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Used Car Inspection Checklist: What to Look Before Buying

Used car shopping can be a daunting experience. Not only are you searching for the best make and model that suits your lifestyle at a great price, you’re looking for something that will last. After all, you want to cruise down the road tapping your fingers on the steering wheel to your favorite song, not stuck on the side of the road with a broke down car kicking the tires in frustration.

Before you hand over a check or click purchase for your next vehicle, you’ll need to know what to look for when buying a used car to protect yourself from overpaying or getting conned into buying a lemon. 

When purchasing your car, knowing how to spot potential issues can save you from costly trips to the automotive repair center and major headaches down the road. Follow our handy used car check list to guide you through your shopping experience.

Reliability and Reviews

Research vehicles that have a reputation for good reliability and avoid makes and models that are known to have mechanical issues before you begin vehicle shopping. There are many websites dedicated to providing reviews and ratings on safety and reliability to help you along the way.

Used Car Inspection Checklist

No matter whether you choose to purchase the vehicle from a dealership, a private party, or through an online car sales company, you’ll need to get a good look at the vehicle first. Start off by walking around the vehicle, check under the hood, and take the car for a test drive. By doing so, this will give you the opportunity to spot any potential problems. Here’s what to look for when buying a used car: 


  • Body – Inspect the exterior including the body and paint of the vehicle. Minor scratches or dents shouldn’t be of much concern, but rust and larger areas that don’t look quite right could clue you in to any potential cover ups. For example, a vehicle that has been in a major collision and that has been repaired may show signs on the paint such as dirt spots, over spray, broken trim, blistering, or sand scratches. In some cases, you may also be able to identify mapping from body filler. Mapping is caused due to the excess use of body filler. Instead of correctly replacing a portion of a badly damaged area, often due to severe impact, body filler is used to fill in any gaps.
  • Tires – Check the condition of each tire and ask the seller if the tires have been rotated consistently. Look for obvious signs of wear such as bulges, cracks, scuffing, or uneven wear (uneven wear could indicate a suspension issue). Make note of the brand of all four tires, they should be the same. If they’re not, ask the seller about the inconsistency. Always check the tires when looking at a used car
  • Lights – Bring a friend or family member with you and have them confirm that all lights are in working order including the headlights, tail lights, high beams, and turn signals. Look closely at the headlight and tail light housings as well as the reflectors to ensure they are attached, do not have any cracks, or signs of moisture. 
  • Glass – Visually inspect the glass on the vehicle including the windshield and all other windows for cracks or divots. Minor chips or cracks are likely to worsen over time and should be discussed with the seller.
  • Suspension – Walk around the vehicle and inspect tire wear. Ensuring the vehicle is on solid ground, check to see if the vehicle sits level. Does one side look higher than the other? Take note during your test drive, did the front of the car dip down when you were braking? If you answered yes to either of these questions, there may be an issue with the vehicle’s suspension components. You can also test the vehicle’s suspension with a quick bounce of each corner of the vehicle. If the vehicle continues to bounce after you let go, this could mean the shock absorbers are worn.


  • Smell – When you first enter the vehicle, take a deep breath in and smell the interior as well as in the trunk area. If you notice a mildew, mold, or musty smell this could indicate flood damage or other water-related damages. If smells are identified, lift up the floor mats and check the carpet for moisture. Also, note any heavy use of air fresheners that may be used to cover up any foul odors. 
  • Dashboard – Place the key in the ignition and turn to the accessory mode or press the start button with your foot off the brake pedal and check the dashboard. All lights should come on and then immediately turn off. Start the car and check to see if any of the lights from the on-board diagnostic system remain on. 
  • Buttons & Accessories – Once the vehicle is running, turn the air conditioner on high and ensure it gets cold. Do the same with the heater. Check the windshield wipers, sunroof, radio, electric seats, windows and door locks, and other electronic devices within the vehicle.
  • Headspace – Check the headliner on the roof to ensure there are no rips or tears at the seams or in other areas. Look for signs of stains or water damage near windows and the sunroof (if applicable). 

Get a Professional Under the Hood

Used Car Inspection ChecklistBefore the sale is complete, you’ll need to take the vehicle to your trusted automotive service center for a final inspection. Take the vehicle to a trusted mechanic or automotive service center for a complete inspection of the vehicle.

While you may be able to spot more obvious concerns, an automotive technician is trained to identify potential problems. As an impartial party, a technician will give you their honest opinion on whether the purchase is a sound investment, recommend negotiating a better price, or to decline the purchase and continue your search.

A dealer should allow you to borrow the vehicle for an inspection, however if they are reluctant to let you go and insist they have already completed an inspection, you may want to consider walking away. Likewise, if a private seller dissuades you from taking your vehicle to a shop, reconsider the trustworthiness of the seller.

Once the vehicle is inspected, request a written report detailing the vehicle’s condition with recommendations and costs of potential repairs to show the seller. Remember, if something doesn’t feel right or the deal seems “too good to be true,” it probably is. It’s okay to walk away and find something else. 

Looking to purchase a used car? Let Sun Devil Auto perform your next vehicle’s pre-purchase inspection. We offer a no-cost inspection that includes a test drive and a check of all systems including:

  • Condition of belts and hoses
  • Cooling system including the radiator
  • Check of all fluids including levels and condition
  • Charging system including battery and alternator
  • Brakes
  • Suspension
  • Air conditioner
  • Fuel system

Sun Devil Auto has locations all over the Phoenix-Metro area. Whether you’re purchasing a vehicle in Phoenix, Tempe, Scottsdale, Paradise Valley, Mesa, Gilbert, Chandler, Fountain Hills, Maricopa, Queen Creek, Cave Creek, Glendale, Sun Lakes, or Sun City West, we have a Sun Devil Auto near you to complete your used vehicle inspection. With Sun Devil Auto on your side, you can rest assured your next vehicle purchase will be a pleasant experience. Give us a call or schedule your appointment today!