If you can’t afford to or are unable to take the car to a mechanic, here are some ways to spot red flags before they become your problem.

In the US the average age of our personal cars is 12 years old, and thanks in part to COVID-19 and the global semiconductor chip shortage, new cars are becoming harder to come by. Soon you’ll need to get a newer car for various reasons, but it doesn’t have to be as fearful as you’d expect. 

Always trust your gut

As a former car salesman, I’m always being asked to advise someone on a car purchase, and my main principle is simple: never go against your gut. If something seems off, then it’s not worth it. No matter how anyone tries to convince you otherwise, your internal monologue and questioning is justified and should be trusted first. 

How is the paint?

One of the first things to remember is that not every car accident will be reported to CarFax. Looking at a vehicle’s paint can help to determine if it has been in a car accident and resprayed, so be diligent and take your time looking over the body. 

Always bring a decent quick shine spray and a microfiber towel so you can quickly wash parts of the car. Once a panel is cleaner, look to see if you can find any debris, trash, or bubbles in the paint. This will most likely be indicative of a cheap or bad respray. When I say trash and debris that could mean dead bugs under the paint, dust, and actual dirt. If you find anything, ask the owner or dealer if the car has ever been repainted, and if so, could they provide you with some information and documentation regarding it. 

You can also purchase a paint thickness gauge for pretty cheap from Amazon. The video from AMMO NYC will give you a good understanding from a professional. 

Are the fluids topped off?

A sign of how a car’s been maintained are the levels of fluids. If you go look at a car, make sure that the engine is cool to the touch, and start by looking under the oil cap for any milky sludge. This is often a sign of water mixing in the engine, which is usually bad. It could mean a blown head gasket, which is pricey. Poor engine cleaning habits, like spraying down the engine bay with a high pressure water system, allowing water to get into parts of the motor. Or maybe that the car doesn’t get driven far. A car that sees short jaunts around town can create a white sludge under the oil cap, because it hasn’t been properly warmed up before it was shut off, which isn’t necessarily a sign of anything too bad. If it is indeed a head gasket problem, you will likely notice consistent white smoke from the exhaust when running the car. You can also check the oil dipstick once the car has warmed up a bit. If it has moisture on it, then you have a potentially costly repair bill. 

Check all of the other fluid caps, while the engine is cold of course, for any low fluids. Ask when the last time the car has been serviced, and request a receipt of said maintenance, and ask where it was last performed. 

How does the car smell?

Various distinct odors coming from the exhaust or engine bay can tell you a lot about some real potential issues. If the exhaust smells like rotten eggs you’re most likely looking at either a bad catalytic converter, possible overheating, or a faulty fuel pressure regulator. A catalytic converter can set you back around $1,000, but a fuel pressure regulator issue can be remedied by a new fuel filter.

How about when the car’s been running, do you smell a nice sweet scent, similar to maple syrup? Well then you’re talking about leaking coolant, which can mean that the car needs a simple coolant flush, or there’s a problem with the heater core. A coolant flush, along with other simple maintenance, can easily be done in your own driveway with hand tools and a set of vehicle ramps

How does the undercarriage look?

When looking at a used car you most likely won’t have the ability to lift it off the ground. So make sure to wear some comfortable clothes you don’t mind getting a little dirty. Get on the ground and use your phone to take pictures of everything under the car, and then inspect the photos. Is there any rust? How about dripping fluids? Does where the car’s parked looked like it’s had anything dripping on it that’s been wiped or washed away? This could be oil, coolant, or something as harmful as water dripping from when it’s running with the air conditioning on. While you’re down there, have a look at the inside of the tires for uneven wear. Poor tire wear can be a sign of a bad alignment, which will likely be realized during the test drive. 

Time for a test drive

Now is the point you’ve all been waiting for: let’s take her for a cruise! While the car is warming up and once it has, how does it feel? Is the steering wheel shaking? Do the brakes squeal? What happens if you brake from 50+ mph down to low speeds or a complete stop? Does the brake pedal feel weird? Are there any rattles or squeaks? When you take turns in the vehicle does it feel safe, or is there any hesitation when pushing the throttle? How does it shift? Is it abrupt or jarring? (If you’re driving an older sports car with a dual-clutch or sequential automatic gearbox they will typically shift harder and give the impression that something could be wrong, but usually this is normal.) If the car has a clutch, do you have to push it to the floor when shifting? If so, it could need at least a new clutch, or maybe there is air in the fluid line. When you’re rowing through the gears in a manual, do the gears feel vague and can you rock the shifter from side to side when in gear? If so, then it probably needs new shifter bushings. 

As you drive ask yourself questions, or talk out loud about the things you’re noticing. Some of these things can be remedied by a simple fluid flush. The brakes, clutch, and power steering can all have their fluids flushed and will sometimes help because air can get into the lines and effect the abilities of the car.

A car is a big purchase, so it is understandable that you may be hesitant. But just remember to follow your gut, and pay attention to all of the things listed in this article and the links provided, and you should be okay. Good luck and happy buying!