Buying Used Cars: 22 Important Inspections To Check Before You Pay

Used cars

So, you have decided to buy a used car?

Congrats! But always remember, purchasing a used car can be a good risk, to put it lightly. Because, happy and excited buyers easily get emotionally caught up during the vehicle purchase process. As a result, they often tend to overlook mechanical, electrical, cosmetic, and safety issues during visual inspections and test drives, most especially when online car deal is involved.

Such problems are compounded if the vehicle being purchased is located in a car sales parking lot where testing is restricted until the vehicle has been paid for or when purchased online prior to being seen in person. Fraudulent online and offline car dealers that may have covered up technical or body cosmetic issues would prefer that you pay for the vehicle before testing or hope that these issues would not be detected until payment has been made or better still, after the vehicle has left their car sales lot.

It is very important to check the general condition of vehicles that you wish to buy with a fine tooth comb as well as with a magnifying glass to ascertain if there are any underlying engine or transmission issues or if the vehicle had been involved in a minor or severe collision and repaired prior to it being sold.

Thousands of imported vehicles, especially from the USA market have been bought as salvage auctioned cars that may have been involved in a severe accident, flooding or fire damage. In most instances, these vehicles may have been shipped into Nigeria or other African countries and cleared through the Immigration Agency (Customs) for a lower Import Duty (Due to the accident conditions) and repaired in back street panel beating workshops with minimal attention to details.

They are then resprayed and sold on to unsuspecting buyers. These vehicles pose serious danger to the end user; and would certainly become an uneconomical asset investment.

damaged car
– Severely damaged cars mostly get repaired and resold

Knowing how to spot potential problems and determine how reliable a used vehicle is, can save you from expensive after-pauchase headaches down the road. The following considerations can greatly help you to identify the grasses among the wheat.

1. Homework
To reduce the risk of purchasing a trouble-prone vehicle, identify models with a good reliability record before you begin shopping. If the car you’re interested in is known to have certain trouble spots, you know to pay special attention to those components during inspection.

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2. Inspection
No matter whom you buy from, always look over the vehicle thoroughly and, if possible, take it to a mechanic for a complete inspection. Dress in old clothes and give the car a good going-over. You can learn a great deal just by using your eyes, ears, and nose.

Take along a friend for help. Do your inspection in broad daylight on a dry day as floodlighted lots can make cars look shiny and hide body defects. The car should be parked on a level surface and shouldn’t have been driven for at least an hour before your inspection.

3. Body condition
Check each body panel and the roof, looking for scratches, dents, and rust. Examine the lines of the fenders and doors. Misaligned panels or large gaps can indicate either sloppy assembly at the factory or shoddy repair. The paint colour and finish should be the same on every body panel.

If you think a dent may have been patched with body filler, put a small mag¬net on it; it won’t stick to an area with body filler. If other parts of the car have been repainted, there may be paint adhering to the rubber seals around the hood and trunk lid.

Minor cosmetic flaws and light scratches are no cause for concern, but rust is. Check the outer body for blistered paint or rust. Also inspect the wheel wells, the rocker panels beneath the doors, and the door bottoms. Bring a flashlight for looking inside the wheel wells for rust.

Open and close each door, the hood, and the trunk. Gently lift and let go of each door, particularly the driver’s door. If it seems loose on its hinges, the car has seen hard or long use. Inspect any rubber seal for tearing or rot.

4. Glass
Look carefully at the vehicle glass to make sure there are no cracks or large, pocked areas. A small stone chip may not be cause for alarm, though you should bring it up as a bargaining point in negotiations. But cracks in the windshield will worsen and lead to a costly repair.

5. Suspension
Walk around the car to see if it’s standing level. Bounce each corner up and down. If the shock absorbers are in good shape, the car should rebound just once; it shouldn’t keep moving up and down. Grab the top of each front tire and tug it back and forth. If you feel play in it or hear a clunking or ticking sound, the wheel bearings or suspension joints may be shot.

6. Tyres
Most imported used car popularly called tokunbo, may have had their mileages tampered with to increase the value of the car or cleverly modified to reduce the Year Of Manufacture. However, you can tell a lot from the tyres. A car with less than, say, 20,000 miles on the odometer should probably still have its original tyres. Be wary of a low-mileage car with new tires; the vehicle’s odometer may have been rolled back.

