Buying a Second hand car? Check out our top tips

23 July, 2015

Planning on Buying a Used Car? Check these Top 10 Parts Before You Buy

You found a second-hand car you desire with low kilometers online. It is just what you wanted at a fair price. What’s next? Luckily, you are not purchasing the vehicle blindly. The owner has provided nearly 25 images and a comprehensive list of the cars features on the local website. It appears from the ad that it’s in good shape. The car has a great exterior: solid body, no rust, minimal interior wear and nearly new tires. Moreover, the engine purrs and the transmission shifts smoothly and handles well.

Wanting to take advantage of an excellent deal, you act quickly. First, you call the seller to set up an appointment to view the vehicle. Your intention is to have a test drive and come to an agreement quickly. After all, it seems the best way to proceed, right?
Wait a minute. Take a breath and think. Remember these two words: Caveat Emptor. “Let the Buyer Beware!”

Buying a Second hand car Check out our top tips 1

Here are the top 12 things to look for in when thinking about buying a used vehicle.

The Checklist:

Brake fluid
Transmission fluid
Power steering fluid/anti-freeze-coolant
Front end
Wheels and tyres
Exhaust System



Belts can be a good indication if the prospective vehicle was a poorly maintained vehicle. Vehicles today have one to four belts. Frequently, there is only one, called a serpentine belt because it snakes around the entire front end of the vehicle’s block. On other vehicles, though, there may be as many as four separate belts. Whether the vehicle has one or four belts, they must be correctly tensioned, so the various systems work correctly. If a belt slips, the system is losing power and will functioning incorrectly. For instance, if your alternator belt is slipping then your car’s battery isn’t being fully charged, its life-span will be shortened.

There are two ways to determine if a belt needs work. Check for shiny spots on the belt, this is an indication that it’s slipping. Also, check if the belt yields more than half-an-inch when pressed. If so, the belt will require work. Finally, check to make sure the belt is free of cracks.


Often overlooked, a vehicle’s hoses are hidden time-bombs. For example, if a hose in the power steering system breaks, it is more than a mess under the bonnet. The vehicle is virtually unmanageable because the power assist is gone. Additionally, if a piece of the cooling system hose blows out, the vehicle will quickly overheat and likely damage the engine.

Check if the hoses feel spongy, have bubbling, bulging or cracks. Inspect for gouged or nibbled at the O-clamps. If you see or feel any imperfections on the vehicles hoses, they should be replaced.

Brake Fluid

Like many other automotive items, brake fluid is crucial for vehicle safety. To check brake fluid, have a look at the transparent reservoir at the top right-hand side of the motor. It should appear gray-black in color and have no apparent bubbles. Bubbling could indicate, among other things, air intrusion into the fluid that can weaken the fluid’s response. Note that one should never remove the cover of the brake reservoir because the fluid is moisture-attractive. Once moisture has entered the fluid, it begins to deteriorate. Brake fluid should remain near the top of the reservoir. It may lower some as the brakes wear. If the fluid level is very low, it likely means the brakes need repair.

Transmission Fluid

Check the transmission fluid. Unlike an oil check, the transmission fluid check should be done with the vehicle is thoroughly warmed. To check this fluid, park the vehicle on a flat surface and let the vehicle idle until it is up to operating temperature (about 20 minutes,). Then, remove the dipstick from its housing, wipe it and reinsert it to obtain a reading. Note there are two ranges, one marked HOT FULL, and the other marked HOT LOW (or something similar). Use this scale for the reading. It should be full. If it is “low,” you are about a pint (a bottle of fluid) down. If it is low, there might be a problem that needs to be addressed. Advise the owner/seller that the fluid has to be refilled.

Next, feel the transmission fluid with your fingers. Gritty fluid is indicative of filings and small pieces of metal in the transmission, a sign of problems. Finally, check the color; it should be pinkish, reddish-pink, or reddish-brown. If it is black, there may be a problem. Ask the owner to drop the price $3,000, because that is what it will likely cost to replace the transmission.

Power Steering Fluid and Antifreeze coolant

The power steering reservoir is located near the firewall (motor compartment’s rear wall) at the top of the engine. It is a small, sealed unit that has its own very small dipstick on the cover. You simply remove the cover, insert the dipstick and take a reading. The power steering fluid level should remain constant.

The antifreeze coolant reservoir is usually located on the left-hand side of the motor compartment. The transparent reservoir is marked with the legends FULL HOT and FULL COLD. The fluid should be at the full cold mark if you are checking with the engine off. If it is below that mark, tell the owner/seller that there may be a leak in the cooling system that has to be repaired.


Today’s automotive batteries are maintenance free which means they are sealed, although there is usually an indicator that will let you know the condition of the battery. For the most part, the battery should be clean and free of any deposits. If you see any chalky white deposits near the battery terminals, it could indicate that your charging system is pushing too much voltage into the battery. If you notice this, tell the owner/seller that the charging system needs reparation.


