This assumes you’re looking a moderately priced used vehicle. For anything
under $3K the seller will likely be irritated by your intense scrutiny that
this list entails.
If at all possible schedule the test drive during the daytime.
Start with the basics and the obvious, work your way to the more detailed
and complicated things to check. Thoroughly inspect the vehicle before a test
drive and do not test drive the vehicle if you’re not going to make an offer,
don’t waste your time or the seller’s.
Things to tell the owner
You want to start the vehicle cold.
I.e. do not run the vehicle before we arrive if at all possible.
We will want to take the vehicle on a 10-15 mile test drive. This is to
ensure the vehicle is safe to operate in emergency situations. This test
Full braking capabilities
Disabling/Enabling traction control and or stability control if applicable
Things to bring to inspection:
Flashlight ( The brighter the better, doesn’t hurt to bring a spare )
Brake fluid Tester
Tire pressure gauge
Tire Depth Gauge or penny
Change of clothes or coveralls if you’re going to inspect underneath of the
Starting the inspection
Walk around the vehicle for any sorts of obvious corrosion dents, paint
failures, flat tires etc. We will come back to all these items as we
go through the list so don’t worry about missing something.
Then proceed to check under the hood:
Oil color look appropriate?
Oil filler cap. ( Check for yellow, mustard, or foamy look )
Transmission Oil Level ( If applicable )
Smell the oil, does it smell burnt or fresh?
Is the color a nice deep red or is it brown/burnt looking?
Power steering reservoir ( if applicable )
Fluid look good? Level appropriate?
Color of coolant
All of the coolant lines look to be in good shape?
Lines / Distribution free of corrosion?
ABS / Stability System visible? Check lines and electrical connections.
Clutch fluid level ( if applicable )
Radiator and AC Condenser free of any visible damage, crushed fins, holes etc?
Serpentine belts look okay?
Free of any cracks, signs of stretching or excessive heat?
terminals free of corrosion?
Any install date / Markings etc?
Does it read ~12+ volts with the car off?
Are all of the connectors in good shape?
Wiring loom broken at any points?
Are all of the grounding straps in good condition?
All fuses and relays in good shape?
Any corrosion/dirt contaminents in the box itself?
Windshield washer reservoir
Vacuum lines ( if applicable ) in good shape?
Air filter look good?
Air intake plumbing free from cracks?
Intake manifold plastic? If so check for any cracks or obvious failures
Look for anything with a wet or oily appearance in the engine bay and make
note of it.
If you can see the exhaust manifold:
Check for any signs of corrosion or broken off studs/bolts
If you can see any engine mounts are there any signs of corrosion, dry rot,
Proceed to check vital emergency equipment:
Does the spare tire have proper air pressure?
Is the OE jack equipped?
Is the OE tire iron equipped?
Are any of the other OE emergency tools supplied or missing?
If all of the above checks out you can move on to the next step. If not,
it might be a good time to walk away.
Obviously you should limit the exterior checks to how much you actually
care about the vehicle’s looks. You look cheap driving a rust-bucket. You look
frugal and intelligent if you’re driving an older but well-maintained vehicle.
If you care about your appearance to others. This is obviously conjecture so take
it with a grain of salt, not everyone gives a shit about what you drive.
Do all of the body panels line up?
Take your finger and run them along the length of all of the body seams,
this will reveal any uneven panel gaps that you should investigate.
Be sure to check the bumpers for any cracks, epoxy, etc.
Common panels and issues:
Front Fenders and Hood miss-aligned:
Front end collision
Doors and or Roof miss-aligned:
Trunk, rear bumper and or rear doors
rear end collision.
Any signs of corrosion?
Wheel weights on the inside or outside of the wheel?
Any cracks in the wheel covers?
Any peeling clear-coat, paint, or dents in the wheel?
Take note of the Brand, Size and Model of the tire.
Do they all match?
Are there any signs of dry-rot or other corrosion?
Are they safe?
Do they all have matching wear patterns?
If visible through the wheel:
Pads look good?
Rotor surface look good?
Caliper itself free of corrosion?
If visible are the shocks/struts free of any torn boots?
Gently press down on the corners of the vehicle checking to see if there
is any damping or if the car keeps bouncing after you press down on it a
If it keeps bouncing the shocks are bad.
Open all of the doors and check the seams at the bottom front and back
for any signs of rust or foreign debris
Gently pull up and down on the door while it is open to check and see if
the hinge has any slop
Check and make sure that all of the seals are fully intact and still soft
without any cracks
Trunk / Rear Hatch:
Gas shocks work?
Interior electric/manual trunk release work?
Hinges free of any slop?
Check all of the rubber around the windows and windshields make sure
they’re free of any cracks and they’re still soft
Does it feel like it’s been waxed?
Signs of clear-coat failure?
Is it still shiny or is it dull?
Any chips/damage or touch-ups?
Headlight/Marker/Tail light/Fog light housings
Are they clear?
Any condensation in the housings?
Specifically shine your light at different angles along the panels
reveal any dents or other imperfections in the panel.
Check all of the places where rain water will drain or salt-spray would
wash along the under body of the vehicle for evidence of corrosion or
any sort of foreign debris
Check the gas cap for any corrosion
Windows / Glass
Free of cracks and any chips?
Are the side windows free of any excessive scratching?
