The Ultimate Pre-Purchase Car Inspection Guide for Buying a Used Vehicle

Buying a used vehicle is always somewhat of a mystery – no matter how you look at it. You never know exactly what kind of condition the car is in, and if there are any hidden problems lurking beneath the surface. Enter the pre-purchase car inspection.

The good news is that the state of California offers some leeway to consumers for defective used vehicles – something that most states do not. As lemon law lawyers in California, many of the cases we handle deal with used cars.

Now, it’s never a happy moment when you realize there is something seriously wrong with your used vehicle. Whether you’re buying a used car from a dealership (or even a private seller), there are things you can do to minimize your chances of purchasing a lemon.

Let’s discuss the key steps involved in the pre-purchase car inspection when buying a used vehicle.

Get the Vehicle History Report

This is the most important step in the used car inspection process; it is where you find key information. For instance, you’ll see if it’s been in any accidents or how many times it’s been repaired.

Most importantly, the vehicle history report will tell you whether the vehicle title has been “branded” as a lemon.

In California, dealers are required to disclose if a used vehicle is part of a Lemon Law Buyback Program. However, you don’t want to take any risks here. Instead, do yourself a favor during the used vehicle inspection process and get the background information.

There are many different ways to go about this. AutoCheck and Carfax are some of the most popular report services to find the answers you need.

Circle the Exterior

During your used vehicle inspection, it’s generally best to start on the outside and work your way in.

As you are looking at the exterior, walk around the vehicle and look for:

  • Dents
  • Paint chips
  • Defective light housing
  • Mismatched components (such as the door handles)
  • Rust

If a panel looks newer or more recently painted than the others, this is a blaring sign that the vehicle has had repairs done. Another big sign to look out for during your used car inspection is paint overspray on the chrome or the wheel wells. This is almost always a clear indicator of bodywork.

Assess the Tires

Tires are often the most under-appreciated component of a car. The wear is important to look at during your used car inspection. Wear should be even across the width of the tread, as well as on the right and left sides of the vehicle.

Over-inflated tires tend to have more wear near the middle, whereas under-inflated tires typically have more wear on the sides. If you see a great deal of wear on the shoulder of the tire, this is a sign the vehicle has been driven aggressively. This could signify a slew of other issues.

Survey the Interior

As you move inside your car during your used vehicle inspection, there are all sorts of things to be looking for.

For starters, you must ALWAYS be wary of the common car dealership scams while you are shopping around. One of the major ones involves cranking back the number of miles on the odometer to drive the price up. Fortunately, there are many ways to catch potential red flags during your used car inspection of interior.

Start by looking at the pedals. If the odometer has low mileage and the pedals look super worn, this could indicate some tampering behind the scenes. Additionally, look for things like sagging seats, worn (or missing) radio knobs, frayed seat belts, and anything that shows signs of significant wear. Now, these do not always indicate dealership negligence, but they should definitely be on your radar!

Odd smells can also be another huge red flag during your used vehicle inspection that you should steer clear of. Weird or abnormal odors could potentially indicate a leaky transmission or mold.

Look Under the Hood

At the first mention of looking under the hood, you might think this requires an expert eye. Truth be told, there are many big issues that even the least car-savvy person can spot during a pre-purchase car inspection.

First off, there shouldn’t be grease or excessive grit on the engine, battery, or radiator. Also, be sure you are checking for leaks. It never hurts to look beneath the vehicle for this.

Next, you want to look at the engine oil; this can tell you a lot about its well-being. Pull out the dipstick. The oil level should not be below the “add” marks. If it is, this could either indicate a leak or irresponsibility on the dealership’s part.

The oil itself should be a blackish brown with a smooth texture. If it’s gritty or gelatinous, this is a sign that the oil hasn’t been changed in a while. If the oil is super thin, frothy, or is a lighter gray color, this could potentially mean that the head gasket is blown or there is a damaged block in the cylinder head. If there are fine metallic particles in the oil, this is a sign that there is serious internal damage.

Moving on to the transmission part of the used car inspection, you will want to remember this part for after your test drive.

The dipstick for the transmission is typically located near the back of the engine compartment under the hood. While the vehicle is idling (with the brakes and parking brake pressed), shift through all the gears.

Now, while the engine is still running, pop the hood and pull the dipstick to check the condition of the transmission fluid. Healthy transmission oil is a red color. Seeing dark brown, black, or a mustard-like color may be a clear indication of problems.

Look at the Suspension

Driving a car with poor suspension can be very dangerous – and expensive to fix. It’s critical to keep an eye out for suspension issues during the pre-purchase car inspection.

Start by pushing down with a good deal of force on the front fender of the vehicle. Ideally, it should rebound smoothly and only bounce once or twice. Getting more than two powerful rebounds is a sign that the shock absorbers and struts are worn and need to be replaced. Do the same on the back fender.

On the test drive, try to drive on a bumpy road at 25-30 mph. If you experience a bunch of bounces and violent slams, the suspension may need some work.

Listen for Sounds on the Test Drive

The test drive is when you really need to be paying attention to the functionality of the vehicle. There are all kinds of sounds that might indicate the car is a lemon.

The most blaring sounds you need to listen for are loud knocks or pings coming from the engine. These can indicate a very wide range of problems. If you hear them during the pre-purchase car inspection, you may want to avoid the vehicle altogether.

Another big one to listen for during the used vehicle inspection is loud whines. These normally come from the transmission. The unmistakable high-pitch whines can present themselves in many parts of the

drive – while accelerating, in reverse, or simply idling. Additionally, there might be whines coming from the steering column, which can indicate a number of make-or-break issues.

In most cases, hearing whines or loud, obtrusive sounds from any aspect of the vehicle means there are deep-seated issues – and you should steer clear.

Need a Lemon Law Lawyer in California?

Buying a used car is almost always a stressful experience. It is NOT something you want to approach without a plan. Even without a mechanic background, following these steps can greatly reduce the chances of buying a faulty used car.

However, sometimes – even with all the precautions in place – you might find yourself in an unfortunate situation with a lemon car. If this happens, it’s important to know your rights under California lemon law and have legal representation on your side.

As a lemon law lawyer in California, our team is happy to answer any questions you might have about your California lemon law rights. Give us a call at 877-979-5328, send an email to, or fill out a FREE case evaluation.

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