The Complete

What should I check before buying a used car? Well, we have pulled out all the stops and compiled a practical second hand vehicle inspection checklist just for you.


The 12 Step Car inspection checklist for the used car buyer

A Buyer’s Guide to the Used Car Galaxy

We dug deep into data from hundreds of second hand vehicles we inspected. We extracted, analysed, and finally reworked this data to provide you with an in-depth and easy to follow vehicle checklist.

Ever heard the expression; “don’t bring a knife to a gun-fight”? Now you can be equipped with the best practical knowledge when planning to test-drive a used car before buying.

What to check for when test driving a used car? Here is our summary of the 12 Mechanical Checks When Buying A Used Car.

We will examine each of the following 12 steps in detail.

It’s all in the details!

So, let us jump right into this extremely valuable and important information. Please don’t stop now, the following vehicle inspection checklist might just save you from buying a car with major hidden problems.  Dig in!

This is the first vehicle inspection checklist step. Accident damage checks when buying a used car are especially important. You do not want to buy a car that was in a major accident.

  • Start this vehicle check by opening the trunk, hood and doors. Look for paint over-spray. This is a dead give-a-way sign that a certain part of the body was been re-sprayed. There should not be paint inside these places!
  • Next, walk around the vehicle. All the body parts should have the exact same colour. You need to look very carefully for small variations in the paint colour.
  • Take a small fridge magnet with you. Place the magnet gently on various body panels. If the magnet does not stick, there might be plastic body filler present. This indicates accident damage!
  • Take a step away from the car to see if all the vehicle’s panels align. Any small misalignment is a big clue that the car was in an accident.
  • Another tell-tale sign in this vehicle check is if the gaps between the panels don’t match. The gap might be a tiny bit wider on the door-2-door panels than the door-to-front panels.

Golden Rule: This is one of our golden rules because if a vehicle has been properly maintained the likelihood of the vehicle being in a good condition is much higher.

  • Check that the service book has been stamped (serviced) at regular intervals.
  • Service intervals for a petrol vehicle should be every 15 000km and 10 000km for diesel vehicles.

Things to check before buying a used car can be technical, especially when it comes to the engine. Here are a couple of mechanical checks you can perform without the help of an expert.

  • These mechanical checks when buying a used car are not difficult to follow. Start by opening the hood. Check the radiator fluid with your finger. It should not be foamy or have oily droplets. If this is the case it might be a defective head gasket or worse, a cracked block or cylinder head. Do not buy the car!
  • Remove the dipstick and look at the colour of the oil. It should be a brownish-copper colour. If it is milky or burnt tar black, this vehicle check is a fail. Walk away.
  • Start the engine. Listen…Clucking, whistling, banging sounds are not normal and will give you an indication something is wrong. Ask the salesman the to increase the revs of the car’s engine and listen carefully.
  • This same ’’listen test’’ should be performed while you test drive the car. This is an essential part of your vehicle inspection checklist.

This must be part of your vehicle inspection checklist and are easy to identify.

  • This vehicle check should be done before firing up the engine. Turn the key to the “Accessory” position (the last position before the engine starts). All the dashboard elements should light up. Both the “check engine” and, if equipped with anti-lock brakes, the “ABS” lights should illuminate. If they do not, the problem could be as minor as a burned-out bulb or as serious as an engine fault.
  • An engine warning light cannot be ignored! Look if any dashboard lights stay illuminated after you start the car. The vehicle’s user manual will help you identify what each warning light means. Make sure you know.

A car that has been abused (driven aggressively) by a previous owner/s should have a shorter lifespan than a vehicle that has been driven conservatively. Here are a few key areas to look at.

  • The condition of the pedals (petrol, brake and clutch). Do the rubber footpads show signs for wear and tear?
  • The steering wheel is a good place to see if a vehicle had been driven excessively hard.
  • The gear-lever. This is another area where you will easily notice if the vehicle has been abused.

If there are excessive wear and tear on these items, it may also indicate that the vehicle has more mileage than the odometer indicates.

What to check for when test driving a used car? This is a particularly important step in your second hand car inspection checklist and should be done. If a seller/dealership refuses to you to perform this test, be very suspicious. Some dealers argue their insurance does not cover the test-drive and this is a common excuse to stop you from performing a thorough car inspection test.

  • The test drive should take about 20 minutes.
  • Drive a route where there are lots of stop-and-go opportunities.
  • Don’t be afraid to run the revs of the car higher than normal – push the engine a bit in each gear.
  • Take the car on the highway or bigger road to build up some speed.
  • Switch off the radio. Open the windows. Listen for any clunk-clunk, rattle or high-pitched whistling noises when you accelerate. Listen for noises at the wheels, under the car and in the engine. Trust your gut, if there are weird noises coming from somewhere, something is wrong. Do this same exercise with the windows closed as well.

