It's Like Having A Mechanic At Your Side
  When Looking For a Used Car


Section A: Exterior

Tools Needed: Tire gauge, Small covered magnet, Hand mirror, Penny


Check around the wheel wells, bumpers, doors, under doors, window moldings, floorboards, under floor mats, and in the trunk (under the mat or carpet). Rust is a big problem because there is no way to stop the spread except to replace the part.


If the bumpers are chrome, look for dents, peeling chrome and missing or deteriorated rubber moldings. If the bumpers are painted or plastic covered, look for scratches in the paint or plastic. Check the alignment, if the bumper is crooked, this is a sign of accident damage.

Light Lenses

Check for cracked or broken tail light, side marker light, and turn signal light lenses.


Check the muffler, tailpipe and exhaust pipe for rust, corrosion, cracks, holes and loose supports.


Hopefully you will be looking at the automobile where it is normally parked. Look under the automobile. There shouldn't be any pools, puddles or drops of fluid on the ground. The only possible fluid that could be apparent is condensation (water) from the air conditioner. Ir you find any signs of leaking fluid, you should wait until Section D: Engine, to try to locate the source.

Trailer Accessories

Check for a wiring harness for trailer lights. Towing a trailer is a strain on the drivetrain and chassis and most manufacturers of smaller automobiles do not recommend towing.

Shocks and Springs

Push down sharply each corner of the automobile. If the shocks are in good shape, the automobile will not bounce more than once.

From a distance, check the front, back and sides. If any of the corners are lower than the others, a spring may be weak of broken. It could also indicate a bent frame (see Part II, Section F: Test Drive) or mismatched tires (see tires).

Hazard Equipment

Check the trunk for a spare tire. Make sure all of the tire changing equipment is there, in good condition and securely fastened.


It's best to check the tires when they're cool (not driven for more than one mile in a three hour period). Check the pressure of all the tires (including the spare) with your tire gauge. The pressure charts are located either in the glove compartment, on the driver's or passenger's door, in the owners manual or on the tire itself. It is common for the seller to over-inflate the tires in order to help the automobile roll easier. The seller may also under-inflate the tires to help the automobile roll more smoothly.

Check tread wear of all the tires by looking for the tread wear indicators. The tire needs to be replaced if these ½ inch wide bands appear across the tread. You can also check the tread by sticking a penny (Lincoln's head first) into several grooves. If you can see the top of Lincoln's head in two or three adjacent grooves, there is less than 1/16 inch of tread remaining. Tires with less than 1/16 inch tread need to be replaced, and many states have laws demanding it.

All four tires should match by brand and general wear. If not all four, at least by pair, front and back. If the tires are different brands, make sure they are all the same type (radial or bias ply). Mixing radial with the older bias ply type tires is unsafe.

Uneven wear on the front pair indicate that the front-end is out of alignment. If the spare of back tires have uneven wear, they may have been switched from the front to hide front-end problems.

Sometimes the tires are turned around to hide badly scuffed sidewalls. Use a hand held mirror to check the inside of the tires for scuff marks.

Fuel Filler Opening

If you are looking at a automobile built before 1975 and it is supposed to use unleaded gas, check the fuel filler opening to see if the hole has been enlarged or tampered with. If it has, leaded fuel (regular) has most likely been used. This will damage the catalytic converter plus, it is illegal to use regular gasoline in an automobile designed to use unleaded gasoline.

Make sure the cap fits securely.


Any of the following may indicate that the automobile was involved in an accident.

Mismatched Paint

Look at the automobile form several feet away. Compare body parts and look for lighter and darker shades in the paint color.


Check the parts which shouldn't have paint (tail pipe, mirrors, glass, tires, molding, etc.).

Misaligned Parts

Look for severe misalignment of body parts (doors, hood, trunk lid and all panels). Look for crooked moldings and trim.


Check all body parts.


Look for recent welding to the frame (under automobile) and in the trunk.


Look for sanding grooves on the doorjambs, under the hood and in the trunk.

Side Mirror(s)

Check the condition of the glass and housing. Check if it is securely fastened to the body of the automobile. Mirrors that show dark spots are going bad. Check to see if the mirror holds its adjustment during the test drive.

Body Work

Check for plastic body filler. This material is used to fill in dents and holes. Patch work might show up as unusual lines, gouges or bulges in a body panel.

Check any questionable areas by lightly rapping the panels with your knuckles. You should notice a difference in the sound of metal and putty.

To check how extensive the work is, take a small magnet covered with a tissue or handkerchief (to avoid scratching the paint) and apply it to the surface of the automobile. The magnet will stick to good metal and will slide off of putty work. This test will show how extensive the patch work is. The larger the patch, the greater the chance for future problems.


When any dents are found, check for any rusting or other scratches.


Look for scratches, cracks and chips.

Also look for little chips in the windshield caused by small rocks hitting the windshield at high speed. A lower mileage automobile should not have a lot of wear on the windshield. This may be evidence of mileage tampering.

Moldings and Grille

Check for proper fit, looseness and overall condition.


Check around the windows, molding and tailpipe for overspray, evidence that the automobile has been repainted. A repaint is not necessarily bad, but a poorly done paint job will undoubtedly peel.

Compare the condition of the automobile's front-end with its windshield. If the front-end looks new but the windshield shows signs of wear, this could be evidence that the automobile has been repainted.

Any repainting my indicate accident repair, so be attentive.


Check all locks with the key and the knobs. Also check the trunk, glove box and fuel cap or lid.


Convertible Roof

Check the fabric for rips or tears and check the condition of the rear window.

Vinyl Roof

If the car, truck, van or SUV has a vinyl roof or vinyl sidings, check for slits, tears, and edges which are pulling loose. Also check for bubbles or bulges, which are indications of rusting underneath.


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