Step 4: Test Drive & Inspection: How to inspect a car in person (or by remote PPI) and how not to be taken for a ride on the first date. We give you the goods on what to do when you take a look at the car you are buying — including key items you always want to check and a detailed checklist of other things you need to look at.
You may have noticed that we published part 1 of DT’s 6-part series on How to Buy a Used Car
but we got busy with other things and have neglected to publish the
next parts as promised. We have no excuse other than being busy, but to
the rescue comes Ian and Kim Lomax, founders of Jewel or Jalopy who
offered to write up part 4…well…as they say in the vending machine industry…better out of order than out of mind!
Words and Photos By Ian and Kim Lomax of JewelorJalopy.com
After scouring the Internet, you’ve finally found a car for sale that
looks promising. You’ve emailed the seller or talked to them on the
phone and confirmed that the basic details of the car are right and that
the seller is not completely nuts. Things are looking good! But,
what’s the next step?
Get some eyeballs on the car pronto
time to either head out and see the car for yourself or send someone
knowledgeable to check out the car for you. We all know that buying a
car sight unseen is a huge risk. You could be out several thousand
dollars and weeks (or worse, months) of your time if the car turns out
to be not what it seems. The photos in an online ad never tells the
whole story and can easily hide cosmetic, structural, and mechanical
The advice given here assumes that you have a certain level of car
know-how, are comfortable checking out the car yourself or giving
directions to a knowledgeable person that is going in your place. (DT expert tip – be sure to understand everything you can about weak points of a particular car make/model from the internet before doing any inspection, use vehicle specific forums, it can save you major headaches later).
you need a hand with the inspection or if the car is not located down
the street, consider hiring a knowledgeable car enthusiast through Jewel
or Jalopy to go with you or in your place.
If you are heading over to check it out for yourself, here’s what we recommend:
you set up a time to see the car, ask the owner to let the car sit
overnight and not to start the car before you arrive. (DT expert tip, bring along a small tool case, strong magnet, weak magnet, big screwdriver, old floormat or blanket) Then…
early. Is the car’s hood cool to the touch? Has it been started? If
the owner conveniently forgot your request to not start the car until
you arrived, it could be a warning sign that he is trying to hide
something. By arriving early, there’s also a chance that you might find
the owner fiddling with an iffy part of the car to make sure that it
doesn’t blow the whole deal. Don’t be a jerk about showing up early –
if he’s not ready to show you the car, politely tell him that you’re
happy to wait until the agreed time and use the time to review questions
that you have about the ad and known issues for that make or model.
TIME TO CHECK OUT THE CAR
Now, check out the overall condition of the car before you start the engine or drive it.
methodical. It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of looking at
a car you want. Use a checklist to make sure you look at all the
possible issues with the car and have a place to note any problems.
Were these mentioned by the owner in the ad or during your phone or
email conversation? Note questions to ask.
Walk around the car
and check each body panel one by one, making notes and taking photos of
any issues that you find. Check under the hood, in wheel wells, and in
the trunk for signs of accident damage, including welds that look
different, signs of Bondo, rippled panels, different shades of paint,
paint overspray, scratched fasteners, or panels that don’t seem to line
up right. If you’re in doubt, take a photo of the panel. Photos tend
to catch different shades of paint and you can always call the owner
later and ask more about that area.
Check for rust, especially if the car has lived in the Rust Belt or near
the ocean. Even newer cars might suffer from rusted bolts and
fasteners, which will making working on the car a chore. Older cars
with signs of rust might have major structural issues in addition to
cosmetic concerns. Removing rust properly then repainting the car is
expensive and time consuming – at least know what you’re getting
Check the tires. Are all four tires from the same
brand? If not, are they at least matched pairs? Non-matching tires is
a sign of cutting corners on maintenance. Are the tires wearing evenly
or do they have odd wear patterns? This could indicate worn out
suspension components at a minimum or, even worse, that the car’s frame
Check the interior for signs of wear or areas that
need repair. If the seller is saying that the car has low miles, does
the interior match the claim? Are there any panels that are loose or
missing? Grease stains? Cigarette burns? Worn pedal pads? Check the
ashtray or cigarette lighter for signs of smoking in the car. Does the
headliner sag? Check each door handle and door lock for proper
operation, and roll down the windows if they are manual to check the
window regulators. Warped door panels are a sign of water intrusion.
If you suspect the doors or top were leaking check the carpet for mold,
mildew, or rust. Has the dashboard been hacked for a modern radio? Is
there a rat’s nest of wires and electrical tape under the dash that
indicates future wiring issues? (DT expert tip: even if you are an expert on a particular car, don’t tell the seller you know everything about the make/model, ask lots of questions and leave awkwardly long pauses and wait for him/her to fill it with more data for you.)
Don’t forget to check the trunk and make sure it has a spare, jack, and
toolkit. Also check in the spare tire well for signs of water intrusion
Once you’ve checked out the interior, it’s time to
look under the hood. Look for signs of oil or coolant leaks, or signs
that the owner has tried to recently clean the engine bay to hide
issues. Check the fluid levels. If any of the fluid levels are low it
might indicate a leak. How clean is the brake fluid, power steering
fluid, coolant, and oil? Check under the oil cap for “milkshake” (that
thick, brownish goo that develops when oil and water emulsifies), which
might indicate issues with the head gasket. Are the belts and hoses in
good condition? Are any of the wires disconnected or spliced? Can you
see obviously new parts like a shiny new water pump? Has the owner
installed aftermarket equipment like an electronic ignition system or
aftermarket air cleaner? If so, is the original equipment included? Is
the fan shroud present? If the car is from the late 1970’s, is the
smog equipment present? It’s easiest to get a good look at all of these
things while the engine is cold so that you don’t burn yourself. And
bringing a flashlight, rags, and gloves will go a long way towards
helping you find issues while keeping you clean.
general areas that apply to all classic cars. Each type of car will
have its own unique issues to watch out for as well.
