College Car Guide's Car Buying 'Cliffs Notes': The Inspection

So you've searched, and searched, and searched until finally you have found a few cars you want to go check out. Awesome! However, it isn't just a matter of going and driving the car and then walking away with a new...ish ride. There is a list of things you must check before you ever even turn the key.

This checklist will help you find telling signs of imminent investments the car will need, or signs that you should just walk away without wasting your money.

- On the outside, look for all the blemishes, chips, cracks or paint bubbles on the car. Cracks on plastic pieces could mean that the car had been in a minor accident. Paint bubbles are a sign of rust. Rust can become a big problem later on.

- Check to see if the car has had any bodywork by looking closely at the paint to see if it all matches between the panels. Is one panel darker than the other? Is some paint metallic while other paint is normal? Hold a magnet up to the edges of metal panels, mainly around the fenders and lower parts of the car. Anywhere that has been filled in on a steel panel will no longer be magnetic. Excessive bodywork could mean the car was in an accident once.

- Check the tire tread with a penny. Hold the penny upside down in one of the grooves. If you can see Abraham Lincoln's head the car needs new tires. New tires are expensive, and pointing that out can drive down the price.

- Check the wheels for excessive scuff marks from hitting sidewalks and curbs. 

After inspecting the outside, it is time to pop the hood and take a look at the engine. By this point, the car still should not be started. This can be pretty intimidating for someone who doesn't know a thing about cars, so it is always great to have someone who is mechanically inclined there with you. If that isn't possible, here are some simple checks you can perform.

- Check the oil. Pull the dipstick (usually yellow and marked OIL) once, wipe it clean, dip it again and read the level. If the oil is completely black and at a low level, that is a sign the current owner didn't keep up with their oil changes. If they couldn't even manage to change the oil, imagine what else has been ignored on the car.

- Check to make sure that every bottle in the car has the correct level of fluid in it. A low fluid level is a telltale sign of a leak. Most caps should say what system the reservoir is dedicated to. Leaky brake systems are not only costly, but dangerous. 

- Open the radiator cap and the coolant reservoir cap and look to see if there is any oil floating in the coolant. They will look like little black beads floating in green water. If there is, the head gasket could be failing. That is a very expensive repair, and is a good reason to look elsewhere.

- See those metal pipes coming from the engine? That's the exhaust header, and is prone to crack on many older cars causing exhaust noise and power loss. Take a close look for any cracks/leaks. 

Once you have finished with that list there are some questions you should ask the current owner:

How long have you had this car?

Did you keep service records? (A complete service history is a HUGE plus)

Where did you buy it from? 

What did you use the car for?

Have you done any modifications? (If there are any you should be wary)
Now you are ready to start the car. Turn it on, and listen closely. Is there any noise that sounds out of place? Rev the engine a couple of times and listen to the exhaust. If the exhaust noise seems to be coming from under the car, instead of from the back of the car, you should check out the exhaust pipes... but we will get to that later. Turn the wheel side to side to make sure the power steering doesn't moan and groan. If it does, the pump could be going bad. 

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