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Used car buying guide
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The SOL used car buyer's checklist

This is the HTML version, done by Sherman Powell. The original was written by Lawrence Buja & Roger Garnett. The current incarnation has been reworked slightly by Nick Johannessen with permisson from Lawrence Buja.

The purpose of this checklist is to systematically highlight some potential problem areas to check out in a car that you are looking at to buy from a private individual. It also tries raise some pointed questions that you might not remember to ask in the limited time you have to examine the car. Very little technical knowledge is actually needed for 90% of the items on the checklist. However, you will get the most out of it if you (or the friend you bring along) know your way around the inside of an engine compartment.

This list is organized into five main sections. Part 1 covers general procedures and initial questions to ask the car's owner. Part 2 is an exterior/interior examination checklist. Part 3 is an engine-running and test-drive checklist. Part 4 is a sample buyer-friendly Bill of Sale. Finally, part 5 is a sample Federal odometer statement. You can read and fill out the first part in the comfort of your home before you go to see the car, then fill out second and third when you are there checking the car out. If things go satisfactory, go on to fill out the fourth and fifth. At the end is a list of related WWW pages.

Applicability: The checklist was originally written for buyers of old British sports cars, but it applies equally well to later model cars and is picky to the point where only a relatively pristine car will come through unscathed. And of course, any flaws that you uncover can be used to justify that insanely low offer that you are about to make for the car. By the time you are done running through the checklist, you'll probably know more about condition of the car than the owner does.


  • First phone contact
  • Questions to ask yourself
  • Suggestions
  • Tools to bring for the inspection
  • Additional questions to ask


  • Ownership verification
  • Is the car ready to sell?
  • Exterior walk-around
  • Underside
  • Under the hood
  • Interior/electrical


  • Ignition on, before starting
  • Engine startup
  • Test drive
  • Post-test-drive



    Appendix A: Copyright notice

    Appendix B: Other WWW Resources


    (c) 1991 SOL (11/18/91)

    [Table of contents]


    Name: ______________________________________

    Address: ______________________________________

    Phone: (h) ______________ (w) ______________

    Date/Time: ______________________________________

    1. Can you describe the car and its condition?
    2. Does it run well?
    3. How is the:
      • Body?
      • Any Rust?
      • Paint?
      • Interior?
      • Tires?
      • Engine?
      • Brakes?
      • Shocks?
    4. Does it have Overdrive or Turbo? Do they work?
    5. What special features or options does it have?
    6. Why are you selling it?
    7. How long have you owned it? ...had it for sale?
    8. Is it currently registered and licensed?
    9. Where is the car located?
    10. How many miles does it have on it? [15K/yr?]
    11. What problems have you had with the car?
    12. Has it ever been hit or in an accident?
    13. What work does it need done on it now?
    14. How much are you asking for it? or What's the least you're willing to take for it?


      Why am I buying this car?
      What do I intend to do with it?
      Will it be my commute vehicle?
      What service and support is locally available?
      Will I be driving it year-round or summer only?
      Do I want to work on the car more than driving it?
      Am I willing to pay a premium because someone else has already done most of the serious work on the car?
      What is the most that I'm willing to pay for this car?
      What is the least that I think that the car can be had for?


    1. Read some of the "How to buy Used Cars" books available at your library. They provide useful strategies and cautions that go far beyond the scope of this list. Also, review this list carefully before using it.

    2. Always inspect/take delivery of the vehicle in the broad daylight, never in the evening/night or in the rain.

    3. A clean piece of cardboard placed under the engine/trans after the test-drive will help show fluid leaks.

    4. In some states, older non-titled vehicles may be titled with just a bill of sale. Other states may require an additional security bond to be posted. Use extreme caution in either of these cases!

    5. Require seller have the vehicle pass all state inspections (safety, emissions) at a mutually agreeable shop (NOT one of his choosing) before you pay for it. Old (>30days) inspections are of absolutely no use to you.

    6. A general guide to reading exhaust smoke:

    Black smoke = unburned fuel
    ==> Valves bad or out of adjustment? Carb out of adjustment?
    Blue smoke = burning oil
    ==> Accelerating: Piston rings bad? Decelerating: Valve seats/guides bad?
    White smoke = burning coolant!
    ==> Bad head gasket? Warped or cracked Head or Block?$$


    Essentials: A cynical, mechanically-minded friend, Your standard tool set, Voltmeter, Compression Gauge, Tire gauge, Flashlight, Magnet, the 2 different spark plug sockets, spray lube, clean rags Clipboard, pen and hi-liter to use with a photocopy of this list, some cash, drivers license and copy of your insurance showing you are covered driving the sellers car.

