How TO Safely Purchase Pre Owned Vehicles by Tom Holland

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Buying a used car or truck is the biggest gamble most people will ever take.  You have to ask yourself; why did the last owner get rid of the car or truck you are now considering to a purchase?  Sometimes, there are no issues, other times there are.  People sometimes trade because they like having a newer vehicle.  The car or truck they replace is seldom more than gently broken in.  Other times however, people trade because there car or truck is a nightmare.  You really have no idea which. 

It is strongly suggested that you retrieve a CARFAX vehicle report on any used car or truck you purchase.  Most reputable car dealerships offer these reports free of charge.  However, individual owners rarely offer such assistance requiring the buyer to perform all of the leg work. 

If you are preparing to purchase a used vehicle, allow me to make a few suggestions.  When you arrive at the car dealership or meet with an individual buyer, be prepared to perform a thorough inspection of the vehicle you are considering. 

My suggestion is you take along four things; the list of items I have prepared for you to check off, a pair of garden gloves, paper towels or a rag you don’t mind getting soiled and a magnet (business card size).

When you find the vehicle you want inform the buyer that you want to inspect the unit for reliability, mechanical concerns and possible body damage.  If the buyer hesitates you should immediately dismiss the vehicle.

The following is a list of areas you should check.  I recommend you print these items and take them with you when you go out to search for your dream car.


            Before you do any inspection I suggest you put on your gloves and have your grease rag and magnet handy.  Now that you’re ready let’s begin by looking at the front of the vehicle:

“Obvious” front end damage isn’t always so “obvious.”  Start at the front of the vehicle.  Once there, you will need to back up ten to twenty feet and kneel down so you can look under the front of the of the vehicle. Make sure everything is in order with no hoses, belts or lines hanging down.  Also look for major impact damage that is often caused from having the car’s undercarriage scrape as it travels too rapidly through dips.  When you notice problems such as these you should be painfully aware that if any vehicle hits the road surface or any other item with enough force to cause surface damage there is a good chance that more serious problems may have also been created.

            While looking under the car or truck you should inspect the front cowl.  Most vehicles today have a front cowl which protrudes downward underneath the very front of the vehicle. This is a long thin piece of plastic or rubber that spans the width of the vehicle.  You need to be aware that people routinely damage these items, and if they are torn, broken or are not connected in accordance with factory specifications that the least of your problems will be reduced fuel efficiency. However, if the item in question comes loose when you are driving, and worse still, falls off, it could create a safety hazard.  Besides possibly interfering with your ability to control the vehicle, it may cause serious damage to the undercarriage or to hoses, pipes, lines or fittings.  Scrutinize these front cowls on the vehicles you inspect.

            While looking under the vehicle, I suggest you try and establish whether or not there are any oil leaks.  The best thing to do is to locate a “spot- free” area of pavement and move the vehicle in question to that location and allow it to sit for ten minutes.  If there is an oil leak, it will make itself known in that time span.

UNDER THE HOOD:           Repaint/Body Work

            Once you have looked under the front of the vehicle you will need to open the hood.  Check the safety catch to insure that it is in good working order.  If a vehicle has suffered front end damage, sometimes when the vehicle is repaired, the safety catch may not be repaired to perfect working order.

            Next, open the hood all the way.  Here you should begin to inspect for “overspray,” an obvious sign that the vehicle has been painted.  Overspray is a fine mist of paint that collects on many areas of the vehicle that are not properly taped off during painting.  Of course, you should understand that if the vehicle you look at has been painted you can feel almost certain that it has also been wrecked.  Look at the nuts and screws which help hold the vehicle together, if the vehicle has not been rebuilt from an accident, then these fasteners will be coated by the same paint and dip process as the panels which them hold together.  If the bolts, nuts and washers look new, you have to ask yourself why?

            Next, inspect any rubber seals close to the windshield for signs of overspray.  Look at the grill area for reconstruction or overspray.  Check around the headlamp bezels and anywhere else metal meets with rubber, plastic, chrome or glass.