Also check that all four tires are the same. Any difference in tyres may show that they have been replaced.

Thread wear should be even across the width of the tread and the same on the left and right sides of the car. Ask if the tires have been regularly rotated. If not, the wear is usually more severe on the drive wheels.

Aggressive drivers tend to put heavy wear on the outside shoulder of the front tyres, at the edge of the sidewall. Assuming that the car has been driven hard if that area shows heavier wear.

Tyres that have been driven while over-inflated tend to wear more in the middle than on the sides. Chronically under-inflated tyres show more wear on the sides. Cupped tyres, those that are worn unevenly along the tread’s circumference, may be a sign of a problem with the steering, suspension, or brakes.

Tyres must have at least 1/16 inch of tread to be legal. Check the tread depth with a tread-depth tool (available at auto-parts stores).

used car inspection
– Tyres can reveal a lot about the history of the vehicle

Examine the sidewalls for scuffing, cracks, or bulges, and look on the edge of each rim for dents or cracks. And be sure to check that the spare is in good shape and that the proper jack and lug wrench are present.

7. Lights and lenses
Have a friend confirm that all lights are working, Make sure all light lenses and reflectors are intact and not cracked, fogged with moisture, or missing.

8. Warning Lights
Some cars may have electrical or electronic issues. And, may have had the Warning Lights on the dashboards that are surposed to indicate Faults within the vehicle permanently removed to deceive gullible buyers. Such lights may include:

9 Interior
It’s the inside of a car that may matter most since that’s where you’ll be spending the most time.

Odour. When you first open the car door, sniff the interior. A musty, mouldy, or mildewy smell could indicate water leaks. Remove the floor mats and check for wet spots on the carpet. An acrid smell may indicate that the car was used by a smoker. Check the lighter and ashtray for evidence. Some odours, such as mould or smoke, can be very hard to get rid of. If you don’t like what you smell, find another car.

10. Seats
Try out all the seats even though you may not plan to sit in the rear. Upholstery shouldn’t be ripped or badly worn, particularly in a car with low mileage. Try all the seat adjustments to make sure they work properly and that you can find a good driving position.

11. Pedals
The rubber on the brake, clutch, and gas pedals gives an indication of use. A car with low miles shouldn’t show much wear. Pedal rubber that’s worn through in spots—or brand-new—indicates that the car has been driven a lot.

12. Instruments and controls
Turn the ignition switch, but without starting the engine. All the warning lights—including the “Check engine” light—should illuminate for a few seconds and go off when you start the engine. Note if the engine is hard to start when cold and if it idles smoothly. Then try out every switch, button, and lever.

With the engine running, turn on the heater full blast to see how hot it gets, and how quickly. Switch on the air conditioning and make sure it quickly blows cold.

13. The Roof
Check the headliner and roof trim for stains or sags to see if water is leaking through the sunroof, ill-fitting doors, or windows. If equipped with a sunroof or moon roof, check to see if it opens and closes properly and seals well when shut. Inspect the convertible top for tears by shining a flashlight up into it.

14. Trunk
Use your nose as well as your eyes. Sniff and look for signs of water entry. See if the carpeting feels wet or smells musty, and check the spare-tire well for water or rust.

15. Under the hood
It’s best to make these checks with the engine cool. Look first at the general condition of the engine bay. Dirt and dust are normal, but be wary if you see oil splattered about or on the pavement under the engine compartment. Also watch for a battery covered with corrosion, or wires and hoses hang¬ing loose.

16. Hoses and belts
Squeeze the various rubber hoses running to the radiator, air conditioner, and other parts. The rubber should be firm and supple, not rock-hard, cracked, or mushy. Feel the drive belts to determine whether they are frayed.

17. Fluids
The owner’s manual will point out where to look to check all fluid levels. Engine oil should be dark brown or black, but not gritty. If the oil is honey-coloured, it was just changed. If the dipstick has water droplets on it or grey or foamy oil, it could indicate a cracked engine block or blown head gasket, two serious problems.

Transmission fluid should be pinkish, not brown, and smell like oil, with no “burnt” odour. The dipstick shouldn’t leave visible metal particles on the rag, another sign of a serious problem.

