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The Ultimate Checklist for Buying a Used Car From a Private Seller Made Easy
Grab my free used car inspection checklist included in your used car buying guide for buying a car from a private seller in Australia or the USA to find a reliable car, pay the right price and protect yourself!
Your FREE Used Car Inspection Checklist Includes:
7 Action Steps To Spot The Red Flags
Not sure how to spot the red flags when buying a used car privately? I’ll give you the 7 most important steps to take so you can avoid scams and getting ripped off.
DIY Used Car Inspection Checklist
Success in finding the best-used car is knowing what to look for when inspecting a used car. This DIY used car inspection checklist takes out the guesswork, and lets you weed out the lemons fast!
Buyer’s/Seller’s Receipt Forms & Checks
Bill of sale receipt templates to record important information – and check for proof of ownership before handing over your money!
Also, great for multiple car inspections because you can narrow your short-list down of possible used cars to buy to find the best one. This saves you from having to get multiple pre-purchase car inspections by a qualified mechanic.
Knowing what to look for when buying a used car can save you time, money, and headaches. Here we show you how in 7 quick and easy steps without getting your hands dirty so you know what you’re buying. Don’t worry if you know zero about cars because if you follow the steps with the free checklist and receipt forms you will be able to buy a used car like a professional.
In this article
What Are the 7 Steps to Follow When Buying a Used Car in the USA and Australia?
Knowing what to check when buying a used car from a private seller or certified pre-owned vehicle from a dealer can save you time, money, and headaches. Here we show you how in a logical and systematic approach so you will be less likely to overlook a component when shopping for a used car. Also, always check a car in daylight hours or natural light.
Step 1: Check Fluid Levels
A basic mechanical inspection starts with checking all fluid levels. Inspecting the engine when it’s cold allows you to remove the necessary caps to check the fluid levels and the condition safely preventing any burns.
Look for any signs like black tarnish or stains on the engine dipstick and underneath the oil cap indicating extended engine oil change intervals. If you see a milky appearance, this indicates water in engine oil.
Check the engine cooling system for leaks and signs that indicate the vehicle has not been serviced at the required time specified by the manufacturer.
Take note if the engine has been cleaned, this might indicate that there is a serious oil leak. Keep the bonnet up for the next step.
Step 2: Check Under Car
When inspecting underneath the car without a hoist or the car jacked up it’s best to have the bonnet up to allow more light in and around the underbody of the engine components paying close attention to oil leaks, split C.V joint boots and steering rack boots (Rubber black boots).
Work your way down each side of the car looking underneath with a flashlight for any obvious signs of problems. Inspect the tires paying close attention to tread depth and wear pattern.
If the vehicle is fitted with disc brakes it’s possible to check the brake pad thickness through the wheel/rim opening.
Step 3: Check Around Car
Unlock all doors so you can inspect under the doors and around the door pillars whilst going around the car.
Pay close attention to the paint and panel areas, look for hail damage, rust, and accident damage as well as “fit and finish”, and look for paint imperfections and alignment of doors, boot, and bonnet.
You can use a magnet carefully to make sure no body filler has been used to cover up any rust or damage.
Step 4: Check Inside the Car
Check all seat belts and other safety devices are working. Make sure the car is in neutral or park with the hand brake on reach in and start the vehicle at the same time check to see if there is any smoke blowing out of the exhaust. While you’re inside the car check the air conditioning is cold, any excessive wear and tear or water damage to the vehicle.
Stop the engine. Check the vehicle’s maintenance records for service history and check for recalls carried out. You can check online for safety issues or if the vehicle is part of a recall campaign. In the USA go to NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) or in Australia go to Vehicle Recalls.
Step 5: Test Drive Car
Turn the ignition lights on observe the warning and check lights on the dash panel are operating. Start the engine and check that these lights go out. Check all other functions work correctly, now you are ready to test drive the car.
Try and choose a route that you are more familiar with so you can concentrate more on testing the vehicle. Check the vehicle doesn’t want to steer right or left on a straight road also there is no vibration coming from the steering wheel.
Test drive the vehicle in city traffic, on rough roads and highways where you can build speed, and most importantly up hills where you can test the engine and transmission under load.