I highly recommend inspecting as much of the vehicle as possible before starting
it or taking it for a test drive. I understand this isn’t always possible,
and some will even scrutinize such things, especially dealers. It’s up to you
whether you do this before/after the test drive. I recommend before.
With the vehicle on jack stands and stable
Before crawling underneath of the car:
At the front of the car
With the steering wheel locked if possible:
Move the front wheels of the car to the left and right checking for play
in the tie-rod ends
Move the wheel back and forth from the top and bottom checking for any
If the vehicle is front wheel or all-wheel drive place it in neutral.
Spin the wheels forward and backward checking for any excessive noise
that is not coming from the brakes
Unlock the steering and check tie-rods and shocks/struts for any damage or
Are the ball joints free of any cracks/failures play/slop?
Are the control arms free of corrosion and do they look to be in good shape?
At the back of the car
If the vehicle is rear wheel or all-wheel drive place it in neutral
Similar to the front of the vehicle check for any play by moving the wheel
Crawl underneath and begin inspecting from the front to the back of the car:
Steering rack / Steering Box:
Any torn boots, loose joints, etc?
Any leakage coming from the lines, to the cooler etc?
Any corrosion on the radiator, hose joints, transmission lines, oil lines,
Is anything wet with oil, or coolant?
Do all of the bushings and engine mounts look solid and free from corrosion
or breakdown of any kind?
Ball joints on the suspension arms?
Front differential/transaxle leaking? Corrosion, etc?
Check the lines for any corrosion
Be sure to follow the lines down to the rear calipers.
Check for any leaks from calipers or the rubber lines to them.
Check lines for any corrosion
Follow them to the pump if possible
Does the fuel filter look as if it has been changed recently?
Wheel speed/ABS sensors, misc sensors.
Check for any sort of corrosion or failed wiring.
Swa Bars ( If Applicable ):
Free of corrosion?
End-links in good shape?
If you can see it check the leads, and for corrosion
Any excessive corrosion?
Mounts/Hangers in good shape?
Are all of the O2 sensors in place?
Are they in good shape?
Is the wiring in good shape? Does it look like original equipment?
U-Joints / Guibo
Carrier bearing ( If applicable )
Leaking? Corrosion? Mounts?
Full Frame Vehicles:
Gas tank / Evap system:
Do all of the lines look to be in good shape?
If the vehicle checks out at this point remove the jack stands and place
it back down on the ground. If necessary clean up for the interior and
functionality check of the vehicle.
Before taking a vehicle for a test drive it’s imperative that all of your
lights, signals, etc at least appear to work properly.
Start the Car.
Under the hood:
Check the voltage at the battery again. It should read 13.5 volts or higher
If not the alternator and or charging circuit is suspect.
Test the Lights:
Check that the Brake lights light up. Including the center brake light.
Check left and right turn signals individually.
Check they all flash with the hazard lights on.
Check that the headlights go on. Also check that the tail lights are
illuminated dimly with the headlight switch on and brighten up with the
Check that the high and low beams operate properly.
If applicable check DRL functionality
If applicable check fog light functionality
Check license plate illumination.
Check to make sure reversing lights work
Check all interior and dome lights
Check the wiper and washer functionality:
Check intermittent modes
Check the washers
Check headlight washers if applicable
Check Rear wiper if applicable
Check the radio functionality:
Aux/Bluetooth if applicable
Check to make sure all speakers are working
Interior electrical & Engine check:
Power mirrors? Do they work?
Do all of the power outlets work?
Does the OBD II Port have power?
Plug in the OBD II scanner and check for any engine codes and run any
Main interior condition check:
Check all of the floor mats, if applicable make sure they have anchors.
Pull up the floor mats and check for any wet carpet.
Check the seats, and carpet for any rips tears, wetness smells, stains, etc.
Check the head liner and all soft trim for any sort of failure or deterioration
Check the glove box for the owners manual and or any other car documentation
Be sure to move all of the seats, check any folding or storage functionality.
During the test drive you’ll want the radio off. Check for any strange noises
pulls, wind noise, etc.
You’ll want to drive the vehicle lightly until it has warmed up. Once the vehicle
is warm you may wish to find a highway on ramp or a stop light to test hard
I highly recommend running the vehicle at highway speeds ( 70+mph ) for at
least 5 minutes if possible.
When safe to do so, and traffic is clear behind you slam on the brakes with
all your force. Check to make sure that the ABS system activates and operates
Itemized list to check:
Does the engine get up to temperature quickly?
Does it maintain operating temperature consistently?
Cruise control still work?
Does it disengage with:
brake pedal application?
Does oil pressure look normal?
Transmission shift smooth? Shifts into every gear?
Clutch feel ( if applicable )
All vent locations work?
After test drive:
Check oil again.
Check coolant level
Quick check for any leaks
If possible check if the belts have any excessive heat
Check to see if the radiator fans are actuating properly.
Make sure they come on with the AC
Questions for the owner:
How long have you owned the vehicle?
Why are you selling the vehicle?
Any service records?
Any other vehicle documentation?
Any extra keys with the vehicle?
Oil filter changed recently?
When was the engine oil last changed?
When was the Transmission fluid last changed?
When was the fuel filter last changed?
When was the timing belt/chain last inspected or replaced?