How to Inspect a Car Like a Mechanic to Save Money

My first car was such a breath of fresh air. When I bought it I was 18, a senior in high school, and had my first job. The reasons why this car was such a highlight in my life were as follows:

  • I still took the bus to school. Loser (cough).
  • I drove my dad’s Chevy Astro Van to work. You’d expect a gruff man to drive one of these. Not an 18 year old.
  • My new car was a freakin’ convertible. ‘Nuff said.

I was moving up in life!

As you look for new or used cars to buy, take the time to inspect each one to save thousands in the long run! Use this Car Inspection Checklist to help you purchase a car that will last.© flairimages / Dollar Photo Club

Just as my life got a thousand percent better, it also took a nose dive just a few days later. The passenger window AND the convertible top would not go back up. These are important factors when you live in a state where the weather can change on you in a split second. I couldn’t drive around with the wind in my hair during the winter months!

Fortunately, our neighbor knew a thing or two about cars and showed me which fuse I needed to change for the window. As for the convertible top, I had to manually put it up and down from then on until I could take it to the dealer to have it checked out.

As you look for new or used cars to buy, take the time to inspect each one to save hundreds or thousands of dollars in the long run! Use this Car Inspection Checklist to help you purchase a car that will last.When I was searching for cars, I was A) desperate and B) fell for looks (well look at it! Isn’t it just the cutest car you’ve ever seen?!). Sounds a bit like a girl looking for love. Anyways, I also had my dad with me, and he doesn’t know much about cars so he couldn’t have checked it out for me.

A Car Inspection Checklist to Save You Money

Do you know what would have saved me from buying a car with so many problems right off the bat? A Car Inspection Checklist.

When you have zero clue about cars and you can’t take someone with you who does, you need to have this handy checklist with you so you don’t drive off with a dud. Buying a used car is a huge risk, whether you are buying from a dealership or from a person wanting to sell his car. It’s just not worth it to run into huge mechanical issues a few days, weeks, or months later.

Do Your Research First

Let me mention that before you step foot on any dealership or contact anyone about their car that you just love, do your research. Consider the following:

  • Reliability
  • Durability
  • MPG
  • Parts (will parts be expensive to replace?)
  • Tires (Bigger tires will be more expensive)
  • Safety
  • Technology
  • Comfort/Space

The cars you look at all depend on your circumstances at the moment. If you have kids, you’ll probably be looking for a family car with cheap parts. If you’re single and commute to work, you’ll probably want to find a car that is small and durable.

Get Out and Inspect/Test Drive Cars

Once you narrow down your list of cars, go to the dealership or find the car on your local classifieds. Go for a test drive and complete a thorough inspection.

The person who is trying to sell the car will try to talk you into buying the car in whatever way he can. With that in mind, go for a test drive concentrated on what you need to accomplish and you won’t be distracted by the salesperson.

Car Inspection Checklist

Vehicle Exterior

Quickly check the exterior of the car before you get into it. Make sure you are looking at a fairly clean car, since it is a lot easier to see scratches and other defects when the car is clean.

Here are a few things you’ll want to notice:

• The horizontal line on the side of the car should be continuous and straight. If it’s not, this indicates that the car was probably in an accident.
• The gap between the fender and the door and the fender and the hood should be small. If it is a wide gap, you’ll probably want to find out if the car was involved in an accident.
• The color of the car should be exactly the same throughout. If there was an accident, the affected area was likely repainted and most of the time the color will not match.
• The condition of all 4 tires should be really good. If the front tires have uneven tread (meaning that one side’s tread is higher or lower than the other), the front end is probably in bad condition.
• If you see any signs of rust, you’ll probably want to avoid buying the car as rust is a very expensive thing to fix. Here’s more information on rust if you’re still skeptical.
• Check that the windshield is in perfect condition. Otherwise, tell the salesperson that it needs to be fixed or you won’t buy it.

Vehicle Interior

Get into the car. Take a quick look around the whole car and make sure it has been cleaned. A clean car will make it much easier for you to find rips in the seats, holes in the floor, and scratches on the dashboard. It’s also a pretty good indication of how the car was treated. A car that is trashed on the inside might indicate that the car has not been serviced regularly, which means that repairs in the future will be often and expensive for you.

Interior Components

Before you start driving, make sure that everything works. If the salesperson says that the car comes with X, make sure X works. The salesperson will always talk up the features of the car, so make sure these features are all in great condition.

Quickly have a look at the following:

• Windows
• Locks
• Mirrors
• Interior lights
• Headlights and tail lights
• Seats
• Radio
• Clock
• Any special features (Bluetooth, GPS, DVD player, etc.)
• Windshield wipers and fluid


Before you start the car, check the oil level and the color. If it’s a dark, almost black, color, you should be concerned about the life of the car. If you’ve never checked the oil before, watch this video on YouTube.

When you are ready to start the car, turn it to the very last point right before you can turn it ON. Be sure that all the lights on the dashboard come on, including ABS and check engine. If one or a few of these lights do not come on, that means that someone turned it off in order to sell the car. Here’s a quick video to watch if you’re not sure what a certain light means.

Now start the car. Take note if it is difficult to turn on. Now look at the lights on the dashboard. They should all be off once the car is running, but if one of them is on, this means that there is a problem with that specific area.