Check to see whether or not the vehicle has a sound insulation pad.  This pad, which is connected to the underside of the hood, works not only as a sound dampening device but is often fire retardant.  The design is such that should a fire erupt in the engine well, the small plastic fasteners holding the pad in place will melt, causing the pad to fall and hopefully smother, block or extinguish the fire.  If the pad is not connected properly or if a number of the grommets are missing, then this could possibly mean the pad wasn’t reattached after some type of damage repair. You can also look to see whether or not the sound insulation blanket is soiled with any oil or oil by products.  If oil is present on the blanket, there must be a reason.

The Engine Well:

Look at the engine itself.  If there is excessive grime or oil buildup on the intake manifold around the gasket areas, then there is a definite possibility for an oil leak.   Ask the owner to steam clean the engine and then look at the engine after the vehicle has been driven for one week.

Oil Dipstick:

            The next thing you should do is check the oil dipstick. You should check for metal filings which may be clinging to the dipstick.  Very small (minute) sandy grit on the dipstick is normal. 

            I spoke of three items earlier you would need to conduct your vehicle inspection.  A few moments ago we discussed the necessity of putting on your gloves, now we need to make certain we have a couple of paper towels or grease rags.   

Feel of the oil.  If you notice metal filings, other than minute grit, you need to expect that this is quite possibly a sign of premature or excessive engine wear.  This grit is normally due to valves or pistons shaving, cylinder walls scoring and the like.

            Next, you should look at the dipstick.  Should you notice a cake like deposit or scorching (bluing) on the stick itself that this normally indicates one of four things: 1) the engine has run consistently hot, 2) the engine has been run without proper maintenance, 3) the engine has been operated below a proper oil level; or 4) the vehicle has been operated under a heavy load use not recommended by the manufacturer.

Transmission Dipstick:        

Next remove the transmission dipstick.  Once again, feel for metal filings.  Again, as with the oil dipstick, minute sandy grit can be normal.  You should also be on the lookout for pinkish bubbles or a bubbled deposit in the transmission oil.  You should also smell the transmission oil, if it has a burnt toast smell you are probably looking at a vehicle with a questionable transmission.  As with the oil dipstick, you should check the transmission dipstick for caking or bluing. 

            Anytime you notice any of these items separately or in any combination you run the risk of purchasing a vehicle with transmission problems that have a high likelihood for failure.


            When you put the transmission dipstick back in place focus your attention on the upper and lower radiator hoses:  These hoses should be soft and supple.  If however you should be on guard against hoses that are excessively hard, brittle or contain minute cracks.  If you notice hoses in the latter shape, you should be aware that this vehicle has a tendency to run extremely hot, possibly due to; 1) being used too often under excessive loads, 2) improper cooling capability; or 3) or has been abusively driven at high RPM’s.


When you have finished pointing inspecting the hoses, shift your attention to the radiator coolant overflow reservoir. You can also look inside the radiator itself if the engine is cool.  What you should be looking for here is an oily deposit or buildup on the interior walls of the recovery tank.  This buildup will form a ring in the recovery tank at the height where the water is constantly filled.  If you can remove the radiator cap you can look for a similar buildup in the lip of the radiator fill area.

            If you should notice any of these signs that it is possible that oil could be entering the coolant system via a bad head gasket.  That’s the good news.  At worst, this could mean that coolant is penetrating the internally lubricated portions of the engine, which in turn can cause extensive ring, piston, valve, crankshaft and overall excessive engine damage.

Belts and Pulleys:

Look for excessive wear and glazing.  There should not be over ½ inch of play (you should not be able to pull the belt more than ½ inch away from it’s normal position).  Excessive play could signal that the belt is old and worn out or it could indicate that there are problems in one of the vehicles important components, ie: the air conditioning compressor, the power steering pump, the alternator, the voltage regulator or other items which are belt driven.

Air Conditioning Compressor:

Until all of the old freon compressors are gone (the old R-12) system, and we turn to the more environmentally friendly new oil unit (the R-138a), you must be vigilant against bad air conditioning systems. 

