How to Check a Used Car's Quality Without Paying a Mechanic

How to Check a Used Car’s Quality Without Paying a Mechanic

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Photo: hans engbers (Shutterstock)

It’s not your imagination—everything is more expensive than it used to be, but especially used cars. Once the safe harbor for folks without the savings and/or credit for a new vehicle, used cars are suddenly worth their weight in gold, and the internet is filled with horror stories of 2003 Camrys with 150,000 miles going for more than $6,000.

Buying a used car can be a significant gamble even when prices are down, because they’re, you know, used. Every used car is a mystery box. Unless you’re buying from a dealer offering a pre-owned certification and limited warranty, you can’t really know if the previous owner performed regular maintenance, spent their weekends doing wheelies in the local parking lots, or was owned by an amateur mechanic who strongly believe in the healing power of duct tape. The best way to deal with that anxiety is to hire a mechanic to give the car a pre-sale inspection. But if you’re already stretched to the limit just to afford the car, can you get away with doing your own?

The answer is a qualified “yes.” If you’re reasonably familiar with cars and comfortable doing some simple mechanical things (and willing to get your hands dirty) you can do a reasonable job of checking out a used car without paying a mechanic. A standard pre-sale inspection by a mechanic isn’t exactly a forensic examination of the car down to the molecules, after all—most of what a mechanic would do is easily within the average person’s capabilities.

Yes, a mechanic is always going to be your best choice before you drop several thousand bucks on a car. But if you absolutely need to save that fee, here’s what to look for when checking out a used car.

First, do your research

Before you even touch the vehicle, do your due diligence; you don’t need a mechanic to type some stuff into your computer. First, gather all basic info on the car: Make, model, year, and Vehicle Identification Number (VIN). Use this to check a few fundamental things:

  • Online reviews. See if there are any general issues with the model of car you should know about—common problems a lot of people are dealing with.
  • Recalls. See if there have been any recall notices on the car at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)’s site. Make sure all necessary repairs have been made—ask to see receipts.
  • Check the VIN. Head over to a site like Kelley Blue Book or Carfax and type in the car’s VIN. This will tell you if the car’s been in an accident or ever been “totaled” and marked as a salvaged car, or if the odometer has ever been rolled back.

Examine the exterior

One of the easiest ways to get a general sense of a car’s condition is the exterior. Obvious damage and rust is a red flag, of course—but there are subtler things to look for that can indicate the car was involved in an accident or has been poorly maintained:

  • Check the gaps between panels—if they’re uneven, it could indicate poor body work has been performed. If there’s no accident on the VIN report, something’s fishy.
  • Check the glass for cracks or chips. That might not be a deal-breaker, but it should factor into the price.
  • Is the paint finish consistent? Color and finish variations (e.g., rough spots) may also indicate the seller is hiding damage from you. Bubbling paint indicates a quick paint job over rust.
  • Do the doors, hood, and trunk open easily? Do they latch properly? Do the lights all work properly?
  • Check the tread on the tires with a depth gauge. If the tread is 2/32 inches deep or less, they’re worn, and their replacement should factor into the price. Check the tire pressure as well.
  • Check that the tires show even wear (all the same tread depth). Inconsistent wear might indicate suspension problems.
  • Speaking of suspension: Walk around and press down on the car at each corner. It should return to its original height smoothly. If this is inconsistent, the suspension might be shot.
  • Look under the car with a flashlight—is there a lot of rust or any indication of damage? Again, if there’s no accident on the report this is a bad sign, and a ton of rust doesn’t bode well for the longevity of the car.

Examine the engine

If the exterior looks OK, pop the hood and check a few basics:

  • Fluid levels. Look under the car to see if there are any obvious leaks, and make sure all levels (oil, transmission, coolant, brake) look good. Check that fluids are clean and free from sediment or debris.
  • Check the battery connections—are they rusted or corroded? This could be as easy as a cleaning and a new battery, but it’s something to note.
  • Make sure all hoses are in good shape—look for taped repairs or hoses that are brittle and stiff. Make sure the clamps are tight and in good shape.

Take it for a test drive

Finally, get in and drive the car. You’re going to want to take it on the highway for a short time in order to feel how it handles at high speeds, but first, check the interior. Are the seatbelts frayed? That might indicate the airbags discharged at some point—and it’s a safety concern either way. Make sure all the features are working unless something’s been disclosed—that includes the air conditioning, power anything, turn signals, app screen, gas tank and hood releases, etc. Basically, press every button and turn every switch to make sure it’s all working and there are no electrical issues.

Then take it for a spin. You’re obviously going to watch for any hesitation, rocking, misfires, backfiring, or other indications of engine trouble. If it’s a manual, you’ll want the clutch to feel springy and responsive. Make sure the power steering works smoothly, and do a few brake checks. Just as importantly, listen to and smell the car. A lot of problems announce themselves with noise and a burning smell.

Even a thorough check like this won’t be as good as a mechanic’s inspection, due to the simple fact that a qualified expert knows more about cars than you do, and works on them every day. But it should be good enough to avoid a total disaster when buying a used car—and it’ll save you a few hundred bucks.