How to Inspect a Used Car Before Buying: The Ultimate Checklist

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Used cars are a great way to save money. As an added benefit, the carbon footprint of manufacturing the car has already been offset. Whatever the reason for your car purchase, it’s wise to know what you’re getting into.

A used car needs to be inspected thoroughly. First, you must check the car’s history and ask for a safety certificate check. Then, inspect the exterior and interior for signs of damage. A basic understanding of warning signs can help you avoid buying a car that will need expensive repairs in the near future.

That sounds like a lot, and it is – which is why it’s a good idea to get a pre-purchase car inspection from an expert. To help you get started, though, we’ve put a guide together to help you with the what, why, and where of purchasing a used car.

Read on to learn everything you need to know! 

How to Check a Car Before Buying It

Checking the car’s history, interior and exterior condition, and the state of the engine bay under the bonnet are the most important things to check before purchasing a used car. You can learn a lot about a car’s condition and quality, and whether it’s worth the price by checking these four areas.

There are a couple of things to tick off before you purchase a used car. Although quite tedious, these checks are necessary to ensure that you get a used car that’s worth it and not a mere lemon (a faulty vehicle).

You need to do a history check—ask why it’s up for sale and ask to see its roadworthy certificate, logbook, odometer, and mechanic inspection report (if available). Then, you need to inspect both the interior and exterior. You also need a comprehensive mechanical check under the bonnet.

All of these ensure that you’re getting a good deal and not setting yourself up for accidents or costly repairs later on. 

Now, let’s go through the checklist.

Historical Checks

When buying a used car, it’s essential to check the vehicle’s history, including: 

  • Reason for Sale – Ask the seller why they are putting out their vehicle for sale. People will usually sell because they want to upgrade or have no use for the vehicle anymore (leaving the country, living in a more accessible place, etc.). Avoid private sellers posing as intermediaries or selling on someone else’s behalf.
  • Roadworthy or Safety Certificate Check – Ask for a Safety Certificate or Roadworthy Certificate (RWC), which isn’t always available upfront. It is the seller’s responsibility to get this certificate. The buyer needs to make sure that the certificate is authentic if they are unsure, by speaking to the issuer of the certificate or an Approved Inspection Station (AIS).
  • Accident History – Ask if the vehicle has been in any accidents. You can also tell by checking the paint (paint overspray, bubbled paint, etc.), dents, gaps, and replaced parts (new tail light, new airbag, etc.). Now, it isn’t a deal breaker if the vehicle has been through an accident, but you have to then be more thorough with your mechanical check so that you don’t experience an accident yourself.
  • Service History – Ask if the car undergoes regular maintenance. An old but well-maintained vehicle is good to consider.
  • Vehicle Mileage – Check the odometer to know the vehicle mileage. In Australia, the average mileage per year is 15,000 to 25,000.
  • Logbook History – Ask to see the vehicle’s logbook, which should contain its service history. If it’s been sold and bought multiple times, the logbook can provide information to potential buyers. Logbooks can either be physical or digital.
  • Vehicle History Report – With a vehicle history report, you can check if the car has money owing and has been stolen or written off. By entering the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN), you can even check its odometer and valuation, among others.
  • Mechanic Inspection Report – Getting a professional mechanic to check the used car is called a pre-purchase inspection (PPI). A licensed mechanic will do a comprehensive examination and provide you with a report and their professional opinion about the vehicle. This is only done upon request and is the buyer’s responsibility.

Interior Checks

You should always check the interior of a used car before purchasing, including:

  • Air Conditioning – The AC should be able to blow cold air quietly. If you hear buzzing or unusual noise, it could mean compressor, refrigerant, or drive belt problems. The repair may cost you around $1,000.
  • Wear on Upholstery – Look for signs of wear and tear, which are natural in old vehicles. However, it’s a bit of a red flag to have worn-out upholstery on a new vehicle, so ask the reason behind it. Consider how much changing the upholstery is worth and how much you’re willing to pay for the vehicle.
  • Audio and Speakers – Try out the sound system and see if all the speakers work. Consult car audio technicians about replacement costs, so you know how to negotiate with the vehicle’s selling price (if that’s not a deal breaker).
  • Seat Belts – Anything safety-related should be in excellent condition when buying a used vehicle. Check if the clasps work (especially when you test drive) and watch out for fraying.
  • Functioning Windows – Wind all the windows up and down to check if they’re functioning. Make sure there aren’t any chips or cracks in the glass.
  • Condition of the Boot – Check if the boot opens and closes easily and locks properly. If the spare tyre is there, inspect for rust or water damage.