            Check for play in the spindle (the part connecting the compressor to the pulley).  Make certain the connection is strong, without movement.  Look for oil around or above the compressor.  Freon and other coolants are oil based products.  A heavy black oily substance around the compressor is always a sure sign of trouble.  Check the fittings of the a/c system as it connects to the firewall.  Look for any oil deposits in that area as well.

            If you find any oil deposits, you are certain to have gaskets and/or seals which are leaking.  If you have leaks, you could possibly be facing a compressor replacement in the future.  There is no such thing as an inexpensive compressor replacement.  If the vehicle is outfitted with the old R-12 system, you may be exposed to a complete retrofit if there is failure.  Complete retrofit includes everything, including all of your hoses, lines, gaskets, seals and fittings. 

Air Cleaner Lid:

            Remove the air cleaner lid and be on the lookout for a glazed, oily deposit on the underside of the lid itself. 

            If you find this residue it means unburned gas is re-circulating back through the crankcase where it re-deposits on the lid of the air cleaner.  This is commonly referred to as “blow-by,” and is usually caused by bad rings, scored cylinder walls or warped pistons.

Fan Blade Spindle:

            This is only applicable to those vehicles which do not have electric fans.  You should be aware, most front wheel drive vehicles and many newer rear wheel drive products are going to the electric fan.

            However, on the older belt driven radiator fan you will need to check for vertical movement.  If the blade moves from its position then there is a possibility of worn water pump bearings and is indicative of certain pump failure.

Brake Master Cylinder:

            The last thing to look at under the hood should be the braking system.  Do not under emphasize the importance of good braking.  You can easily inspect any master cylinder for leaks.  All you need to do is look for deposits of oil gathered around the cylinder or the lines connecting to the cylinder. 

            If you see any excessive deposits you should be aware of weakened lines, worn seals and gaskets, hydraulic leaks and other hazards which could lead to an unsafe braking system.


Looking for Mr. Bondo:

During your walk down the passenger side of the vehicle you will need the third item I spoke of earlier – the magnetic, preferably one that is business card size.  By the way, you can purchase magnetic cards from almost any office supply store. 

The reason for the magnet is to try and identify areas that may be repaired with bondo, a fiberglass – putty type of material used in reconstructing damaged vehicles. 

Take your magnet and stick it to the side of the vehicle.  You should be aware that a small magnet, such as the one you are holding, will not adhere to a surface if that surface contains as little as 1/16 of an inch of plastic in the area the magnet is applied to.

            Make certain you apply the magnet to several areas of the vehicle.

            Utilizing the magnet isn’t the only way to spot possible body repairs.  You should also look for obvious mismatches in the paint color.  Sometimes it is apparent, at other times it only becomes discernible when looking at the differences between panels or doors. 

            Also, you should be on the lookout for a “washboard” effect down the sides of the vehicle.  This wavy feature is a dead give-away to previously repaired damage.

            Finally, look at the fit and finish to see if there are any misalignments or uneven spacing.  All of these items indicate repair and could be an announcement of serious previous damage.


            Take a penny from your pocket and inspect the tires for minimum acceptable wear.  Take the penny, place it head down into the grove between the tread.  If Mr. Lincoln’s entire head shows, then you have less than the required amount of 2/32 of an inch of tread.   These tires must be replaced in order to pass any state inspection.

Also you should be on the lookout for cupped or scalloped tires.  Look for uneven wear on the outside or inside of the tire.  Either way you could be faced with an alignment, tracking or more serious front end problem.  Uneven tire wear could be as simple as under or over inflation of tire pressure or as major as a signal of some type of serious front end damage left over from an accident.


A simple test to check the effectiveness of struts or shocks is to push down forcibly on one of the vehicle’s four corners.  If the vehicle bounces quickly back to its original position then the struts/shocks are in good shape.  However, if the car dips quite noticeably and then bounces a few times, the shocks/struts are in need of replacement.


Body Damage:

Once again, the emphasis is placed on insuring there is no previous damage.  Inspect the molding at the rear window and the tail lamp bezel assembly. 

            Look for correct alignment around the deck lid and to be certain to inspect the rear plastic and glass areas for obvious overspray.