Step 6: After the Test Drive
Open the bonnet and check for any oil leaks, coolant leaks, and unusual smells in and around the engine including underneath.
Look closely at the area between the engine and transmission for oil leaks. If leaking, possible rear main oil seal which is costly to repair due to the engine or transmission having to be removed.
Step 7: Get Vehicle History Report
The final step is to do a VIN check so you can get a complete vehicle history report. Follow the instructions on how to do a free VIN check for accidents and get the vehicle history report for vehicles in the USA. For Australia, learn how to check if a car is under finance for free with a PPSR Certificate Australia-wide. The complete history report tells you (when available) if the seller has a current lien on the vehicle (finance owing), any accident history, and other important information that you need to know before making a final buying decision and handing over your hard-earned cash. Also, when you have decided to purchase a used car you can use the forms to check and record the seller’s identification particulars.
Do I Need an OBD Scanner When Buying a Used Car?
Checking the engine management system with an onboard diagnostic scanner (OBD) is optional. If there is a light on the dash you need an excellent OBD reader to read the Diagnostic Trouble Codes (DTC).
If you want to buy an OBD scanner just remember most cheap scan tools only do the engine management system. They don’t include Anti-Lock Braking System (ABS), Supplemental Restraint System (SRS) / Airbag, or Transmission System.
It’s important to note, that the more expensive OBD2 Scan Tools will run an auto-detect mode when you first connect it to the vehicle accessing the vehicle identification number (VIN).
Should You Get a Pre-Purchase Inspection By a Qualified Mechanic?
If you’re not confident with your DIY check then it’s time to call in the professionals. A final inspection by a qualified mechanic can help you decide whether the investment is worth it. Not only based on the vehicle’s condition but also based on the estimated cost of future repairs. This is helpful when negotiating with the seller. A qualified and experienced person can also provide you with a list of any costs for servicing and any immediate or future repairs required. You can then use this amount to deduct from the car’s private party value so you know exactly how much the car is worth.
Pay What the Car is Worth?
For example, The brakes may be at the end of their service life. An oil leak could mean that there is a need for some engine repairs soon or even worse you could have signs of water in the engine oil – a blown head gasket. You can use this list for negotiation with the seller. Also, it helps you make a better decision about the type of car you should buy. How much you should spend, if you buy a new or used car, or what extras are worth investing in?
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Is it better to buy a used car from a dealer or a private seller?
There are many reasons why someone might want to buy a used car from a dealer. For example, the dealership may offer a warranty for certified pre-owned cars. But some disadvantages come with buying from the dealership. For example, you will not be able to negotiate on the price as much as if you were buying from a private seller. So if you’re looking for a bargain you may want to try buying privately from online sites, like Craigslist, or checking out the Gov-Auctions.org review to find ex-government cars for sale in the USA near you. In Australia, you can try some of the government car auctions in Brisbane to find a bargain. It is ultimately up to the individual’s needs and preferences which option they choose.
What is good mileage for a used car?
Around 10,000 to 15,000 miles per year. This depends on how the car has been serviced and if regular replacement items have been carried out. Japanese vehicles tend to be more robust, especially in the engine and drive-line components. Remembering mechanical things can be fixed but there are certain manufacturers to stay away from when vehicles reach high miles. this is mainly due to the cost of parts and labour to fix. It pays to play the worst-case scenario game and price some parts first before buying say European vehicles.
How do you not get ripped off when buying a used car?
1. Sight the vehicle identification number (VIN) stamped into the body or on the chassis of the vehicle.
2. Always use the VIN from the vehicle itself (not from vehicle labels, plates, or documentation the seller has given you) to get a complete vehicle history report before purchasing.
3. Sight the engine number on the engine itself
4. Using the buyer’s and seller’s receipt forms included with the Free Used Car Inspection Checklist record all vehicle details and seller’s details
5. Make sure the seller is the person who owns the car by checking the details are on all ownership papers, registration papers, and other necessary paperwork for the transfer of ownership.
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Hey, I’m Craig Jones.
I’m a qualified mechanic with 30+ years of experience inspecting and buying used cars.
Now, I’m sharing everything I know to help you know what to look for when buying a car from a private seller, dealer or auction. Get started by downloading my checklist for buying a used car from a private seller to find a good car, avoid scams, and protect yourself.