Exterior Checks

Make sure you check the following exterior things when inspecting a used car:

  • Exterior Rust – Rust is caused by age or exposure to the elements—rain, snow, etc. Off-roading and driving in puddles speed up corrosion. If the rust is really bad, the car wouldn’t even get a roadworthy certificate. Otherwise, you can get the rust removed for a couple of hundred dollars.
  • Tyres – Check all the tyres, including the spare. The tyre treads should be no less than 5 mm. If there is more wear on some tyres than others, there might be a problem with the wheel alignment.
  • Functioning Lights – Check all the lights in both bright and dim environments. The exterior and interior lights—front lights, tail lights, brake lights, reverse lights, park lights, number plate lights, indicators, and warning lights—should all work.
  • Windscreen Checks – Check the condition of the windscreen, looking for any cracks, chips or signs of stress or damage. Ask the seller if the windscreen has ever been replaced, and if so, how recently.
  • Oil Leaks – Examine where the car is parked for any oil leaks. Leakage in the engine, transmission, axles, brakes, power steering, and shock absorbers will be problematic and costly in the long run.
  • Replaced Exterior Panels – Inspect if the panels are loose, misaligned, or mismatched, and see if there are gaps between the panels. If they show those signs, the vehicle may have experienced an accident or hail damage.
  • The Paint Job – The paint can say a lot about whether the vehicle had any accidents before the sale. Make sure to inspect the exterior paint in a well-lit environment or under the sun to see any difference in the paint job.
  • Exhaust – The exhaust system shouldn’t release black fumes or be unnecessarily noisy. Otherwise, the muffler may have a hole or rust. Muffler labour and replacement can cost approximately $300.
  • Condition of Doors – Check if the doors open, close, and lock firmly. The rubber deteriorates over time, so it may need to be replaced.
  • Licence Plates – Aside from the registration check, ensure the licence or registration plates (in front and at the rear) are rust-free and readable.

Bonnet Checks

When looking under the bonnet of a used car, make sure you check the following:

  • VIN – The Vehicle Registration Number (VIN) indicates the car’s model code, series, luxury level, and body style. On the car, you can find the VIN inside the engine compartment or on the base of the windscreen. If it checks out with all the paperwork, registration, and compliance dates, then that’s good.
  • Condition of the Battery – Look for signs of corrosion. Acid corrosion on the battery does not mean immediate replacement. Still, it needs to be cleaned to start your car properly. Do not disregard this, as battery corrosion can lead to other problems, such as AC and chassis problems.
  • Fluid Levels – A well-maintained car means sufficient fluid levels (coolant, engine oil, wiper fluid, etc.) and clear colour. While engine oil turns dark over time, it shouldn’t look like sludge. Thick fluids may mean debris, which you don’t want because it means inefficiency.
  • Overall Condition – Dust is normal when you open the bonnet, but inspect for signs of wear and tear or damage. You’ll know the car’s been in an accident in the paint and new welding—metallic parts and fabricated joints should have the same colour. Joint points should be visible and unwelded.
  • Tubing – Ensure there’s no damage or discolouration in any tubes and hoses under the bonnet. Replacement for damaged hoses cost a few hundred dollars, which the seller should have been able to pay for before the sale.
  • Smells – Get the car idling and check for oil fumes. If the smell is strong, there may be problems in the exhaust, cylinders, or piston rings.

What to Look for in a Used Car Test Drive?

The main things to look for when test-driving a used car are:

  • Steering – If you can, try to get on a winding road to test the turns and sudden swerves. It should be smooth, comfortable, stable, and precise.
  • Accelerating – There shouldn’t be any weird noise when accelerating and decelerating.
  • Braking – Check if it’s smooth to step on the brakes and if the pedal doesn’t sink to the floor. Try braking softly, then suddenly. Is the car’s braking response in real-time?
  • Suspension – Test the suspension by driving over bumps and potholes. (But make sure you first tell the owner that you’re doing it to test the suspension.) It shouldn’t rattle loudly.
  • Transmission – Whether it’s an automatic or manual transmission, gear changing should also be smooth (no jolting!) and noise-free. Otherwise, there might be a problem with the gear fluid or constant-velocity joints.
  • Sounds – Blast the audio system and check if all the buttons work as they should. You always want to take the time and listen for any rattling or clanking in the car while driving.

Where is the Best Place to Buy a Used Car?

Buying from a dealership, private individual, or auction has pros and cons. Depending on what’s most important to you—low prices, peace of mind, or variety—the best place can be any of the three. 

Benefits of Buying a Used Car from a Dealership

Some of the many benefits of buying a used car from a dealership or lot are:

  • Plenty of options – A dealership displays plenty of cars for sale, so you can talk to the staff and see your options for the specifications you want. You can even test drive a couple of cars and compare them firsthand.
  • Better documentation – Dealers spend time completing all the documentation of the car they’re selling. That means you’ll know if the car has money owing on it, if it’s been serviced regularly, etc.
  • Flexible payment methods and terms – Private sellers only accept cash, but dealerships can give you credit card or other financing options. You can also negotiate the monthly repayment or the terms (like a small deposit).
  • Peace of mind – You can get a statutory warranty (terms and conditions depend on the state) or request an extended warranty on your purchase. And, in some dealerships, you can get someone to help with financing and insurance in the same place.
  • Little to no paperwork and legwork – Dealerships usually handle all the paperwork, so you don’t have to worry about title transfer and registration. This is great for people who are busy and need a vehicle quickly.
  • Credibility – Dealerships have a reputation to uphold, so they would never scam clients. They have more to lose doing that than making a good sale.