Listen to the car’s engine. If it sounds rough or there is smoke and it stinks, there’s something wrong with the engine.

Test Drive

Now that you have checked the engine, it’s time to take the car for a test drive. If the sales person gives you rules about how far you can go or where you can go, try to talk him out of this. You want to test drive the car how you normally drive a car. If you take the freeway to work, you’ll definitely want to get on the freeway to test drive it.

Take advantage of the first stop light or stop sign. Brake hard. The car should react quickly or the brakes could be bad. Listen for any squealing of the tires and make sure you don’t smell any burning rubber.

Get on the freeway or a highway where you can drive at least 60 miles per hour. Set the cruise control to make sure it works. Lightly hold onto the steering wheel to see if the car veers off in one direction or continues on a straight line. If it does veer, you probably will need to align the tires or something worse could be wrong with the car.

Is there vibration in the steering wheel? Vibration means the tires need to be balanced before it affects something in the front end of the car.

When you exit the freeway, do a second brake test (the speed is important for this). If you brake and the car vibrates, something is wrong with the brakes.

While you are still driving the car, take a look at the dashboard and all the gauges. Make sure they are working, especially the temperature gauge. If you notice that the temperature is high, the engine is overheating and it means that something’s wrong in the engine that should be fixed ASAP.

Return to the dealership or location you met the person selling the car.

Never buy a car on the day you test drive it. You should always go home to mull things over.

Once you return home, do a check on Carfax to see the history of the vehicle before you buy it. Even if the car seemed fine, you might be surprised to find that it has a salvaged title. In this case, you need to seriously consider whether it is worth it or not to run into mechanical issues in the near future.

If you find issues with the car, but you still really love it, you need to mention the problems to the salesperson to negotiate the price. Or if it’s a dealership, you have the right to ask the salesperson to fix it before you buy it. Otherwise, don’t bother with it.

What Happened with My Car?

Over the years I owned my car, I had to fix a lot of problems with it. I’m guessing I spent close to half of its worth in just repairs.

As you look for new or used cars to buy, take the time to inspect each one to save hundreds or thousands of dollars in the long run! Use this Car Inspection Checklist to help you purchase a car that will last.I was devastated to see that car go only 2 1/2 years after I bought it. Unfortunately, by that time, the transmission was no longer in tip-top shape, so the husband ordered it gone. 🙁

Without my husband, this post wouldn’t have been possible. So let’s give a big round of applause to him!

If you want to download a free Car Inspection Checklist, please click here.

Linked to: Thrifty Thursday and One Project at a Time

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  1. I really like to bring cars I’m test driving to my mechanic. I have him give things a look over. He’s really good at showing me things I might have missed, like if a bumper doesn’t quite match and it looks like it’s been re-painted because perhaps it was an accident, or the last owner backed it into a wall.

    • We always recommend our customers bring any cars they are looking at buying by our garage too! We can always spare someone for 5 minutes to look over a car and make sure they are getting a good deal! Look after your customers and they will look after you!

  2. I like your tip to do research before choosing a used car. Like you said, it’s good to consider whether the parts in the car will be easy to replace. Even though older cars are often cheaper to buy and insure, it can occasionally be difficult to find replacement parts for less common models. Thanks for the tips.

  3. When you’re buying a used car is easy to feel vulnerable. With inspection I was able to feel confident that I was making the right choice. Good points for car inspection but if you are a total beginner and don’t know what needs to be checked then its better to hire a mechanic who will note every detail meticulously.

  4. Being a car mechanic myself, I have no issues with people inspecting cars themselves but just remember there are many things one can only realise with wisdom, time and through experience.. Unless you want to dedicate years to studying autos and motors it may just be best to choose a professional car garage to sort your car out, because at the end of the day, there’s only so much time you’ve got to play with. Use it wisely!

    Nice car by the way, sorry to hear you’ve moved on!

  5. Knowing what to look for in a used car ensures you will make a good purchase! Doing research and inspecting the car are important as you want to know your investment is worth it. Thanks so much for the advice, I’ll have to put it to you when I look for my next car.
    Brian recently posted…Used 2006 Mercury Mariner Luxury 2WD in Lafayette, LA 70508 for sale at Used Car FactoryMy Profile

  6. I’ve been thinking about purchasing a car on my own for the first time, but I am not sure what to expect. I am glad that you gave a good checklist to reference when purchasing a car. My biggest priority is to have something that is reliable, and inexpensive to repair. It didn’t even cross my mind that I should research if auto parts are expensive to replace or difficult to find.

  7. This is very refreshing, I shared this blog with my daughter. We all know there are a few bad mechanics out there who will try to trick a young woman into unnecessary repairs and costs because they assume she doesn’t know any better. I’m trying to avoid having that happen, so I’ve been teaching little by little as much as she’ll listen to her boring dad. This checklist is great not only on its own merits but also because of the example you’re setting for young women like my daughter. Thank you!!!
    Graham recently posted…Best Windshield Washer FluidMy Profile

  8. This is a great post! Usually these “How to save money on your car” posts on other sites have ways to save money once you already own the car. Those are great and all, but it seems MUCH more useful to be able to identify and avoid the cars that are going to cost a lot in repairs regardless of what you do after you’ve bought it.


  1. […] I sold my car that was costing us a lot in repairs […]

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