Top 10 Items to Inspect Before Buying a Bad Used Car

Buying a used car instead of a new car can save you thousands of dollars. But if you buy the wrong car, it can actually end up costing you a lot more in the long run.

Ending up with a rebuilt wreck or salvaged vehicle is not as uncommon as you may think. That's because it's difficult to spot the bad cars from the good ones.

Even if you buy a vehicle that's known for its dependability and reliability doesn't guarantee that's it's going to be a good vehicle or it's not been wrecked and put back together in the past.

You should always do your research before buying a new or used car. The two additional things I've always highly recommended to my readers when buying a used car is:

  • 1) Have the vehicle put on a lift and inspected by a certified mechanic.
  • 2) Get and review the used car's vehicle history report.

Doing these two things will greatly decrease the chance of you purchasing a bad vehicle and keep you from paying costly repair bills in the future. The mechanic can tell you if the vehicle has had any physical damage and the mechanical systems are in working order. The vehicle history report will tell you if there's any discrepancies in the title or odometer history.

Before spending money on a mechanic and a history report, here are 10 things you can do to pre-inspect a vehicle to make sure you're not buying someone else's nightmare.

How to Inspect a Used Car

  • 1) Visually Inspect up close - Look for paint lines created by masking tape around windows, fenders, trunk, and engine compartment. Run your finger nail across the paint line to see if your nail catches on it. Keep an eye out for any scratches, dings, or dents in the body. Also look for signs of rust in the creases or folds.
  • 2) Check out the paint work - Inspect the paint and watch for runs, sanding marks, trash in the paint, or orange peel (wavy lines that look like an orange). Look for overspray dust on the tires, glass, muffler, inside the door jambs, or on the mechanical systems under the vehicle. Step back from the vehicle and make sure the paint finish is uniform and even. It's not uncommon to see a door or trunk hatch a slightly different color than the rest of the vehicle.
  • 3) Bondo magnet test - Bring a small magnet with you. If you notice paint work from the signs above. You can use it to run across the suspect area. If the magnet doesn't pull towards the car, there may be bondo or body filler in that area, indicating the vehicle has been repaired. You can also do a "tap-test" with a dime. You can hear the difference in the sound when a dime hits metal versus hitting bondo.
  • 4) Uneven gaps - Look at the gaps between the hood, doors, fenders and trunk area. These gaps should be straight and even. If not, the vehicle may have been put back together incorrectly.
  • 5) Check the muffler & tailpipe - Check the underside of the muffler. Make sure there's not a hole in it. You should also inspect the tailpipe for any greasy or black residue. This may indicate the vehicle is burning oil and this could be very costly in the future.
  • 6) Look at the engine compartment - Inspect the engine compartment. Look for socket marks on the bolt heads where the fenders had been repaired. Check for paint lines and overspray on the inside of the fenders. Look at the underneath side of the hood for any anomalies. Look for any unnatural welds, damage, rust or repairs from the vehicle being in an accident. Also inspect for any packed mud or debris where it shouldn't be.
  • 7) Moisture in the lights - Look for moisture and condensation in the headlights and tail lights. Although it may not mean the vehicle has been underwater, it's a good sign that if you like the vehicle, you may want to investigate further.
  • 8) Uneven wear - Really look at the tires. If the tread is uneven, it could mean the vehicle has alignment problems. These problems may extend much further than just "needing an alignment." These problems can be minor or can be as bad as having a bad frame, keeping the vehicle from ever being aligned correctly. Make sure you test drive the vehicle, especially if the vehicle has brand new tires.
  • 9) Rust and Corrosion - Check any folds and crevices that may hold standing water. Look for surface rust on bolt heads and hinges in door jambs. Inspect under the vehicles carpet and look at where the seatbelts connect to the floor. Another good place to look is in the trunk where the spare tire is located.
  • 10) Smell is a dead giveaway - When opening the vehicle for the first time, take a huge deep breath when entering the vehicle. A moldy or musty smell is a good indicator the vehicle has been submerged in the past. This will also work with the trunk area of a vehicle.

These telltale signs will decrease your chances of buying a bad used car, but they're not a substitute from having a mechanic check out the vehicle and reviewing the vehicle's history before you buy it.

If you're in the market for a used car, I recommend using an online listing service like Edmunds and TrueCar to research and compare vehicles online. These sites will allow you to see what others are paying for the same vehicle you're considering in your local area. You can even request a free no-obligation price quote from a dealership once you find a vehicle you'd like to purchase.