Maybe you inherited a car, or possibly you got carried away with your “great find” and purchased a used car without having it checked out. But now, you have to take the guesswork out of evaluating your vehicle--and you need to establish some benchmarks for maintenance and service items going forward, how much you'll spend before you walk away.
So what do you tell your mechanic to look at, so you will know the overall condition of the car?
Start with the basics. You must change the oil regardless of how it looks on the dipstick. This will set the stage for future maintenance. Have the tires checked for not just obvious problems but also cracking and dry rotting, and attempt to establish the age of the tires. The last four digits of the “DOT” number represent the week and the year of the tire’s manufacture. Ask for all the fluids to be checked for level and integrity.
Track down any signs of fluid leakage. Keep your fingers crossed on this one, because it is probably the easiest way to stay out of trouble prior to buying a car. Ask the technician to give you an idea of what fluids are seeping out from where and to prioritize which should be resolved first and at what cost.
Assess the extent of corrosion. You need to know how badly components like brake and gas lines or the exhaust system have been affected by road salt and other corrosives. While the mechanic may not be able to predict the expected life of any corroded parts, he should be able to tell you whether there is corrosion present. If there are issues with the brake or fuel lines, ask how accessible they are in case they need to be replaced, since this will dictate the repair cost. The answers to these questions could change your long-term plans for the vehicle.
Include an extensive road test. Solicit the informed opinion of your trusted car person about how the car performs. They will be evaluating the transmission and the performance of the engine in a number of different driving scenarios. How it reacts under load and at idle will be part of that test and could offer clues to the true worth of your new transportation piece. Ask if the technician felt any slippage in the transmission and if the engine sounds okay.
What about the safety items? Brakes should be first on the list. Ask to be advised of the percentage left on the brake pads or shoes and if there is any sign of a hydraulic problem with the brake system. Inquire about the motor or transmission mounts and any odor of gasoline either under the hood or under the car. Also ask to be made aware of any problem with the usual safety items like the lights, horn and wipers.Yes, the ideal time to check a car out is prior to purchase, but if you have put the car before the horse there is still time to prevent future problems, you just need to know how to shape the process.