Buying a used car - checklist

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About

I have designed this checklist to assist in "buying a used car" in the US. I first created and used this form Dec 2011 when looking to buy an owner-sold used car from craigslist in San Diego (California). INSTRUCTIONS: Print out multiple copies and use one during each vehicle test drive. Its been designed so you can quickly circle relevant words and add extra notes in the lines provided.

Vehicle Inspection Checklist

Summary

  • Address: ............................
  • _______________________________________________________
  • Mobile and seller's name: .....
  • _______________________________________________________
  • Asking price: .......................
  • $________________
  • Make: ..............................
  • _________________ ........ Model: __________________
  • Year: ...............................
  • _________________ ........ Miles: ___________________
  • Body style: ......................
  • sedan / hatchback / suv / van / coupe / convertible / wagon
  • Transmission: ..................
  • auto / manual ................. Color: _________________
  • Description: .....................
  • _______________________________________________________

    (1) Basic Questions

  • Pink slip in hand: ...................
  • ________________ yes / no / carfax?
  • Smog (date): .........................
  • ________________ yes / no
  • Registered till: .......................
  • ________________ yes / no
  • Any accidents: ......................
  • ______________________________ salvage / clean title
    Existing problems/damage: engine light / transmission / battery / starting

    ____________________________________________________________________________________

    ____________________________________________________________________________________

    ____________________________________________________________________________________

    ____________________________________________________________________________________


    (2) Advanced Questions

  • Everything working: ........
  • ______________________________ cold start / all lights working
  • Security: .........................
  • ______________________________ automatic locks / power windows
  • Other features: ................
  • ______________________________ key-less entry / passenger airbags
  • A/C: ..................................
  • ______________________________ cold / needs replacing
  • Overall car condition: ....
  • poor / fair / good / very good / excellent ..... (values: 1-5)
  • Last oil change: ...............
  • ______________________________ < 1 month / < 6 months
  • Approx lifespan of model: ...
  • ______________________________ don't know
  • Fuel efficiency: ........
  • ______________________________ mpg / don't know
  • Reason for selling: ........
  • ______________________________ new car / no money
  • Car history: .....................
  • ______________________________ bought new / commercial vehicle
  • Last inspection: .............
  • ______________________________ < 1 month
  • How long selling: ..........
  • ______________________________ < 1 month
  • Any offers yet: ...............
  • $_____________________________ yes / no

    (3) Quick Inspection

  • Doors: ...................
  •  : 1 2 3 4 5  : ______________________ 2 door / 4 door / no lock problems
  • Seats: ...................
  •  : 1 2 3 4 5  : ______________________ seats 2 / 4 / 5 / 6 / leather / damaged
  • Body condition: ......
  •  : 1 2 3 4 5  : ______________________ scratches / dents / windscreen cracks
  • Tires: ....................
  •  : 1 2 3 4 5  : ______________________ new replacing / average / new
  • Interior: .................
  •  : 1 2 3 4 5  : ______________________ spacious / no leg room
  • Boot: .....................
  •  : 1 2 3 4 5  : ______________________ spacious / limited
  • Under the hood: ......
  •  : 1 2 3 4 5  : ______________________ leaks / loose wires / low oil / low coolant

    (4) Test Start

  • Engine check: ........
  •  : 1 2 3 4 5  : ______________________ noisy engine / loose belts / bad smells
  • Exhaust check: ........
  •  : 1 2 3 4 5  : ______________________ bad fumes / runs clean
  • Feature check: ........
  •  : 1 2 3 4 5  : ______________________ lights / headlights / windows / aircon
  • Sound system: ........
  •  : 1 2 3 4 5  : ______________________ custom system / radio problems / no cd

    (5) Test Drive

  • Steering: .............
  •  : 1 2 3 4 5  : ______________________ needs alignment / wide turning circle
  • Brakes: ................
  •  : 1 2 3 4 5  : ______________________ noisy / grippy
  • Transmission: ......
  •  : 1 2 3 4 5  : ______________________ old stick shift
  • Overall feel: .........
  •  : 1 2 3 4 5  : ______________________ bad suspension

    Extra Notes

  • VIN: .................................
  • ______________________________
  • Plates: .............................
  • ______________________________
  • KBB Value: ...............................
  • $_______________ (link below)
  • FIRST IMPRESSION: ................
  •  : 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 :
  • OVERALL RANK: .......................
  •  : 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 :
    EXTRA COMMENTS: new / needs work / leaks / nice feel

    ____________________________________________________________________________________

    ____________________________________________________________________________________

    ____________________________________________________________________________________


    Using this Form

    Printing wiki pages can be a bit messy, so instead I recommend you:

    CLICK HERE FOR A ONE PAGE PRINTABLE VERSION IN PDF OR WORD DOC

    Printable checklist I have provided here

    This single page version also includes some nice car drawings to quickly identify the body style and any regions of damage. Each time you go to see a car make sure you take one of these sheets, a clipboard and a pen. If you have a print out of the craigslist ad you can staple it to or print it on the back. Once you meet the seller and the car use this form as a reference to make sure you have answered all the main questions. Even if you don't know a lot about car, asking all these questions can help you identify any problems the seller may be trying to conceal and/or might cost you thousands of dollars in repair. Furthermore, this form will should help prompt you to do things (including an inspection, cold start and test drive etc) in a logical order.

