I recently bought a new (to me) car. The biggest difficulty I have is trying to determine what if any major mechanical problems there might be, and what to look for when inspecting the vehicle and taking it for a test drive.

So, aside from taking it straight to a mechanic, what simple things should a relative amateur do/look for when doing a "field inspection" of a used car?

  • This is a very broad question which, when asked by an amateur, is likely to be exhausting to a professional. During the private beta, please stick to the kind of questions which pros are likely to ask other pros. See this meta discussion
    – Joel Spolsky
    Mar 8 '11 at 4:04

There's not really anything substantial you can do as a field inspection to look for any major problems other than audible warning signs.

It's worth it to take it to your local (trusted) mechanic and spend $100-200 for a full inspection of your car.

This may be too late for you, but you should really take any car you want to buy to an independent mechanic for an inspection before you buy it. View the cost of the inspection like a home inspection when buying a home. The inspection fee is a small price to pay to save you from possibly thousands of dollars in expenses down the road.

Also, while carfax isn't perfect, it's worth it to run a check on the car to make sure it's not a lemon or had any major damage.


For the 'rough' check I would say, use all your senses.

  1. Listen for strange noises.
  2. Look over the whole car, see if the body panels all line up, if all the openings work well (hood/doors opens/closes properly)
  3. Feel the body panels see if you notice any warping that would result from body putty.
  4. Smell the interior, sniff the exhaust for the smell of burning oil etc.
  5. Taste - well, if you get a bad taste in your mouth from looking at the car, it's probably not good for you :-)

Most of all, ask questions! Car sellers are required by law to answer all questions truthfully, but if you don't ask they won't offer up any negative information.

  • In my instance, I did bring it to a mechanic. But when looking at used cars, you often look at quite a few of them. Being able to weed out the worst ones without bringing them to the mechanic would be a big help. Mar 8 '11 at 3:01
  • @EricPetroelje I've updated my answer with some rough guidelines to slim down the choices before getting a mechanic.
    – Patrick
    Mar 8 '11 at 3:09

Assuming you've narrowed it down to a certain make and model, you can go on the forums out there and ask this question to get specific answers on what to look for. Sometimes, this will awaken you to problems with your choice and you'll decide to move on (your choice demands too much maintenance).

I'm not going to get into the general checks--I leave that to someone else. But as to the particulars of any certain model, trust me. I've used this and saved myself quite a bit of trouble by knowing what to look for with the particular model I wanted.

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