deformities in places such as window panes and roof lines difficult.
Take somebody along
Two is always better than one. A companion – such as a friend, a relative or a known mechanic or car expert -- can offer extra insight or opinion on the car. Make sure to take someone who is at least concerned or even marginally interested in the task at hand. At times, taking someone totally uninterested along might demotivate you to finish things quickly.
Things you should carry
Before arriving at the seller’s site, make sure you have the items listed here with you:
- Notepad and pen or your smartphone, if you are comfortable storing details in it: For price calculation, noting identification number, mileage, and any other pointers that you might want to write.
- A torch or flashlight: Will help inspect hidden spots and the bottom of the car.
- A CD or USB with high bit rate music: Make sure to carry any of these with audio or video (if required) of high quality. Ideally, the MP3 tracks you store should be of 320 kbps bit rate to test the output of the music system better.
- An app for used cars: This can be a real godsend when you are stuck with pricing or any other details. The CarDekho app can help you find options in your vicinity, and to check and compare if you are getting the right deal or not.
Let’s start the inspection
Once you have gone through the checklist and pointers, start inspecting the car that you have zeroed down on. Each person has a different perspective on where to start, but we would recommend that you start from the exteriors.
Check out the exteriors first
1. Take a walk around
Before you arrive at a conclusion about spotting an irregularity or dent on the outside, it’s important to take a slow walk around the car and check the overall details. This should include a glance at particular areas such as the front bumper, headlights, grille, windscreen wipers, side turn indicators, wheel arches, windows and the boot. Look for any irregularity that can be detected at the first glance. If you spot something, feel free to notify the owner or the used car salesman about the part that you feel is not in perfect shape. If it’s a minor defect, such as a bruised edge on the bumper, or rubber cladding missing on the wiper, you can ask for a replacement once the deal is sealed. If you spot some major repairs, such as visible joints on the bumper or a big dent on the boot, it’s better to stop the inspection right there and start your search afresh.
2. Check for any paint difference and rust
This should ideally be done in broad daylight. Look into each panel of the car closely and try spotting a difference, if any, between the texture and the glare of the paint. For example, a repainted surface will shine more than the rest of the surface if the car is old. Always remember: the original factory paint has multiple levels of coating, which makes it quite smooth and linear. An aftermarket paint will always have a rough surface, which can be noticed easily. Check the paint on the joints and bolts as well. A repaint will somehow make the joint and bolt colour appear different from the rest of the body.
A re-painted car
A genuine factory paint
While checking for paint, scan corners, joints and under-body areas for rust as well. One should carefully examine areas such as the front cross-member as well as side sills. Use a flashlight if required. Cars which have withstood heavy rains or floods will show signs of rust and should be avoided.
Rust on the side
3. Check for any aftermarket body part or modification
At times, sellers sell their heavily modified cars after handling them roughly. Any modification parts such as custom exhausts, air filters, bent pipes or even raised-up suspension and aftermarket alloy wheels should be judged carefully. A heavily modified car clearly means that it has undergone rigorous driving, which could include off-road run, heavy acceleration and engine damage as well. Ideally, stay away from a car which is or was heavily modified. You can always crosscheck with the seller if you have any queries.
4. Inspect the car for major dents and repair work
Almost every car faces some dents and needs the smoothening of rough edges over the years of its running. This is especially true of the side doors and the front and rear bumpers. So, do not get too worried by minor scratches or dents, as they can be taken care of once you check with the seller. The major concern here is to not get conned for a car that has been involved in an accident, and which has been redone entirely.
Concern area on the side: Always inspect joints on the doors as well as under-the-side black plastic casing. By removing that, you will come across punching holes which are done from the manufacturer’s end. A car that has undergone major repair will either have a welding joint or it will be completely smooth, without any punching hole. This is how you can identify a car that has been in an accident, from the side.
Non-accidental car (with punching holes)
Accidental car with repair work done (without punching holes)
Concern area on the rear: To check for any major dents or repair work at the rear, lift the carpet floor on the boot and take out the spare tyre as well. Now, check the metal sheet floor just beneath the spare wheel for pasting areas. Pasting done from the manufacturer’s end will be a little rough and widespread. Whereas, if the car has been repaired majorly from the back, you won’t really find any pasting details, or if the repairer is smart, you may get a completely smooth surface which should again raise some eyebrows on the work done.
Check pasting under the spare wheel
Concern area on the top: Always inspect the roof properly by standing at a height from where you can see the roof clearly. In case of minor dents, feel free to check with the seller. But if you come across a major irregularity in the design, get the same thoroughly checked, and also look into the car’s history for any accidental damage. You must avoid a car that has a re-done roof covered in a vinyl or any other kind of casing or covering. Major roof damage is a clear sign that the car either toppled during an accident or something very heavy fell straight on top, damaging the car.
