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1,615 Posts
Discussion Starter #1 (Edited)

I often have family, friends and coworkers ask what they should look for when purchasing a used vehicle. With this in mind, I thought some of you may get some use from my general checklist.

To be clear, this is not a specific Xterra list.

1. When possible, resolve yourself to looking at a Carfax or an Autocheck report prior to viewing a vehicle. Note: this advice is so important you will see it posted once again towards the end of this list.

2. Walk around the car and check paint color. Check for any discolor from one panel to the next.

3. Bring a metric ruler which should be used to check the gaps between your body, door, trunk and hood panels. Basically, your checking for any sort of body repair.

4. Run your finger along the gaps of each panel on the vehicle body. A rough or sticky texture is often left over from tape residue which may share the vehicle has been repainted.

5. Stand at each corner of the vehicle and look along the length of it. This is an excellent way to see any waviness in the paint which is a definite clue that it's been repaired.

6. Check your tires are wearing evenly. If not, check the air pressure for a clue as to why their not wearing properly.

7.Look under the vehicle for any signs of oil , transmission fluid and or coolant leakage.

8. Check the rear and or front axle for any noticeable leaks which also includes grease and or oil at the axle ends.

9. Check the boots around your CV joints for any wear, cracks or signs of grease which may be slung about .

10. Open the hood and check the bolts and brackets which hold the bumper in place. There will be marks which will be seen if the bumper or brackets have been replaced.

11. Check the rear bumper for the same.

12. Look under the vehicle and check for any black marks on your exhaust. Black marks on your exhaust is a sign of an exhaust leak.

13. Check the engine bay for oil leaks, corrosion, stains and odd smells.

14. Check the engines belts, hoses and clamps to make sure everything appears proper and without wear, cracks or bulges.
Check the fluid in the brake reservoir, it should be full and clear.
Check the fluid in the power steering reservoir, it should be full and not smell burned.

15. Remove the oil filler cap and hope everything looks like ...oil. You should visually inspect the bottom of the oil filler cap along with an inspection of what you see inside the valve cover opening. What you dont wish to see is a milky yellow residue which is a sign the engine is leaking coolant into the engines oil. Pull the engine dipstick and check to see if the oil is clear of any milkyness. In addition make sure to check the dipstick for any burned or caked on residue. To be clear, the oil should not smell burned in any manner.

16. Check the cars radiator hoses for pressure, if there is no pressure in the hoses, remove the radiator cap and check the fluid. It should be red, blue, yellow, pink or green depending on the vehicle your wishing to purchase. What's important is it should be clear, not milky, foamy or the consistency of a milkshake.

17. Check the overflow tank for the radiator. You need to check for the same attributes as you would the radiator.

18. Pull the dipstick from the transmission and look to see what condition the fluid happens to appear. Dark red fluid is normal for a car needing a fluid change and a brownish tint is a fluid which may never have been changed. Bright red notes transmission fluid which was just recently changed. As a side note, I would rather see dark red than bright red. Most people dont change their trans fluid prior to selling their vehicles unless they are having a problem. After a visual inspection of the fluid color, take a moment to smell the fluid. What you dont wish to smell is something which smells like burned oil.

19. Check your interior for any flaws, smells or an abundance of scent which may be used to cover up something offensive.

20.crank the car and look for any white smoke which may exit the exhaust. Viewing puffs of smoke is a sign the vehicle is using oil.

21.Turn on the ac, check every function of the ac re: dash blow, feet blow, defrost , recirculate, blower speeds etc etc etc.
Is the ac cooling the vehicle?

22. Take the vehicle for a drive and check:
Brakes, smooth non pulsing, squeal free brakes is what you want.
Transmission Shifts
General handling.
Does the vehicle pull towards one side of the road or the other.
Pulsing in the steering wheel when braking and without using the brakes.
How does the vehicle feel at 20mph, 40mph, 60mph and " highway speed limit"mph
Check the heater works appropriately
If the vehicle is a 4wd, check that it shifts in and out of 4wd and functions correctly with a short drive off of a paved road

23. Park the vehicle on flat ground and check for sag in one side of the vehicle or the other, including front, back and side to side.

24. Use a handheld code checker to see if there are any hidden problems which can be identified. If you dont have such a device, stop by a local parts store and ask them to check for you. This is typically a free service most auto parts stores will offer. Check for any warning lights which may not work on your dash when the key is initially inserted. Check the gauges in the vehicle to make sure they are all working appropriately.

25. Now that the vehicle has been driven somewhat, it may be a good time to use an infrared temperature checker and run a check on your catalytic converters.
check. See link:

26. Once again as a reminder , Pay for either a Carfax or an Autocheck report of the vehicle your interested in. If your purchasing from a dealership, ask them to provide one of these reports for you. ( IMO Carfax is more detailed, but is also noticably more expensive)

Keep a record of every issue you find and either have the owner/dealer repair these issues or negotiate a reduction in the purchase price to cover this cost.

Make a checklist before going shopping and you can run through all these checks rather quickly

575 Posts
Just a Hunter - this is a very well written guide. Thanks for putting that together. I might bump the car fax report towards the top of the list. Only because if you see it online - you could essentially skip going down to inspect it any further if it looks like it's in rough shape/ salvage/ wrecked from the report.

I skipped over quite a few Xterras - and saved a mountain of time - by seeing the car fax reports first.

That said, not everything gets rolled into a car fax report. But oh - I wish !

1,615 Posts
Discussion Starter #3 (Edited)
Yes, a Carfax report is an wonderful tool.
As a matter of fact, I purchased my Xterra from a search of used vehicles found on .

I will go so far as to say that I will view a carfax or similar report prior to traveling out of town to look at any vehicle. As a side note, I drove from one end of Georgia to the other to purchase my X. The money I saved on this deal more than paid for my travel time and gas expense. I would have been reluctant to have driven so far without the Carfax documentation that my vehicle was as advertised.

Obviously, I wrote this list as if someone stumbled upon a good deal locally.
I will adjust the original posting to reflect your excellent advice.

1,615 Posts
Discussion Starter #4 (Edited)
A bit about myself.

As a youth, my father was a mechanic and my uncle owned a used car lot.
I spent my early years turning wrenches with my father and working on my uncle's car lot doing whatever was asked of me.

Generally speaking, most states have dealer auctions which are open to those which have a dealer license.

In regards to purchasing a vehicle at such an auction, there was a short amount of time which would allow a vehicle to be inspected , accepted or sent into arbitration if there was any faults found.

The list I comprised was based on many of the steps we would have taken to check a vehicle for a potential and or post purchase.

315 Posts
Nice list. Exhaustive. Glad to see that it is a sticky.

To add to the list:

1. Check the shocks, at least on the front end. Bounce them hard. Now, there are some limits how much you will actually learning do this. But it looks impressive and might help intimidate the buyer into shaving a few dollars off.

2. Crawl under the vehicle (around the edges actually) and look for rust and caked dirt. If you live in northern climes or high elevation areas, this could be important.

3. Smell the interior for tobacco. Well, do this if you are not fond of the smell and all that is associated with it. Not sure I would trust a vehicle that was driven by a tobacco smoker these days.

4. If the seller is not a dealer who does a complete and thorough mechanical and safety check, insist that you be able to take the vehicle to an independent 3rd party garage to get a full mechanical and safety check. Well worth the $100 to $200 that you will be charged.

An experienced mechanic with the vehicle up on a hoist can see/find stuff that most of us cannot. Most of us simply do not have your experience JaH.
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