Mechanical Used Car Inspection Tips

Checking under hood


‚ÄčIn this section, you will find detailed used car inspection tips to help you evaluate the mechanical quality and condition of a pre-owned car.  Please note — if you are not qualified to perform inspections, use this information as a resource to guide you through an informal, personal inspection first. 

Then, we strongly recommend hiring a certified mechanic to perform an official used car inspection prior to purchase.  
 

Appearance

Start by examining the appearance of the engine for signs of fresh oil or leaking fluids.  Even though the engine may be dirty, it doesn't necessarily indicate a problem.  However, oil and fluid leaks could.  And don't forget to check for cracks in the belts and hoses.
 

Exhaust

Turn on the engine and ask the seller to press the accelerator while the car is in park.  Gray or black exhaust smoke could indicate the need for a tune up.  Blue or blue/white smoke could indicate the car is burning oil which can be a costly engine repair.
 

Fluids

If you're familiar with the process of checking fluids, remove the oil dipstick and examine the oil level to ensure it's at or immediately near the full line.  Inspect the color also.  Normal, clean oil should be light brown in color. Check the transmission fluid level and color too.  Normal, clean transmission fluid should be pink to light red in color. And be sure to smell the oil and the transmission fluid.  If they smell burnt, the car may have an engine problem.  Remove the radiator cap, check the level of coolant and examine its color. There should not be a milky layer of film or particles of rust inside.
 

Idling

Listen to the engine as it idles.  It shouldn't knock, ping or hesitate when you rev the engine and when you turn off the engine, it shouldn't backfire.
 

Instruments

Turn on the ignition and examine the instrumental panel, including the gas gauge, the speedometer, the tachometer and warning lights.  Warning lights that remain on after a vehicle is started can indicate a mechanical problem.
If oil pressure is low or an engine component isn't functioning properly, warning lights will let you know, especially on newer model used cars.
 

Leaks

Examine the ground at the front and back of the car for signs of fresh fluid leaks on the pavement.  Also, it's a good idea to check the motor for leaks around the hose connectors and engine seams.  Be sure to look under the front and back of the car to see if there are any fresh fluid drips on the pavement and don't forget to lift the hood and check the motor for signs of leaks around the engine seams and hose connectors. 
 

Noise

When idling and driving, the engine should operate quietly and smoothly.  Any loud noises, such as knocks or pings, could indicate an engine problem.
 

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