5. Check the make and year of the tyre
Ideally, all 5 tyres (4 + 1 spare) should be of the same brand, so that they are worn out and replaced almost at the same time. If you come across multiple-brand tyres, feel free to crosscheck with the seller for the reason behind it. The average life of a car tyre can be around 30,000 to 40,000 km, depending on the driving conditions as well.
Month & Year of manufacture
Tyres can also tell you a lot about the car and the way it has been maintained. Step closer and carefully inspect the side wall for the year of manufacture printed on the tyre. Almost all manufacturers brand their tyres with the month and year of manufacture. You can compare the year of tyre manufacture to that of the car and get a better insight on the running as well. If you are going for a car which has run more than 30,000 km, you should ideally get a new set of tyres from the seller. If there is a new set of tyres fitted to a car which has not even done 10,000 km, it calls for some suspicion. You need to ask the owner or the dealer for the reason behind the early replacement. This can be a sign of an accident car as well. However, there can be genuine reasons as well, for example a lot of surface punctures, side wall puncture, or even a tyre burst. So it’s always important to compare the age of the tyres with the age of the car.
Now go under the hood
Always remember that when you are going for a used car, you will encounter minor dents or some features that have been tampered with, and which do not function properly. Don’t worry, because all of that can be fixed or replaced easily, excluding one important part: the engine. If there is a defect or issue with the engine, don’t think twice about refusing the purchase. Open the bonnet of the car and spend some time looking around to inspect the things under the hood. You can focus on these areas:
6. Match metallic colour under the hood
The first sign of a damaged or accident car will be a repaint job done under the hood. Keeping the parts aside, first take a good look at the body colour under the bonnet. By body colour, we mean the metallic and fabricated parts of the car which will be painted in the same colour as of the car.
Note: There will be a marginal difference between under the hood colour and exterior paint; so do fret, since it is something that comes straight from the manufacturer.
Concern area: Check for colour mismatch for the metallic parts as well as for the fabricated joints at the corners. Original joints usually have a non-linear, rough surface with joint points clearly visible. If the car has been in an accident, chances are, the fabricator will do a great job in welding the joints back, but in a smooth manner.
7. Check the engine oil level
If engine is the heart of your car, then engine oil is the blood that pumps in and keeps it running. So it is very important to make sure that the engine oil level is adequate before you go ahead.
How to check engine oil level: Make sure that the car is cold and it’s not running. Take the transmission dipstick -- which is inserted on the side mounting of the engine -- out. You will come across two points marked on the dipstick. Ideal engine oil level should be up to the higher second pointer, which states ‘full’, and the colour of the oil should be as transparent as possible if the seller claims to have filled it recently. To check more efficiently, take the oil onto your fingers and rub it with your thumb. If you see a dirty grey color smudge and can only smell fuel, it means the car needs an oil change.
Ideal oil level should be till the second marker
Concern area: If you come across dirty or insufficient engine oil level, feel free to ask the seller to fill it up before you make the purchase. Ideally, go for a car which is newly serviced with all oil levels in place.
8. All fluids should be in place
Apart from the essential engine oil, always check for fluids such as brake fluid and coolant fluid levels, along with their colour and formation.
How to check brake fluid: Locate the plastic container on the side of the hood, called the brake fluid reservoir. Usually the reservoir is transparent and one can easily check the fluid level without opening it. Make sure that the level of the fluid reaches the max level as indicated on the reservoir or it is as close to it as possible. The colour of the fluid should be light to indicate good health. If you come across dark fluid, make sure to point that out and get it replaced before purchase.
Ideal Brake fluid level should be till the MAX indication on the reservoir
Always refill when fluid reaches the minimum level
How to check coolant: Coolant is important as it keeps the radiator cool even during extreme conditions. Just like brake fluid, coolant is also stored in a transparent plastic reservoir. Always make sure that the car is cold and is not running when opening the coolant cap close. A coolant is generally red, green, yellow or blue in colour. It can also be transparent at times if one is only using water as a coolant. After opening the cap, you can inspect if the coolant is losing colour or not. If it is, it needs to be replaced.
9. Free play in clutch wire
Make sure that the clutch wire attached to the clutch pedal inside the car has sufficient amount of free play, which ensures smooth and soft clutch usage. You can ask someone to sit inside the car and press the clutch pedal repeatedly when the car is stationary and the ignition is not ON. Pressing the clutch pedal will result in the clutch wire to run in a horizontal motion. You can feel the clutch wire assembly for free play. If it is not moving properly in response to the pressure of the clutch pedal when pressed, you can convey the same to the seller and ask for a replacement.
10. Soft hose pipe
The hose pipe connected to the engine should be soft. Check the same by pressing it gently when the car is cold and not running. Make sure that the pipe is not hard and it doesn’t have any cracks on the outside. Extensive running of the engine and rough usage could have led to wear and tear.
