How to Check a Used Car for Sale

by Dan Ferrell

Finally, you have found the used car you really like. It is shiny and cute, and the flirtatious price is whispering, “Take me home.” Anyone would fall prey to its charms, no doubt. But before you hand in the money, there are some checks you need to perform to make sure this is not going to be one of those frustrating, disappointing or-worst yet-short-lived relationships.

Take a quick look around and make a note of body scratches, dents, paint and the tires' condition.

Open the hood and take a look at the engine compartment. Are the engine and accessories clean or covered in grease and oil? These could be an indication of how much care and attention the owner has given to the car’s engine. Look underneath at the underside of the engine. Is the underside of the engine or transmission wet? Can you see oil spots on the floor? Oil seal or gaskets may be leaking. Do not close the hood.

Get behind the wheel and read the odometer. Subtract the car’s model year from the current year and multiply the result by 12000-which is the average number of miles a typical driver puts on an engine every year. If the odometer reading is considerably higher than the result of your mathematical equation, this will tell you the extra work and wear the owner has put on the engine.

Apply the parking brakes, put the transmission on Park (automatic) or Neutral (standard) and turn on the engine. Stand next to the engine and listen carefully. If the engine idles roughly, it may need maintenance, but if you hear rhythmic knocking or ticking noises coming from inside the engine, it could be an indication of considerable internal engine wear, which may require serious attention.

Close the hood and take the car for a drive. The engine should feel smooth on acceleration, at cruising speeds and deceleration. If the engine stumbles, hesitates, surges-engine power fluctuates-or speeds up slowly, there might be fuel, ignition, emission control or mechanical problems.

Pay attention to the steering wheel action. If it feels hard on turning, has too much play or vibrates, it may be an indication of tire, steering or suspension problems. Are you still in love with this car? Go to the next step.

Take the car to an auto shop and have them perform a compression test-which will tell you the condition of the pistons, rings, valves and head gasket-and a vacuum gauge diagnostic-which may provide information on intake manifold gasket, exhaust restriction, valves, ignition and other internal engine components. The results will give you a close estimate of engine service life left before major repairs are needed.

About the Author

Since 2003 Dan Ferrell has contributed general and consumer-oriented news to television and the Web. His work has appeared in Texas, New Mexico and Miami and on various websites. Ferrell is a certified automation and control technician from the Advanced Technology Center in El Paso, Texas.

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