No More Lemons! How to Pick a Good Used Car

Walking into a used car lot, or searching through ads on the local classified listings can be an exhausting experience. You often don’t know much about the care that was taken by the previous owner, and you do not know what work needs to be done. Here is a simple used car checklist of things to look for when you are buying a used car. 

What You Should Bring

Bring all the things that you will need to inspect the car

Gloves: The inside of most used car engine compartments are often not immaculate

Shop Towels: Used for checking oil and transmission fluid

Flashlight: Flashlights can often uncover dark places where oil has leaked or tears in upholstery that might otherwise go unnoticed

Penny: For checking tire tread depth

Notebook: Jot down the year, make, and model of the cars you are looking at, as well as the VIN number to check the vehicle history of cars you are most interested in. Take notes about each car so that you can weigh the pros and cons of each prospect

• Get Ideas on Using Your Tax Refund on Your Automobile

Check the Paperwork

Ask the owner for all the paperwork they have on the car. Records may include maintenance books, repair receipts, and of course, the title. Make a quick visual note of any major work performed, and verify that the title does not have the dreaded words, Salvage. Salvage titles mean that the vehicle has been previously totaled by insurance companies, or involved in disasters such as floods. Be sure that the vehicle inspection sticker is up to date, and all deficiencies have been corrected.

Check the Exterior

  • Inspect the outside of the car in good lighting. Walk around the car and note any damage. If one panel of the car is much less faded than the rest, that may be a sign that the car was in an accident
  • Check the tires for tread depth and even tread wear
  • Open everything. Be sure that all doors, latches, and locks operate fluidly, including the hood and trunk
  • Ask the owner to turn on all the lights. Look for clouded lenses
  • Operate the windshield wipers and the washer fluid sprayer
  • Suspension check: Does the car sit evenly? Do the struts squeak when you push down on a corner?

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In the Engine Compartment

Cleanliness: Are there visible oil and grease stains from repairs? Leaking liquids?

Battery corrosion: Look for white crusty buildup on the terminals. This may not signal an actual problem but that the battery is likely older and may need to be replaced soon

Fluid Check: Use the dipstick to check oil, power steering, and transmission fluid. Look for proper levels and no burnt smells. Brake and radiator fluids may often be observed through the reservoirs

Belts: Look for worn belts and hoses

Inside the car

  • Look for noticeable wear such as cracked dashboard, seats, and upholstery
  • Lift floor mats to verify no hidden damage
  • Verify that all gauges and lights are operational, including dash lights, interior lights and accessory lights such as the air conditioner and ashtray
  • Adjust all seats
  • Pull each seat belt to ensure that they run free and clear
  • Turn on the heater and air conditioner
  • Roll every window up and down from both the driver’s door, as well as each door
  • Ensure that electronic door lock switches work
  • Test child safety locks if applicable
  • Turn on the radio
  • Cycle the transmission through the gears
  • Operate the emergency brake

Head for the Trunk

  • Visually inspect for damage
  • Verify that the jack is in place, and not damaged
  • Check the spare tire. Inspect for proper pressure and ensure that there is little to no wear
  • Start the car
  • Listen for odd noises when starting
  • Keep the hood open, so you can better hear obvious problems
  • Look under the car for leaks
  • Be aware of any unusual smells

Test Drive the Car

  • While a quick spin around the block may not tell you every problem, note what problems do arise
  • Listen for a high idle
  • Is the steering loose?
  • Does the car pull to one side?
  • Are there any unusual sounds when cornering?
  • Does the car accelerate and brake smoothly?

This may seem like a rigorous test, and surely it is time-consuming. Kicking the tires on cars can easily drain away a day. When you feel that you are done for the day, there is nothing wrong with coming back the next day with a fresh face. It takes less time to eliminate cars from your buy list by testing them before you buy than it takes to sit in repair shops waiting for your new car to get fixed. Buying a used car does not have to be a crap shoot. Take your time, know what to check when buying a used car. Find a good car at a good price, and buy with confidence.

At Mike Duman Automotive, the Premier Used Car Superstore in Suffolk, Virginia, you can be confident to get a great vehicle, at a great price, right now! All of our Gold Star Certified vehicles come with a Duman 50 Point Inspection and Warranty. Check out our extensive online inventory, or come on down for a test drive today! Remember, when other's can't, the DU-MAN CAN!


Looking for a new ride or much needed auto maintenance?  Get some great ideas from the Du-Man on how to use your tax refund on your automobile!

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