    Should you need it, here's a quick guide to each section:

    • Summary
      • All this information should be provided already on the ad - else you should ask it in your e-mail or over the phone. These values can and should be filled in prior to meeting the seller in person.
    • (1) Basic Questions
      • Most of these questions are pretty easy to ask and answer over the phone. In particular make sure you ask the seller is he's willing to do a smog check for you if you decide to buy... smog checks can be as low as $40 but it must be done immediately before or after sale and if it fails the smog check after the sale you are in serious trouble!
    • (2) Advanced Questions
      • Having answered the basic questions, these questions can help you get a better picture of the car's features and things which might need fixing.
    • (3) Quick Inspection
      • Here's where you should walk around the car, looking for any damage, checking the locks are fine, checking the state of the tire pattern and finish by asking to look under the hood to see the general state an cleanliness. Note that all these sections have a ": 1 2 3 4 5 :" region - this is where you can rank each category whereby 1=poor and 5=excellent.
    • (4) Test Start
      • While still standing over the engine, you should ask the seller to do a cold start so you can listen and smell for any problems. Next you should look at the exhaust pipe and then both sit inside to check the sound system lights, automatic windows and air conditioning (just because they said it runs cold doesn't mean it does!).
    • (5) Test Drive
      • This is the most important part! You might start out in the passenger side to get to a quiet area, but ultimately you should spend a good while behind the wheel to see how it really handles so you can properly rank the steering, acceleration, brakes, suspension and overall feel. Ideally you should using a quiet area to test the turning circle and reverse, but also make sure it works at highway speeds too.
    • Extra Notes
      • Here you can write extra notes about things you'd discovered and there is also a place to write the vehicle identification number (VIN) and number plates. If you are really serious about the car this is a good chance/excuse for you to ask to see the car's certificate and take a quick look at the history. It is usually unwise to buy on the same day, but with the VIN and plates in hand you can get carfax if the user hasn't gotten these already. Note I've also provided a place for the Kelly Blue Book (KBB) value which you can calculated at home using the Make, Model, Year, Miles and Overall car condition. It's a good idea to check the KBB before going to see any car so you don't waste your time with an overpriced vehicle. Using the sale price and other information you can also probably work out how much any repairs, registration and insurance will cost you prior to committing to a purchase.

    Note that the form has many little labels on the right hand side which you should quickly circle or tick to save yourself time writing these words out yourself. While the form can help identify many potential problems, the best thing you can possibly do when car hunting is to take along a friend who knows a lot about cars!


    Deciding what you Want

    Before looking at any cars in person you should first work out (a) your needs, (b) your budget and (c) what type of car you want. After having a look a few cars online you should quickly work out what colors and styles you want, and what you can actually afford! One great idea is to list two or three different makes you might be interested in. You don't need to be an expert on all cars, but you should read up on a few your interested in so that you have a better idea of any drawbacks

    Use Case:

    Here I'm going to use myself as an example. My needs were a car which good for city driving, in a reasonable price range (4000-8000), good tyres and hopefully new enough (2004+) and with few enough miles (<12,000) that it will a good 4 years and could handle the odd long-distance road trips if necessary. My wants were silver or black color, MP3/CD player, cold aircon, and nothing huge but enough for good leg room and lockable trunk. Based on this I realized I probably wanted a five door sedan with automatic transmission and a model which is pretty popular/generic (nothing fancy/expensive) so it would be *relatively* cheap/easy to fix/replace parts if needed. Based on this I chatted with a friend who knew about cars and came up with the following three models I liked:

    • Toyota Corolla - big fan of toyota and this car is pretty reliable up to 200000 miles/10 years and one of the most popular cars ever sold.
    • Honda Civic - a corolla equivalent, very comparable in price, and has been around a long time and quite like the style of the seventh generation and up.
    • Nissan Alitima - another corolla equivalent, sometimes slightly cheaper, and I quite like the style of the third generation.

    These three cars are all very popular, so I figured would be relatively easy/cheap to repair.


    Next, you should consider whether you want to buy from a dealer or owner. Both have pros and cos:

    • Dealer - pros: smog check and accident history must be provided and usually better quality and assurance/peace of mind, cons: can be 20-50% more expensive than buying privately and some dealers are sleazy.
    • Owner: - pros: is also a chance you'll find a really good deal, cons: an increased chance of dodgy/dishonest people and buying a lemon (a bad car needing massive repairs).

    The idea of buying from a dealer or seller is tough, and you should only really consider buying from a owner / private party if you know a bit about cars or can bring along a friend who does! To search for cars I recommend the following two sites:

    • Craigslist - in the US this is a great place to search cars, although if you don't live in the US you'll probably need a different site.
    • Kelly Blue Books - before even calling the dealer/owner make sure you look up the estimated value of the car based on it's model, make, year and mileage.

    If something like mileage is omitted from the description, this is a big warning flag and the first question you should ask. The average person drives about 12,000 to 15,000 miles (19,000 - 24,000 kilometers) per year, but this can be much higher for people or commute or lower for "weekend only" drivers. A cars lifespan depends mostly age and mileage. How long the car last / stays reliable (its lifespan) is also highly variable between different makes and how well its treated. If a car is >6 years old and/or 100,000 miles (160,000 km) it's going to need some replacements... and at 150,000 miles (240,000 km) it's getting on the high range where it may need a very expensive engine and/or transmission replacement. Once it gets too old or too high mileage, problems will become so frequent that the money you have to spend replacing parts mean it's no longer worth keeping the car. When buying a car it's thus also important to consider how many more years will it last (assuming it is reliable in the first place), how long you want it to last and what resale value you might get after a certain number of years. Some cars hold resale value much better than others.

    One final thing to consider is the idea of buying a salvage title (as opposed to clean title). Salvage title means it's been in an accident, but probably has had a lot of parts replaced to bring it up to scratch, so that's a good thing. If you look at a car's history, you might find that something with huge miles has recently had an engine replacement, meaning it's good for many more miles.



    Hope you find this form helpful! Kind regards, Andrew.

    Links


    Acknowledgements: Rob Fitzgerald, Felix Grobler and Heather for help refining this form