Check the automatic-transmission fluid with the engine warmed up and running. On some, the dipstick has two sets of marks for checking when the engine is either cold or warm. Power-steering and brake-fluid levels should be within the safe zone.

18. Radiator
Look into the plastic reservoir that’s connected by a rubber hose to the radiator. The coolant should be greenish or orange, not a milky or rusty colour. Greenish stains on the outside of the radiator are a sign of pinhole leaks.

19. Battery
Some “maintenance free” batteries have a built-in charge indicator. A green indicator usually means the battery is in good shape; yellow or black usually means it is dying or dead. These indicators reveal the condition of just one cell and may not give an accurate reading on the health of the whole battery. If the battery has filler caps, wipe off the top with a rag, then carefully pry off or unscrew the caps to look at the liquid electrolyte level.

A low level may mean that the battery has been working too hard. A mechanic can check out the charging system and do a “load test” on the battery.

inspections check list
– A comprehensive inspections check can save you from future headaches.

20. Under the vehicle
If you can find where a car was usually parked, see if that part of the garage floor or driveway is marked from old puddles of gasoline, oil, coolant, or transmission fluid. Clear water that drips from under the car on a hot day is probably just water condensed from the air conditioner.

Feel the tailpipe for residue. If it’s black and greasy, it means burnt oil. Tailpipe smudge should be dry and dark grey. While some rust is normal, heavy rust might be OK but could mean a new exhaust system might be needed.

If the vehicle is high enough to slide under, you may be able to do some basic checks underneath. (If not, make sure your mechanic checks it.) Spread an old blanket on the ground and look under the engine with a flashlight. If you see oil drips, oily leaks, or green or red fluid on the engine or the pavement beneath the car, it’s not a good sign.

On a front-wheel-drive car, examine the constant-velocity-joint boots inboard of the front wheels. They are round, black, rubber bellows at the ends of the axle shafts. If the boots are split and leaking grease, assume that the car has bad CV joints, another costly repair.

Structural components with kinks and large dents in the floor pan or fuel tank all indicate a past accident. Welding on the frame suggests a damaged section might have been replaced or cut out to perform repair work. Fresh undercoating may hide recent structural repairs.

21. Catalytic Converters
Many cars coming in through Seme and other West African borders may have had the Catalytic Converters removed and/or stuffed with wire mesh to muffle the sound of the exhaust, thereby beating security agency. This causes severe fuel consumption and a host of other engine malfunctions. Replacing a missing catalytic converter could cost over N35,000 each.

22. Consider Pre-Purchase Inspection (PPI)
To eliminate much doubt and get an accurate picture of the condition of the vehicle, buyers should have a Pre-Purchase Inspection (PPI) done before the sale is finalized. A pre-purchase inspection is highly recommended when purchasing a vehicle without a warranty.

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If there is no warranty, the buyer is immediately assuming all the risk in the event of a breakdown or major mechanical issue. For this reason, a pre-purchase inspection gives the best assurance.


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The best way out is to pay a competent mechanic to do the pre-purchase inspection for you. There are no shortcuts to it. Just too many things to check.

My friend recently paid someone to carry out a PPI for a vehicle he saw online. That money he paid to him saved him thousands in repair plus the sleepless nights he may have had as a result.

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I once bought a clean car I saw online. We got the car registered the following day and drove the car back to Lagos with my colleague at the wheel. He told me the car was a good buy and i was happy.

The following morning, It struggled to start but after a few kicks it started with funny noise from the exhaust now sounding like it had come off. To cut the long story short, i have spent over 420k extra on this car. Had I known…

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I give up!
Can an average guy out there be able to discover all these issues? Talk less of non tech geeky like us?

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Sorry for your bad experience, you should have gone with an experienced technician or at least conducted a thorough check on the car.

It’s very disheartening that we have insincere car dealers who engage in all manner of deceit in the name of being smart in business. This is also aided by our weak legal system that does not deal decisively at such offenders even when the evidence is overwhelming & beyond reasonable doubt.

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Me think,

It is only a competent auto technician with many years of experience in the field of car sales, repairs and Pre-Purchase Inspection that can be able to detect some advanced anomalies in a car that is being presented for sale. Remembers, dealers are out there to make maximum profit.

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Wow, … so comprehensive 🙂

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