Tips for buying a used car : Tip 2/2 — Inspection

Buying Tips & Tricks August 24, 2017

by Brent Gudelot, Co-Founder of Curbie

In our previous post in this series, we covered the recommended background research to undertake when evaluating a used vehicle. Cars that have passed the background research test are worthy of more attention. As a base criteria, at Curbie, we apply a 0–2–4 rule for all vehicles we curate: zero accidents, two or fewer previous owners, and four-years old or younger.

Now, we want to see if the vehicles can pass a more rigorous assessment. It is at this stage that we physically inspect the vehicle and road-test it. Cars that pass this stage of assessment are then taken for a full pre-purchase inspection. If you were to hire a professional, a pre-purchase inspection would take 90–120 minutes and cost between $150 and $250. At Curbie, a rigorous inspection like this is completed on every vehicle we stock, but due to the time and cost involved, we want to ensure that only high-quality candidate vehicles undergo this level of assessment.

External Visual Inspection

We recommend beginning with an external visual inspection.

Assess tread depth as well as look for matching brand, size of tires.

Evaluate the condition of the tires. Ensure the tires have an acceptable amount of tread remaining. Note if all four tires are matching size and brand, as this can be indicative of a caring and diligent owner. Do the tires have any unusual wear on them? For example, major curb rash on the rims can be a sign that the vehicle has had a hard impact with a curb, which can cause suspension damage.

Discoloration of paint below bolt suggests repair work.

Inspect the body for signs of repair. This can show up as a poor paint job, wavy panels or misaligned panels — for example, uneven panel gaps . Check to see if the bolts on the fenders, hood, trunk or door hinges show signs of having been removed.

Oil is on darker side and may need changing

Check the level and color of engine oil. Oil should be a light transparent brown colour, and be on the full level on the dipstick. The oil cap should be taken off and checked for any milky looking buildup — this indicates moisture in the oil, which is usually caused by a major mechanical issue. It can be indicative of coolant from the cooling system leaking into the oil, caused by a leaking head gasket or crack in the engine block.

Inspect for any signs of leaks in the engine compartment. Areas to check are the cooling system, brake master cylinder and power steering system. If you spot a buildup of dirt or grease on any fittings or components, this is usually a sign of a leak.

Interior Inspection

If the vehicle passes the external visual inspection, it’s time to get inside.

Check if any of the following items are missing from the vehicle. Floor mats, owner’s manual/warranty booklet, spare tire and jack. Ensure all keys are present; most vehicles come with two keys and two key fobs, but newer vehicles have the key and fob integrated as one. Some vehicles even come with a third valet key. If the vehicle has wheel locks, ensure the wheel lock key is present.

Stock photo from

Turn the key to accessory position to check the warning lights. The lights should illuminate and then turn off. Any light that remains permanently illuminated after engine start-up is a cause for concern. In particular, pay attention to the airbag light — it should flash two to three times right after start-up to show the airbag system is functioning properly. If this light doesn’t flash, it’s a sign the dashboard has been tampered with to hide a permanently illuminated airbag light which is designed to indicate there is a fault in the airbag system. A fault in the airbag system indicates the vehicle has been in an accident and has been poorly repaired.

Listen for any loud chattering noises or ticking when starting up the vehicle. Chattering noises can indicate a worn engine. A ticking noise indicates a leak in the exhaust manifold, usually caused by a crack.

Check the functions of all the interior components. Take the time to check the wipers, parking brake, heating/AC function, fan function, radio, sunroof, horn, power seats, heated seats, etc. It can be easy to overlook these little things, but they are a good indicator of how well the vehicle has been maintained.

Turn the steering wheel from side-to-side. Listen for any clunks or slack in the front suspension. Worn suspension components can cause slack, which leads to clunking noises.

Shift the vehicle into drive and reverse. Does it shift smoothly into both gears? If you experience the vehicle shifting hard or jerking into gear, this may indicate a badly worn transmission.

General condition of interior upholstery. Assess the condition of the seats, both front and back. What about the ceiling, floor and dashboard?

Perform Test Drive

This is the final step in a rigorous physical inspection.

Ensure the transmission shifts through all gears smoothly. If the vehicle is equipped with a manual transmission, make sure the clutch engages at the proper height and doesn’t slip while taking off from a stop. Also with a manual transmission, ensure there is no grinding or resistance when shifting between gears.

Test drive at highway speed. Ensure the car drives straight. Pulling to one side can be caused by a poor wheel alignment. Note if you feel vibration or shaking, as these can be caused by out-of-balance tires or a worn drivetrain.

Apply the brakes at highway speed. Check if the vehicle pulls to one side or if you feel a vibration in the brake pedal and steering wheel. Vibration is an indication of brake rotors being warped. Pulling to one side can be an indication of worn or malfunctioning brakes.

Take note when driving over bumps. The sound of clunks can indicate worn out struts, which is a costly suspension fix. In addition, make sure the vehicle does not bounce repeatedly or veer to one side, as this also indicates worn out struts/shocks.

If the vehicle passes your inspection and you choose to buy it…

Make sure the owner has an original copy of the registration. Part of it tears off and is used for the bill of sale. Ensure this is filled out properly.

Have the owner print and properly fill out a bill of sale. This can be downloaded from the SGI website.

Arrange payment. If there is no money owed on the vehicle, the best method to transfer funds is by certified cheque or a wire transfer done at a bank. If money is owed on the vehicle, the purchaser should be dealing with a representative at the bank that issued the loan to make sure the funds from the sale pay off the money owed on the vehicle.

I hope this helps you in the search for your next vehicle. At Curbie, we know that peace of mind is priceless — all vehicles we curate and sell have undergone rigorous checks to ensure all of the above points, and more, are in order. Our thorough process protects you with a warranty and a unique 7-day/500KM return policy.

Looking for something specific that currently isn't in our inventory? Curbie can source any vehicle. We love to talk cars, so give us a call at 306–317–0051 to learn more.

Tips for buying a used car : Tip 1/2 — Background Research
Curbie: Revolutionizing Retail Automotive

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