DIY Car Inspection

  • By Celene Zaghini
  • 16 Feb, 2015

We recommend getting a vehicle inspection report carried out on any vehicle that you intend to buy, however there are some checks you can do yourself to narrow the field whilst out looking.

If a car has been properly serviced, it should be in reasonable mechanical condition and if the car you’re looking at has a complete service record, it is a good start.

The deeper the tyre tread depth, the longer the tyre will last. Look at the tyres. All should be of the same brand and size, and be evenly worn. If the tread has only a few millimetres left, factor a new set of tyres into the price of the car. Check the spare, too. Also take it out and place it next to one of the wheels to make sure it fits the car.

Check that the kilometres on the odometer correspond with the most recent service kilometres. If they don’t, or the kilometres on the clock seem low for the overall condition of the car, smell a rat. Winding back speedos is illegal, but some people still do it.

Don’t look at cars on a rainy day. It hides paint imperfections that may indicate panel damage.

Engine condition
Have a look at the oil. If it is in good condition, it will be translucent and honey-coloured. Old, dirty oil is black and has a burnt smell. If this is what you see when you pull out the dipstick, assume that the car has either had a hard life, or been neglected. Look under the engine/transmission for leaks.
The other main indicator of engine condition is the coolant. This must be checked when the engine is cold. Remove the radiator cap. The coolant should be clean and brightly coloured – usually green or orange. If you can see rust in the coolant, oil floating on top, or a white, creamy sludge around the cap, this indicates the cooling system is in poor condition – or, worse, a cracked cylinder head or leaking head gasket. Both can be fixed, but you’re looking at several hundred dollars minimum.

Under the bonnet
Open the bonnet while the engine is running. Fumes indicate worn piston rings or cylinders. Open the oil cap lots of smoke means major engine problems. Blue smoke from the exhaust pipe is another indicator of engine problems.
A dirty engine bay can suggest the car has been poorly maintained.

Check the dip stick. Thick and dirty oil indicates a “sludgy” engine. A milky or grey colour indicates water in the engine – very expensive!

Radiator coolant should be a bright, clean colour. If it’s brown, the car may need work.

Accident damage
Check for rust by looking inside the boot, the floor wells (lift up the carpet), doors and door sills for red or brown stains, dimpled or bubbled paint. Run a fridge magnet across the exterior body panels. If it doesn’t stick, rust or accident damage has been repaired with plastic filler, which won’t last.
Misaligned panels and different paint hues are also indicators of accident damage. Check the engine bay and boot, too, for signs of non-original paint.

On the road
The engine should start immediately and settle straightaway into a smooth, quiet idle. Any knocking or rattling noises are bad news. Remove the oil filler cap while the engine is idling. Oil fumes can indicate worn rings or cylinders, which are expensive to fix. Let the car idle for a minute then ask the seller to give it a rev while you stand behind it. Watch for blue smoke from the exhaust – another sign of a sick engine.
The car should run smoothly, without hesitation. The brakes should pull the car up straight, with no noises or pulling to one side. The same goes for the steering. On full lock, there should be no clicking noises from the front end; these indicate worn CV joints.

The gears in a manual should engage smoothly and quietly, and there should be no clutch slip. An auto should also change gears quickly and smoothly. When you select Drive, it should engage immediately. If you feel a thump, or the shifts are slow, slurred or noisy, the auto could be in need of an overhaul.

The suspension should work smoothly and quietly on bumpy roads. If the car bounces, gets nervous or twitchy, the suspension is probably overdue for replacement.

In the cabin, the air-conditioning should operate quietly and start to produce cold air within a minute or so. If it doesn’t work, it could require regassing, or the replacement of expensive components.

If the car has power-adjustable seats, windows and mirrors, check them. Replacement of the electric motors, or wiring problems, can be difficult and costly.

Does the audio system work properly? Speakers deteriorate with age and high interior temperatures in summer. Aftermarket speakers, which don’t cost much, will usually sound better anyway.

Are the seats comfortable? Some car makers fit seats with padding that sags and becomes unsupportive after a relatively short time. The seat belt webbing should be not be frayed, the automatic retractor mechanism should operate smoothly and the buckles should be easy to secure and release. Find a shady spot and check that all the lights work.

When driving the car, listen for strange transmission noises. For front-wheel-drive cars, do a tight left and right turn. If you hear clicking the car may have worn CV joints.

The steering should not pull or wander. Brake pedal feel should be firm and braking should be smooth.

Make sure all accessories work. Check brake lights and indicators, and look at both headlights. If one is brighter, it may have been replaced after accident damage.

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