Inspecting a Vehicle

Inspecting a car is critical before bidding on it!

Unless you’re a big time wholesaler, you need to estimate in your head what its going to cost to get the vehicle up to par. Look at the vehicle’s defects, and decide if its worth it to you. Is this a vehicle that you see a high profit margin in? Is it worth your time and effort to get it repaired? Does it need paint? How much is that going to cost? You need to think of these things when inspecting a car. Some cars can turn into a never-ending money pit if you’re not careful.

Check the vehicles history.

You can see if the vehicle has been issued a salvage title, or been in a major accident. Look closely at the steering wheel, and look for signs of the airbag being deployed. Scammers conceal it by gluing it back together, and painting over where it was deployed.

Checking the Exterior

Look to see if there is any rust on the body. Look extra close if your buying and selling classic cars. Try to stick with California cars. East coast cars generally have a lot of rust, especially underneath the vehicle. Look for frame damage underneath the vehicle. Look to see if the frame has been rusted through.

I’ve lifted up floor mats, and carpet and found rust much worse than this on old cars. If your inspecting something 30 years or older make sure you lift up all the carpeting. I had a 1976 BMW 2002, and a 1977 El Camino where the rust had eaten through the floor board making gaping holes underneath the car. This is obviously very dangerous.

The main Exterior Checks are:

  • Look at the vehicle in the sunlight, and check to see if their color variations in the fenders, the hood, doors, etc. If the colors look different, certain portions of the car have probably been repainted. On older vehicles, the hood, roof, and trunk will be usually more faded than the rest of the vehicle due to sun damage.
  • Check to see if the vehicle has been repainted. Look to see if there is over spray on the moldings, trim, the muffler, etc. Open the doors, and look at the door jams. See if they match with the colors of the outside.
  • Look at the hood, and trunk, and see if their off kilter. Make sure they line up evenly. When inspecting a car, Open the hood, and check for over spray in the engine compartment. Open the trunk, and look for over spray in the trunk lid.
  • Look at the hood, and see if the original factory stickers are there. The stickers will be located on both fenders, and the hood. If there missing from the fenders they’ve probably been replaced. Look for paint on the stickers.
  • Look to see if there is any water damage on the car. Get a FREE VIN Check from AutoCheck®. You’ll be able to see if the car came from the south, or was in a flood. Check for a mildew smell inside the car, and the trunk. Look for water in the spare tire well. Check for water damage, and corroded metal parts under the seats, and the carpet.
  • Make sure the key locks, and unlocks all the doors. Make sure the key opens the trunk.
  • Open the trunk, and look for the spare tire, and jack.
  • Look at the tires. Are they all the same brand, and the same size? Are they bald? How much tread is left? Take a penny and stick it upside down between the tread of the tires. If you see above the top of Lincoln’s head there isn’t enough sufficient tread left on the tire. Check the tread on the inside of the tire too.
  • Remember, your selling second hand cars so inspect closely.
  • Checking the Interior

    The main Interior Checks are:

    • Check the upholstery for rips, tears, cracks, cigarette burns, etc. Look up at the head liner, and check for rips, or tears while inspecting a car. Look to see if its sagging in certain areas. Old Volvos’ are notorious for this.
    • Check the carpet for stains, and wear. Try to smell for mildew suggesting flood damage.
    • Check to see if the seats move back, and forth, and up, and down.
    • Check all the windows, and the sunroof if the car has one.
    • Check to see if All the lights work. Have someone stand outside, and confirm they all work. Try the left signal, right signal, brights, brakes, and hazards.
    • Check all the dash controls. Check to see if the air is blowing out of all the vents.
    • Check the dash lights, and all the interior lights.
    • Check to see is the horn works. Check all the seatbelts, and the the windshield wipers.
    • Does the car start rough? Does it idle rough?
    • Does the radio work? Do you get AM, and FM? A lot of cars will only get FM because their isn’t a good electrical ground.

    Checking the Mechanical

    The main mechanical Checks are:


    • Drive the car, and let go of the steering wheel. See if the car veers to the left or right.
    • While in park, turn the wheel all the way to the left, and right. Listen for clicking sounds. If you hear clicking sounds the car has bad axles.
    • Is the wheel centered when the car is driving straight?
    • Do U-Turns, and three point-turns when inspecting a car.