Always check the condition of the brakes of every vehicle you consider purchasing. The reason is obvious. One of the systems that must pass the safety inspection is the brakes. However, the capacity of the brakes to stop quickly can be open to interpretation. One inspector excellent rating may be second inspectors acceptable rating. To counter this, lift the vehicle up so the frame is safely supported, and the right front wheel is free. Use the right front wheel because the cars physics of motion – stopping, starting and turning – puts most of the vehicle’s stress on the right front wheel.

The brake disc should be free of scoring, gouging and bluing, which indicates metal-to-metal contact and some light burning. You should also be able to see the brake pads. Check them for wear. Look closely at the brake lines while the wheel is off. They should appear clean and be free of any corrosion. If you see any corrosion or leakage, you will have to tell the seller that the brake system needs some work. A brake system can be working and even pass a safety test with some corrosion or leakage. As long as the brakes stop the vehicle, it will pass the safety inspection and qualify for a certificate so the vehicle can be sold.

An excellent indication of the brakes’ state of health is the brake wear indicator. The brake wear indicator begins to appear as the pads approach their limits. At this time, a rhythmic thrumming sets up that you can feel in the brake pedal. If you feel this, it is time to have brake work done. Brakes should also be checked by accelerating on a safely enclosed course and executing emergency stops. If there is any appreciable fade, give the vehicle a pass. The same is true if the vehicle pulls to one side or the other.

Front end

Once you have restored the wheel to the right front, you should check the overall condition of the front end. To do this, grasp the right front tire firmly and move it back and forth. This will give you an indication of the exact state of the front-end bushings, ball joint and bearings. If the wheel is tight, then you can be sure that the ball joint, bushings, and bearings are in good shape. Take a pry bar or large screwdriver next and attempt to lift the tire. If there is excessive up and down movement, it could indicate the ball joint, bushings or bearings may have issues that have to be checked. If there are issues with the front end, you may want to avoid the vehicle. Since the right front may have issues, it is likely that the entire front end may have issues that need to be addressed.

Wheels and Tyres

Wheels and tyres may seem like one and the same item but it is not. The fact is it is two separate items. The wheels are the metal items that the tyres fit around. In a sense, they are an item in that there is one unit, made of two parts. However, that is where the resemblance to stops. Each part needs a separate check.

Give the wheels a visual check first. If you see any damage on a wheel, put the vehicle up on a lift for access to look further. Each metal wheel should be free of nicks, dings, dents and other damage. As tyres depend on wheel integrity to work properly, you must be sure that each wheel is in good shape. If it is not, then you will either have to negotiate a new price with the seller or give it a pass. Depending on the accessory level of the wheel – aluminum, stainless, bright, chromed, satin finish – a new wheel may cost as much as $1,200 to $1,500 individually; contributing to a substantial financial burden to have them replaced. Moreover, damaged wheels may mask something else that is hidden. It is probably better to give this vehicle a wide berth.

Tyres are consumables – they are used up over time – and can be damaged by hitting a pothole the wrong way. Nonetheless, tyres should be in good shape, free of cuts, dings, nicks and debris. If the tyres on the vehicle are expensive, you may be adding as much as $5,000 to the cost of the vehicle. Ask the seller/owner to replace the tyres if they are not in good shape, unless you are prepared to pay to replace them yourself.

Exhaust system

The exhaust system is crucial to the safety and proper operation of the vehicle; it must be damage-free. You can quickly check the condition of the exhaust system while the vehicle is lifted up by a jack. An initial visual inspection will indicate the apparent state of the exhaust, but it won’t tell you much about its actual condition. For a complete check, one must get down and dirty with the exhaust to learn its secrets. All that is required is a rag and the willingness to bend down near the tailpipe and to inhale the fumes for a moment.  Simply start the vehicle and let it run for a moment. Then, take the rag and cover the tailpipe for a moment to prevent any burns. While you are holding the rag, feel the exhaust stream pulses. They should be regular, without gaps, lulls or hissing sounds.. If there are, it indicates there is likely a problem with the exhaust system. That system begins at the manifold and ends at the tailpipe and is nearly the entire length of the vehicle’s underside. It will cost you about $1,600 to replace the entire unit; unless it also needs the exhaust manifold unit and headers, which can add another $1,000 to the cost. If expenses are tight, it is likely not worth the investment.
As you can see, there are many things to check before you purchase a used vehicle. Taking an active role in reviewing the various part of a vehicle will likely save you substantial sums.

If you are unsure about the quality of a vehicle, call us for a Pre-purchase Car Inspection!
Buying a Second hand car Check out our top tips 2
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