If we go back to the initial question; what should I check before buying a used car? The gearbox is a complicated but essential item to check. When it comes to the gearbox, even for a non-expert there are a couple of important signs to be aware of.

  • While driving the vehicle, use all the gears. Feel if there is any resistance when shifting up and down. There should NOT be any weird noises when shifting gears.
  • Lagging, stiffness, and noise are the 3 key things you need to check. There should be no lag when you shift between gears. This slightest lag could be a clutch or gear problem. As you shift through the gears focus on how the car reacts in each gear. The car must react instantly to what you do. The gears should shift smoothly without resistance. Be gentle and feel how the gear leaver moves between each gear. Stiffness or any noise should be a big RED- FLAG!
  • These mechanical checks when buying a used car are tricky to notice, so take your time and get a good feel for how the gearbox responds to your actions.

This vital step in your second hand car inspection checklist cannot be overlooked. The brakes are also part of your roadworthy test checklist.

  • ABS brakes should have a slight pulsating feel to it when you apply a heavy force to it.
  • The car should also continue in a straight line while braking. If the vehicle pulls to the right or to the left, there could be a brake or steering problem.

The things to check when buying a used car from a dealer or private seller should be the same. Make sure to perform all the checks, it doesn’t matter what the person selling the vehicle might say. The steering operation of a vehicle can be an expensive component to repair and needs to be inspected.

  • Before you start driving, do some quick steering inspections. The windows must be down when performing this test. Turn the steering wheel all the way to the left and all the way to the right. Listen carefully, there should not be any weird noises. The full rotation of the steering wheel should be even and smooth without excessive resistance.
  • There should be no vibrations on the steering when you drive. This also applies to when you brake hard. Heavy vibrations could be anything from unbalanced tyres to a loose steering rack. Not good.
In this step, research will go a long way in helping you to negotiate the price of the vehicle. Here are a few checks to perform when buying a used car, so you can make sure you know the REAL value of the car. Knowing the book and trade value of a car before you commit is a key element when you want to negotiate the vehicle’s final price. A used car value check is generally divided into two categories:
  • Book Value: The ‘book’ value typically refers to the prices published in the Transunion Auto Dealers’ Guide.
  • Trade Value: The ‘trade’ value is the price that can be obtained by selling an asset on a competitive or open market.
A used car value check will also help you not to over-pay for a vehicle. Here is a handy website to help you to get the value of a car you are about to buy.

See this awesome FREE vehicle value calculator!

Registering a car into your name, must be by law, accompanied by a roadworthy certificate. A roadworthy test is not an in-depth car inspection test, but certain elements are good to be part of your second hand car inspection checklist. The reason being, if the car you’re re-registering doesn’t pass the roadworthy test, you need to fix these elements in order to receive the roadworthy certificate. As part of the roadworthy checks when buying a used car, you need to inspect the following items:

  • Safety belts functionality
  • Hazard & indicator lights
  • Brake & parking lights
  • Head lights & fog lights
  • Tire tread
  • Window wiper operations

If you are not sure about how to perform a vehicle check we suggested, get a professional. Get a qualified mechanic to conduct the car inspection test. Certain mechanical checks when buying a used car can be very technical and if you are not comfortable with this, rather seek an expert.

To conclude, we know this was an information overload, so to assist you even better, we have compiled a downloadable used car inspection checklist pdf. This is free with no-obligations. Download, print and use this document as your complete vehicle inspection checklist.
P.S. We sincerely hope this answered the original question; what should I check before buying a used car?

Although this page contains valuable vehicle check information, this is not all. We are constantly updating our blogs with valuable used car buying tips. This will help you, the consumer to buy a pre-owned car with confidence.

If you are not sure about any of the above, please leave your details here and one of our experts will give you a no-obligation phone call with advice.


Frequently Asked Questions - Vehicle Inspection Checklist

  • What to look for when buying a used car checklist?
    A minimum vehicle inspection checklist should follow our 12 Step guide. (click to scroll to strip)
  • What should I look for when buying a used car?
    We have compiled a free printable used car inspection checklist.pdf available to download.
  • What to do before buying a used car?
    Compile a vehicle inspection checklist with the following items: - What car can I afford - Identify a make and model car - Search online for the specific make and model - When you find the car, verify the car through the VIN number - Make sure you perform the necessary mechanical checks when buying a  used car - Make sure the re-registration and financial paper work is in order
  • What to consider when buying a used car?
    The first thing to consider is what the best car make and model is for your needs. Is it a small run-around city car or a small SUV for your growing family. The above accompanied with your budget parameters is the first step when starting the used car buying journey.
  • What should you know when buying a used car?
    You should know the used car industry has a reputation for not being honest. Do you research and be vigilant. Compile a vehicle checklist and stick with it.