TIME TO START THE CAR
Once you have checked over the car while it is cold, it’s time to start it and take it for a test drive.
Does it start easily or does the owner need to give you a 12 page instruction book to get it started? Now that you can see how easy (or difficult) it is to start, look for telltale signs of smoke that might indicate worn rings, valve guides, or leaking intake gaskets that only appear when the engine is cold. (Having another person stand behind the car can be a big help as it is often difficult to see a puff of smoke from the driver’s seat.) Blue smoke indicates the engine is burning oil, black smoke usually means that the engine is running rich, and white, sweet-smelling smoke indicates burning coolant. On an older car a small puff of smoke is expected, but much more than that could indicate a problem. (DT expert tip: drive up and down a big hill. Uphill, check smoke at wide-open-throttle (piston rings) and check for leaking valve stem seals by engine braking down the other side of the hill. At the bottom, jump out (please set e-brake and curb wheels!) to check the tailpipe for smoke.)
Does the car run well while cold? Listen for a rough idle and (depending on the condition of the car) note whether or not you have to hold the throttle open so that it doesn’t stall. Does it idle well or does it need help to stay running? On a carbureted vehicle, does it settle into a high idle when cold, then drop when you kick it down? On newer cars a rough idle could indicate intake gaskets that have dried out and shrunk, leading to vacuum leaks. On older cars, a worn out or out of tune carburetor might not idle properly. Don’t let it idle too long: you want to drive it to see how it runs when cold.
TIME TO GET BEHIND THE WHEEL & TAKE IT FOR A TEST DRIVE
Driving the car around the block is not going to clue you into issues that show up around 60 MPH, so make sure that you take the car out on a highway for a few miles to see if it has any suspension issues and to make sure it doesn’t wander. Make note of any strange noises from the suspension. Test the brakes to make sure they work and that they don’t pull – and make sure you do this well before hitting the highway! Make sure that there isn’t a lot of play in the steering wheel. (DT expert tip: Test drive lots of vehicles (friends, neighbors, parents, cars with problems, cars without) and eventually you will be able to tell the difference between a failed giubo, unbalanced wheel, out-of-round rim, bad wheel bearings, bad CV joint…don’t expect to be able to read about these problems and detect them in the car, experience is king)
We also recommend letting the owner drive for a bit, so you can listen for any strange noises and feel for any suspension issues while you let them focus on driving. You will also get a peek into how the car was driven while they owned it.
Make any notes of issues you found while driving or use the time while the owner is driving to make some notes.
Once you get back from the test drive and while the car is still running, test all the electrical systems. Give everything a try: windows, mirrors, seats, wipers, defroster, A/C, fan, heater, lights, etc. Anything you find that is not working can be used in the final negotiation. If you do find any issues and the owner blames it on a bad fuse, open the fuse box and check. Fuses don’t blow by themselves: a blown fuse means you have an issue somewhere. Leaving the car idling also lets you test the cooling system, as a marginal fan or radiator might overheat while idling. Just keep an eye on the temperature gauge to see if it creeps up while idling.
TIME TO ASK FINAL QUESTIONS
Now is the time to ask the seller about the issues that you found on your inspection.
The longer you can keep the seller talking, the better. Information will start to leak out. Ask a question, wait for the answer, then be quiet and let them talk. Most sellers will try to fill an uncomfortable silence and will often reveal more than they were planning to tell. We tend to ask about details mentioned in the ad to confirm the ad, but also to gauge how well the owner knows the car.
We also like to reconfirm information that is listed in the ad or mentioned on the phone to see if the story changes between the time the seller wrote the ad, talked to you on the phone, and when you showed up to look at the car in person. The way a seller answers questions is often as informative as what they say, so watch them while they talk to them.
Make sure to ask the owner as many questions as possible, including:
How long have you owned the car? Why did you decide to sell the car?
Do you have the title in your possession? Is the title “clean”? Is it currently registered?
Has the car been in any accidents while you owned it? Do you know of any previous accidents?
Does the car have any issues that you know of that need attention?
When was the oil changed last? Do you have maintenance records from when you owned it from a previous owner?
Be ready to ask questions for that specific make or model:
“I know that many BMWs have issues with their cooling system. Has the car ever overheated?
“I know that with classic Mustangs of this age, rust in the cowl area can be an issue. Do you know whether this has been addressed?
“I know that many Alfa Romeos can have head gasket issues. Has the head gasket ever been replaced?”
We hope that this guide will help you to determine the overall condition of the car. From here, you should now have enough information to decide to walk away, start negotiating with the owner on the price, or get a full mechanical inspection.
Next up: the negotiation.
About Jewel or Jalopy:
Need help inspecting a car that is down the street or across the country? Jewel or Jalopy is a network of car enthusiasts ready to help with a pre-purchase inspection! Our enthusiasts range from shade tree mechanics to ASE certified mechanics and from well-known automotive journalists to esteemed concours judges. Search for and hire a knowledgeable car enthusiast to come along for the inspection or to go in your place. If you’re a car enthusiast, create a profile that showcases your car knowledge and start earning money from your car knowledge. Learn more at: www.jewelorjalopy.com.
DT editor: Huge thanks to Ian and Kim Lomax for writing up this piece – got something to add? Comments below.