11. Stress-free belts
The use of belts on the engine can speak a lot about the condition of the car. Once the car is cold and not running, you can physically inspect the belts for wear and tear. Make sure that the surface of is smooth and there are no cracks or signs of being worn out. If engine belts are broken, it can prove to be fatal and very expensive to replace as well.
Let’s go for the interiors now
12. Feel the cabin first
Before you do anything else, step inside the car and just look around the cabin to see if you come across any irregularity in features or any other detail. Spend some time sitting at multiple seating positions, such as driver’s side, co-driver’s side and the back seat.
13. Check seat condition
Before you make yourself comfortable inside the car, it’s important to check the seats. Make a note of any stains, holes or scratch marks on the seats and bring it to the notice of the seller. Make the seats recline and retract them repeatedly to see whether the movement is smooth. Once you sit, check for cushioning and under-thigh support padding, to see whether it’s adequate.
14. Check every feature one by one
Do not hurry on to things by checking just the AC and the audio unit. Examine the dials and buttons on the central console, steering wheel, and on the instrument cluster as well. Then start using each feature one by one and check if it’s functioning properly.
15. Inspect all electrical equipment
Do not turn the ignition ON as of now, and operate in battery mode. Inspect all electrical fitments such as horn, headlights, turn indicators, electrical folding or operating seats, side mirrors, etc. Then turn the car ignition ON and check the features again. Make use of every electrical equipment listed on the car, including the power steering, even when stationary, by turning the steering wheel.
16. Check floor for rust or tampering
Clo sely examine the floor mats and check their condition. Once done, remove all the mats and check the floor of the car for any rust or additional tampering. Feel free to bend down and examine the entire floor for any unusual smell, dent or crack. If you do come across a foul smell, or a noticeable crack, it can be a sign of rust, flooding, or even heavy rains that the car has witnessed. Report it to the seller and ask for an explanation. Meanwhile, consult a mechanic to see if it can be fixed.
Some miscellaneous checks towards the end
17. Make sure it’s the right variant
Do not get conned by a false badge at the rear of the car. For example, if you are looking at a Maruti Suzuki Swift Vxi variant at a used-car dealership, make sure to compare the name of the variant with all the official papers of the car. At times, people get conned by a false badge at the rear, which might show a Swift Vxi (higher variant) despite being an Lxi (lower variant). There are brands that do not list the variant badge on the exteriors. For example, in case of a Volkswagen Polo, you will only find a TDI (diesel) or a TSI (petrol) badge on the boot with no mention of the variant. There are many variants within the same, such as Trendline (base model) and Highline (top model), which should be checked thoroughly by going through the official papers and comparing the listed features of the particular variant.
18. Make a note of all the readings during inspection
Whether you buy the car or not, it’s always important to take note of meter readings, such as trip and other details, when you go for an inspection. In case you end up liking that car, you should always know the exact readings of the car when you made the last visit. At times, vehicles on display are made to run a lot of kilometers in the interim period when they are waiting to be sold.
19. How to check odometer tampering
This is an important issue that haunts almost all used-car buyers. How do you ensure that the car you are going for has run the exact kilometres as listed on the odometer? As kilometres covered still remains a decisive factor for a purchase, it becomes imperative to cross-check for any fraud. On the technical side, it is almost impossible to check if the odometer, whether digital or a mechanical dial, has been tampered with.
Though not fool-proof, here are a few tricks to check for odometer tampering:
- Check past service records: This is one of the best ways to get an idea about the car’s driving history. Past service records will show the tenure and the kilometres done by the car. Compare the odometer reading with the numbers mentioned on the last service record.
- Check service and maintenance stickers: You can usually find stickers of inspection or service on the window corners, windshield corners or even under the hood. Look for them and compare the kilometre readings.
- Tyre running and make: As cited above, tyres can be of great help to compare the reading of the odometer to a roughly estimated usage. Check for tyre manufacturing year on the side wall and compare it with the car’s age. A new set of tyres lasts 30,000 to 40,000 km.
- Get a trusted mechanic’s help: Ask your mechanic to examine the car thoroughly. With his experience, a mechanic can easily identify whether the car’s condition matches the odometer reading.
- Enquire about the last owner: This is where you can roughly estimate how much the car must have been driven. If the last owner was into real estate or politics, you can guess that the running would be on the higher side (ideally 20,000+ km a year). On the other hand, if the last owner was a banker or a corporate employee, chances are, the car would have done average or below-average kilometres overall (between 10,000 and 15,000 km annually).
If the used car that you like passes all the above tests, congratulations! You have found a winner. Before you go ahead and seal the deal, or if you are confused between two cars, get behind the wheel and test drive the car before purchase. This is again an important exercise and should be done thoroughly. To help you with the same, do read our article on how to test drive a used car before purchase here and finalize the car that fits your needs.