Seasoned mechanics know what to look for in a used car by experience. However, no one is perfect, and we are all prone to forget even the most mundane items. Do you want a surefire way of remembering every detail you need to cover during a vehicle inspection?
Use a Checklist!
The most prudent approach to vehicle inspections is to print out a free vehicle inspection checklist and use it every time you have to perform one. Car dealership service advisers use clipboard lists all the time for regular PMS or repairs. If you’re a new mechanic still learning your way around the profession, having a checklist with you is as important as your tools. It’s the professional thing to do, and it will make sure you don’t miss anything. Here is a pretty comprehensive automotive inspection checklist you can use on your next used-car project.
Tools to Bring
If you’re doing the inspection in a location other than the shop, make sure to bring the following:
- A magnet for concealed bodywork
- White rags for checking the oil
- OBD2 scan tool
- Jack to prop the car up
- Jack stands so you won’t get crushed
- AUX cable and Bluetooth-enabled phone to test the entertainment system
- Your other tools
Keep in mind that you don’t need to bring all your tools with you because you’re only inspecting the vehicle.
Questions for the Seller
If someone hires you to help inspect a used car that’s for sale, you should assist the buyer as much as you can. One of the best ways to do this is by coaching the buyer to ask these questions. You can also ask these yourself.
- Are you the car’s first owner?
- Why are you selling?
- Does the vehicle have any maintenance or repair history on hand?
- What type and brand of oil do you use?
- When was the last time the car had an oil change, and where was it done?
- Have you had the timing belt replaced? If yes, when?
- Are there any known issues, mechanical or otherwise?
- Has the car ever been in an accident?
- Do you have another set of rims with snow tires?
- If your client is asking the questions: My mechanic is here with me, can he inspect the vehicle? OR I need to bring the car to my mechanic for inspection. Is that alright?
- If you’re asking the questions: I’m a mechanic. Is it OK if I inspect your car?
If you feel that the seller isn’t forthcoming about vehicle ownership, remember that you can look up the owner by searching the VIN number.
Vehicle Inspection Checklist for Mechanics
Buying a second-hand car carries its fair share of risk. For this reason, a trained professional like yourself must use a checklist such as this one.
- A missing owner’s manual isn’t a big deal, but it does give you an idea on the seller’s personality type
- Look for gaps in service history. Raise a red flag if there are no records at all
- Is the mileage suspect and doesn’t fit what you see and know about the car?
- If the title contains the word “salvage,” it’s time to take your client and walk away
- Tires are free of curb damage
- Tires are from reputable manufacturers (e.g., Michelin)
- All tires are from the same brand and not expired
- Tires are intact and free of cracks, bubbles, and cuts. Use soapy water if you suspect the tire is suspect because bubbles will form when there’s a hole
- The jack, spare tire, and lug wrench are all present and working
- The windshield is free of cracks and deep scratches
- The spare tire has air and is serviceable
- The trunk and front doors lock/unlock using a key
- All the lights work correctly. Directional signals, rear lights, brake lights, headlights, hazard lights, and high/low beams
- The body panel colors all match
- Make sure the magnet sticks to all the steel body panels. If it falls off, that’s a concealed repair unless declared
- The paint job is free of inconsistencies
- Alignment of the trunk and hood, when closed, is OK
- Alignment of the fenders is excellent
- The body is free of dents and scratches
- The doors unlock remotely using the key fob and the car alarm works
- The seats are free of holes, cracks and show little signs of wear
- All the doors open and close without incident
- The trunk opens and closes properly
- All gauges and instrument panels work
- No dashboard warning lights stay on when starting the car
- Entertainment/infotainment system works
- The A/C works even when the vehicle is under the sun
- The heater is working
- Windshield wipers work without leaving a trail of water. Also, check the wiper fluid dispenser if it works properly
- All seats adjust, and all the seatbelts work
- Power windows are all working
- Sunroof mechanism works
Engine and Suspension
The engine block is dry and free of fluid or oil leaks.
- Oil filler neck free of black tar
- Battery bay free of corrosion. Also, check the battery enclosure for any signs of corrosion
- The oil dipstick is a clear, golden brown, not dark, thick, and black
- The engine doesn’t smell funky while the engine is running
- Exhaust pipe doesn’t leak water, and the emissions are clear
- Leveled vehicle while at rest
- No creaking or rattling noises while bouncing inside the vehicle
- All corners react the same when bouncing off potholes
Checking the Transmission
If the car has automatic transmission (AT):
- The fluid isn’t gritty or dirty and looks clean
- The transmission doesn’t slip or delay when driving
If the vehicle has manual transmission (MT):
- Smooth-shifting on all gears
- Absence of any grinding noises when in reverse
Steering and Brake System
- The car steers straight, even when hands are not on the wheel
- There’s no pull on either side when braking
- Parking brake engages and disengages without issue
- The steering wheel and brake pedal don’t shake when applying the brakes
- The wheels don’t lock during braking when the anti-lock braking system is ON
- The car doesn’t drift to either side
- The vehicle doesn’t violently vibrate or shake when running and idle
- When turning, the steering wheel gives no resistance and is easy to operate with one hand
- No clunking or clicking noises when turning
Patrick Peterson is a writer/editor at AutoDetective. Born and raised in the automotive world. He’s a passionate writer who crafts exquisite content pieces about everything related to cars and bikes.