    • Does the engine seem to be hesitating, or misfiring?
    • Are their any fluid leaks? is coolant, fuel, or oil leaking? Look underneath the car for different fluid leaks.
    • Is the engine quiet? Do you hear any ticking sounds? Listen extra close if your selling cheap cars. The profit margins are small. You don’t want to invest to much money into them.
    • Does the oil look like it was just changed? Ironically, this isn’t always a good sign. Some people replace their motor oil with 50 weight heavy motor oil, and Lucas oil stabilizer to conceal engine noise.
    • Look for clumps of silicone around the perimeter of the valve cover gasket of the engine. Mechanics will open the valve cover gasket to diagnose engine problems. When the owner of the vehicle decides not to go through with the repair, they reseal the valve cover. Be wary, it could be a bad sign.
    • Look to see if the check engine light has been tampered with when inspecting a car. Turn the key so the battery comes on, but don’t crank the engine. Make sure all the instrument cluster lights come on (check engine, abs, airbags). If one of them doesn’t, its either been disconnected or the light bulb burnt out. I once fell victim to this scam at an auction.
    • Does the engine start easily? does it settle to a smooth idle?
    • Unscrew the engine oil cap, and examine it. Milky residue is a sign of water mixing with the oil indicating a potential blown head gasket. Burnt oil on the engine oil cap indicates a neglected, abused engine.


    Check All The Fluids

    • Light Brown:Oil that has been changed frequently.
    • Dark Brown/Black: Oil that has not been changed often.
    • Red:Automatic transmission fluid.
    • Green: Coolant / Antifreeze.
    • Water: It’s common to see water underneath the AC condenser.
    • Blue: Windshield washer fluid.



    • Does the car hesitate when you drive it? Do you feel an intermittent lack of power?
    • Do you see smoke coming out of the exhaust?
    • Exhaust leaks are fairly common. When you accelerate you’ll hear it.

            Look at the Exhaust iteslf:

    • Is it white? If you see white smoke, and it smells like coolant it’s a sign of a blown head gasket. The smoke is white because water is getting into the engine, and coming out of the exhaust. The smoke can also be white if the engine is cold. Let the engine warm up, and see if the smoke has cleared. Small amounts of water coming from the exhaust is condensation which is typical.
    • Is it blue? (Burning oil, broken piston rings) indicates a worn engine which won’t last much longer.
    • Is it black? (running to rich, fuel injection problem)

    Cooling System

    • Is their any leak in the radiator, or water pump?
    • Open the radiator cap. Do you see any signs of stop leak?
    • Is the car overheating? Is the temperature gauge slowly rising?
    • Does the coolant keep disappearing out of the reservoir? is their coolant in the reservoir? Do you smell coolant in the exhaust? these are all signs of a blown head gasket when inspecting a car.
    • Look inside the coolant reservoir. Is there oil in it. Bad sign.


    • Check the transmission fluid. It should be red, and not smell burnt.
    • If your transmission is slipping or not going into reverse it maybe low on fluid. Sometimes you need to put the car in drive then reverse a couple times before you check the fluid level.
    • There are many things that can effect the way the transmission shifts. Is your check engine light on? You may need to replace a sensor. I had a Ford F250 diesel truck that wasn’t shifting properly. It was parked in an area for a while, and some rats chewed up the hood insulation and made a nest inside the engine compartment. We saw that they chewed up some wires which made it so that the automatic transmission could only be shifted manually. Bottom line is that poor shifting can be a number of things.

    Manual transmission

    • How does the clutch feel? How far do you have to let off the clutch before you engage into the next gear?
    • Is there grinding between gears? Can you smoothly switch into each gear?
    • Does it pop out of gear, and you have to pop it back in? Volkswagens notoriously pop out of gear when going in reverse.

    Automatic transmission

    • Does the car hesitate, and not go into the next gear when it’s supposed too?
    • Do you feel a hard shift from gear to gear? You feel the RPM’s rising then all of a sudden it pops into the next gear hard.

    Are You Looking at a Lemon?

    A car is deemed a lemon if its under warranty, and has been back to the dealer’s shop over and over again for repairs. If it is determined that a motor vehicle is a “lemon,” the motor vehicle’s warrantor must repurchase or replace the motor vehicle from the buyer.