Flood Damage:

The first thing you should do is inspect the trunk for dampness.  To do so you need only smell the trunk to see if there is a musty odor.  You can also pull the spare tire from its well and check for dampness.  If there has been an occasion where water collected in the trunk, it will be noticeable in the spare tire well. 

            It’s also a good idea to pull the carpet away from the walls.  You will be looking for a waterline. If there is one, and from time to time you will find it, then the vehicle is a flood vehicle.  Obviously it would be ideal to find a trunk both free from odor and completely dry.

Spare Tire:

            Check the spare tire.  Has it been on the ground?  Is it operational?  Do you have the necessary tire changing tools in the trunk area?

Body Damage:

            Inspect the rest of the trunk for possibility of body repair.  When you peel back the wall carpeting, you should not notice anything other than a smooth interior wall, with the possible exception of sound dampening materials. 

Butyl Rubber Stripping:

Check the butyl rubber stripping around the lip of the trunk opening.  Is it still supple?  Has it been torn, abused or mistreated?  Does it have areas which allow leaking and possibly lead to damage of cargo you may carry?



When you open the door of the vehicle compare the door-plate with the dash-plate.  The vehicle identification number is attached to both areas of the vehicle and they should be identical. 

            Inspect for altered or different numbers, but also be on the lookout for plates which have obviously been fraudulently affixed.

            Because the door-plate is never to be removed from the vehicle, this is a perfect location to be on the lookout for paint overspray.  Check the butyl rubber seal around each door opening.  Are the seals supple, with no visible damage?  Is there any apparent overspray?

Fit and Finish:

            Once past the door opening you will need to inspect the interior for tight fitting headliners, good fitting carpets, matching floor mats, as well as no rips, tears or burn holes in the interior seating area.           

            Make sure to inspect that all components are present and operational.  Check the window lifts at each window, power or manual.  Check the operation of door locks at each door.  Make certain inside and outside mirrors operate properly.  Inspect rear window defrosters as well as any other power features such as seats, moon roof, antennas and the like.  You should also check the sound system and be certain all speakers are operational.  It is a good idea to carry a CD with you that you can play.  I suggest it be a CD you’re not real attached to as some of these systems will simply capture your CD and never return it to you.


Obviously, the last thing you want to do is start the vehicle. You should step to the back of the vehicle again.  Ask the seller to start the vehicle.  You should be watching for smoke.

            The vehicle should not emit any smoke with the exception of an immediate passing of condensation as the vehicle starts.  This would be seen as a very momentary puff of whitish steam.  However other types of smoke give clues to problems.

Momentary Black Smoke:

            If short burst of black smoke projects from the tailpipe it simply means the fuel-to-air mixture is a little rich.

Continuing Black Smoke:

Should the black smoke continue, it means the fuel-to-air mixture is too rich.  This can lead to carbon build-up and poor fuel economy as well as reduced power efficiency.

Continuing Black & Oily:

This is more serious than carbon build-up, here you are talking about bad piston rings which will waste fuel and oil and lead to excessive engine wear and reduced engine life.

Constant Whitish Smoke:

You’ve got an oil burner on your hands here.  You already have engine damage caused by mistreatment.  You may need a major engine overhaul or at the very least a ring job to correct this problem.

Constant Whitish Steam:

            This indicates that you may have a cracked block, a cracked combustion chamber or a bad head gasket.  Still, it is not a win-win situation for the buyer.

Checking the Tailpipe:

Your final act should be to inspect the engines valve train.  By holding a dollar bill flat against the tailpipe, with the engine running, look to see if the tailpipe either blows the dollar bill away from or sucks the bill into the tailpipe.  If the bill seems to be getting sucked into the tailpipe, then you have a bad valve in the engine.  This calls for major engine repair.

            If you carefully inspect your next used car it can turn out to be an extremely wise decision as you will not be stuck with post-purchase problems.

            If you are still unsure of the vehicle, it is always good to get a trusted mechanic to give the vehicle a thorough inspection.

            Good luck on your next purchase and may you have many years of care free driving. 

            For more information on buying or selling cars you can contact me directly at


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