Benefits of Buying a Used Car from a Private Seller

The benefits of buying a used car from a private seller include the following:

  • Affordable – Although private sellers only take cash payments, the price of their vehicle is usually lower than dealerships offer. This is because owners want the car gone due to other expenses on their plate (for an upgraded vehicle or an overseas move). Thus, buyers usually have more negotiating power when buying a used car from a private seller.
  • Cars at better specifications – Compared to auction stock, private vehicles have better specifications. Because they’re owned for private use, you’re more guaranteed that the vehicle got some tender loving care prior to the sale.
  • Targeted options – If you already know the specifications you want, you can filter your options easily.
  • Less pressure – Salespeople from dealerships are trained to make a sale; sometimes, they can be too pushy. If you don’t want to be pressured into buying a used car, it’s better to check out what private sellers have to offer. You can take your time and browse online first.

Benefits of Buying a Used Car from an Auction

There are several notable benefits when buying a used car from an auction, including:

  • Low prices – Auctions price their cars at a very low price. Some say that auctions sell 80% lower than the retail price.
  • Inspected and checked – Good auctioneers may conduct an independent vehicle inspection prior to the auction date. With that, you don’t have to worry about inspection costs after the sale.
  • Variety – You’ll be surprised at the wide selection of used vehicles in auctions. You may even encounter a make and model you don’t expect but like a lot.
  • Accommodating – It is easy to place a bid in an auction (even more so in online auctions). And, like in private sales, you’re less pressured to make a purchase. You can bid at your own pace.

What Is a Pre-purchase Car Inspection?

A pre-purchase car inspection is an independent service that examines the condition of a used vehicle. It can be done at basic level inspection, which inspects only the structural and cosmetic quality of the car. During a full inspection, the exterior, as well as the mechanical aspects of the car, are examined.

Some dealerships may provide you with an inspection report, and some brands even hand out documents certifying that they’ve inspected the vehicle prior to the sale. For example, Toyota has a Certified Pre-Owned Certificate, which contains a full history check and comprehensive quality check. Mazda, on the other hand, inspects all pre-owned Mazda vehicles, whether from a dealership or a private seller.

Note that a pre-purchase car inspection differs from a Safety Certificate or Roadworthy Certificate (RWC). The latter is required by the state, while a pre-purchase car inspection is done only when the buyer wants it.

People who don’t know much about cars usually get a pre-purchase car inspection. The main benefit is that it can save you thousands of dollars in possible repairs and makes sure that you don’t get a lemon.

What’s Included in a Pre-purchase Vehicle Inspection?

In a basic pre-purchase inspection, the car is checked for structural and cosmetic defects and issues. A thorough pre-purchase inspection is a comprehensive examination that checks everything—the exteriors, interiors, mechanical components, and electronic parts, with a test drive done at the end.

The report comes printed or digital (with pictures and detailed explanation); sometimes, a quote for any necessary repairs will be included. Some service providers even include a PPSR report to know if the vehicle has money owing on it. You can even talk to the mechanic if you’re present at the inspection.

How Much Does a Professional Used Car Inspection Cost?

A professional used car inspection costs anywhere from $130 to $300. Some membership-based car servicing providers offer discounts. Ultimately the cost of a used car inspection will depend on the type of car and the rates of the mechanic inspecting the vehicle.

Is a Pre-purchase Vehicle Inspection Worth It?

Yes, it is always worth getting a comprehensive pre-purchase vehicle inspection. If you’re not well-versed in auto-mechanics, the inspection saves you time and money. A pre-purchase vehicle inspection saves you money because the costs of possible repairs will offset the money you pay for the pre-purchase inspection. 

Related Questions

How Many Kilometres Is Good for a Used Car?

Anything under 150,000km is considered very good for a used car, especially a diesel vehicle. If a used car has over 250,000km, you’re better off looking for something else. 

Is a 10-Year-Old Car Too Old to Buy Second Hand?

A 10-year-old car isn’t too old to buy, as long as it’s in good condition and hasn’t driven too many kilometres. An old car with low mileage is often better to purchase than a new one with high mileage. You can still get many years of usage out of a 10-year-old car that has done under 100,000km.

How Can I Tell if a Used Car Has Money Owing on It?

For just $2, you can go to the Personal Property Securities Register (PPSR) and check if a secondhand car has money owing on it. Type in the car’s 17-digit Vehicle Identification Number (VIN), and you’ll know if the car Is debt-free.

How Can I Tell if a Used Car Has Been in an Accident?

If you can’t tell if a car has been in an accident by checking the car’s condition and looking for inconsistencies in car parts, paint, or the finish, do a car history check. A car history check is an online tool that allows you to check if a vehicle has been in an accident. 


This article is published in good faith and for general informational purposes only. Shift Automotive does not make any warranties about the ongoing completeness and reliability of this information, and specifics will vary according to your vehicle’s manufacturer and model. This article is not intended to replace consultation with a qualified automotive service technician.