What to Look for When Buying a Used Car

I recently purchased a new to me sports car and I mostly knew what to look for when buying a used car. I did many things right when inspecting the car but as with most things, there was room for improvement.

Hopefully I can help save you from making similar mistakes which could either end up saving you a bit of money or a huge headache.

When looking for a previously enjoyed car, it would be a really good idea to come up with a general used car inspection checklist (I did do this).

After you have found a specific vehicle, it would be a good idea to research what specific things on that car should be inspected closer and add those specific things to your used car inspection checklist (I didn’t do this).

Creating a checklist does 2 things for you:

A: It helps you ensure you’ve covered your bases and ensures you didn’t miss anything potentially important so you can have peace of mind knowing everything important has been checked. 

B: If you do find any issues and they aren’t serious enough to pass on purchasing the car, this new found information could help you negotiate a cheaper price.

In my opinion you should never pay asking price as people typically ask for more than what they actually want for the car, expecting, someone will try to talk the price down. So there is usually wiggle room in the asking price.

General Used Car Checklist

This checklist is a general list of things to inspect that can be used for any car.

Some general things you would want to inspect:

  1. Inspect the vehicle on a level surface This will help you verify that all tires are holding air and allow you to see if the car is sagging in one corner, signifying that there may be an issue with the suspension or mounts.
  2. Inspect the exterior  – Try to see the car after it has been cleaned, this will give you a good visual of the paint job. Check for scratches, rust, dents. Check near seems for rough paint which could be over-spray from past body work which could have been from a prior accident the car was in.
  3. Check the tires – Check for matching tires and ensure they are worn evenly. Look at the surface of the tire and check for any balding on the inside or outside (bad alignment). Bad alignment can be caused by worn steering/suspension components, the pothole down the street or frame damage.
  4. Check Fluids – Make sure all of the fluid levels are full and look good. Ensure the fluids are not gritty and not a dark brown or black in color, if they are it is an indication that fluid should be replaced. Check for metal shavings in the oil and transmission fluid or saw dust in transmission fluid (not a joke, look up “used car sales – sawdust”) If you find metal shavings or sawdust this may be a good car to avoid. 
  5. Check for frame damage Never buy a car with frame damage. Check the saddle (connects the front fenders and holds the top of the radiator). It may be welded or bolted in. Inspect the bolt heads at the top of the fenders inside the hood; scratch marks indicates that the fenders have been replaced or realigned (after a potential crash).
  6. Check under the car – Check for black spots on the exhaust, could indicate a leaking exhaust pipe. Inspect the frame/unibody for any damage. Check the exhaust tip with your finger, grease here could mean potential engine trouble. Turn the car on, white vapor (not in a cold climate) is a bad sign too.
  7. Check the engines hoses and belts – The belts and hoses should be free from any cracks. Make sure the radiator hose is not soft.
  8. Check the engine and attached components for leaking – Look for any dark stains or wet spots on the engine block, this will indicate that there is a leak in a gasket somewhere and could lead to an expensive repair. Check the brake fluid, and reservoir to make sure they are not leaking.
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Specific Used Car Checklist

The General used car checklist is a great starting point but if you really want to protect yourself and ensure you are getting a good car instead of an expensive headache, you will want to add specific things to your used car inspection checklist that are known problems and common wear items for the exact car you are looking at purchasing.

Looking at buying a BMW M3? Check out BMW M3 specific forums such as http://www.m3forum.net/m3forum/index.php and look for specific problems that are known in the year of M3 you are getting.

Looking at buying a Porsche 944 or Porsche 944 Turbo? You'll find a great amount of information on what to look for at the Rennlist forums.

Porshce 944 Turbo
Porshce 944 Turbo

Here's a quick run down on some important things you would want to check on the 944:

Getting the car up on a lift for some of these checks is highly recommended.

  1. Timing Belt - The timing belt should be checked for cracks. If there are it should be replaced immediately as the engine is an interference engine and cause internal engine damage if the belt breaks.
  2. Tie Rod Ends - Inspect the tie rod ends and ball joints for cracked or missing protective boots. The ball joints are not replaceable on later model 944s. The control arms must be replaced or rebuilt.
  3. Heat Shields - Various heat shields are used to protect various components underneath the car. Each model of 944 varies, so research the one you are eyeing up and ensure all heat shields are in place. One of the most important components protected by a heat shield is the starter. It can fail in a short period of time if its heat shield is missing.
  4. Master and Slave Cylinder - Check the master cylinder and slave cylinder for leakage.
  5. Plug Wires - Due to the age of these cars rubber and plastic will commonly be brittle/cracked. Inspect the plug wires for brittleness or cracking.
  6. Oil Leaking - Check for leaking oil mainly around the oil pressure sensor, oil filter housing, front crankshaft seal and balance shaft seal. If the car is equipped with an external oil cooler (to the right of the radiator), inspect the cooler and oil lines for leaks.
  7. Engine Vibration - Engine vibration at idle can indicate bad motor mounts or incorrectly installed balance shaft belt. Vibration caused by bad engine mounts typically goes away when the engine speed is increased over 1500rpm
  8. Boost Levels - At maximum boost, an unmodified, turbocharged car should produce approximately 1.7 - 1.75 bar of boost.
  9. Fuel Lines - Just one of the many 944s up in flames below. This was due to a faulty fuel line in the engine bay. Check the fuel lines, specifically the two that run of the Cylinder Head, inches away from the exhaust manifold... If they look original, replace them immediately with thermo shielded rubber or nylon braided hose. 
Sample of Porsche 944 checklist
Sample of 13 Page Porsche 944 checklist

These are just a few things to check for on the Porsche 944 and 944 turbo. For a more complete list of things to check on the Porsche 944 and Porsche 944 Turbo please fill out your info below:

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If you found this article helpful you may find these additional resources helpful during your hunt for a new to you used car:

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