    Optional: tow rope, starting fluid, jumper cables, timing light, ramps, jack (floor or scissors), mirror, coveralls, rags, gas can, oil, duct tape, wire, repair manuals, misc.fuses, calculator


    Original Owner? ___________________________________________________
         Names/nums of previous owners available? _____________________
    What regular maintenance was done?  Records? ______________________
    Who was your mechanic?  name/address/phone? _______________________
    What gas mileage have you been getting? ___________________________
    Are there any repair or gas mileage records? ______________________
    Oil change interval? ______________________________________________
         Type of oil used? ____________________________________________
    How old are the tires? ____________________________________________
         Battery? _____________________________________________________
    Has it passed emissions recently? _________________________________
         Where? _______________________________________________________
    Has any bodywork ever been done? __________________________________
         Why? _________________________________________________________
         Receipts? ____________________________________________________
    Any mechanical work recently? _____________________________________
         Where? _______________________________________________________
         Receipts? ____________________________________________________
    What work remains to be done or corrected? ________________________
    Are there any missing parts? ______________________________________
    Do you have any extra parts or wheels for it? _____________________
    What new/aftermarket parts are in the car? ________________________
         Receipts? ____________________________________________________
    Was it ever used for towing? ______________________________________
    Has it ever been crashed, burnt, stolen, hit or rolled? ___________
    How was the car generally driven? _________________________________
         On highway or in town? _______________________________________
    Are the engine, transmission, steering, differential original? ____
         (If not, why not?  Origin and receipts?) _____________________
    Do you have any books about the car or the engine? ________________
         (repair books, owners manuals, history or general
          interest, parts catalogs, club newsletters)
    Any interesting history? __________________________________________
         Has it ever been raced? ______________________________________
    Are there any tools that come with the car? _______________________
    Do you know of any parts cars or good parts sources? ______________
    [Table of contents]


    (Don't start the engine yet)

    OWNERSHIP VERIFICATION: (Do all of the following agree and seem right?)

    Name on title: ____________________________________________________
    Name on registration: _____________________________________________
    Model/Year on title: ______________________________________________
    VIN on title: _____________________________________________________
    VIN on registration: ______________________________________________
    VIN on dash: ______________________________________________________
    VIN on door: ______________________________________________________
    Mileage on title: _________________________________________________
    Mileage on odometer: ______________________________________________
    Price on title: ___________________________________________________
    Asking price: _____________________________________________________
    Blue Book price: __________________________________________________
    OK Not-OK
    ___ _____ Title ready for transfer?  Any liens?
    ___ _____ Do body numbers match those on title?
    ___ _____ Title in sellers name?
    ___ _____ Do body numbers match registration?
    ___ _____ Current Emissions certificate, < 30 days old?
    ___ _____ Current registration? Current Plates?
    ___ _____ Current Safety certificate if req'd, <30days?
    OK Not-OK
    ___ _____ Check door edges and underside for rust/tears
    ___ _____ Check doors/hinges for stress/tears
    ___ _____ Doors/hoods open/close freely?  Rubs?
    ___ _____ Is anything obviously broken?
    ___ _____ Are grill/lights cracked, dented or broken?
    ___ _____ Car sits level? (view from all sides)
    ___ _____ Are bumpers dinged?  Rusty?  Loose?  Level?
    ___ _____ Paint OK? Panels same shade?  Cracks?
    ___ _____ Any of the trim or hubcaps rusty or missing?
    ___ _____ New paint?   Why?   Any body ripples?
    ___ _____ Find bottom of trunk/side wells. Rust? Holes?
    ___ _____ Rust/repair on body?  Fenders? Sills?
    ___ _____ Raise/lower the top. Condition? Does it leak?
    ___ _____ Any Bondo? Fiberglas? (magnet)  Why?
    ___ _____ Rubber parts and seals condition? Cracked?
    ___ _____ Any fender dings or misalignment?Why?
    ___ _____ Gas tank & fill hose OK?   Rusty?  Patched?
    ___ _____ Door/hood dings?  Misalignment?  Why?
    ___ _____ Jack OK?  Spare tire good?  Jack points good?
    ___ _____ Tires: Tread? Bulges? Cracks?  All the same model/brand?
    ___ _____ Rims: Bent? Rusted? Cracks?  All the same?
    OK Not-OK
    ___ _____ Anything dented?  Bent?  Welded? Why?
    ___ _____ Any underbody/floor pan/trunk rust?
    ___ _____ Any rocker panel or wheel well rust?
    ___ _____ Are main frame members rusted?  Dogs?
    ___ _____ Disks grooved? Brake pads? Any leaks?
    ___ _____ Turn, push/pull driveshaft by hand
    ___ _____ Any movement or slop?  U-joints OK?
    ___ _____ Constant velocity joints and boots OK?
    ___ _____ Camber?  Caster?  Tire wear even?
    ___ _____ Suspension loose?  Pull on side/top of wheels
    ___ _____ All shocks & struts damp OK?   Any leaks?
    ___ _____ Exhaust pipe/cats/muffler solid & original?
    ___ _____ Tail pipe: Grey=OK, sooty/oily/greasy=Not-OK
    ___ _____ Anything hanging down, taped or wired up?
    ___ _____ Any non-stock suspension mods?
    OK Not-OK
    ___ _____ Anything broken?  Patched?   Leaking?
    ___ _____ Is engine clean?   Any rust?   Stock?
    ___ _____ Has it overheated?  Paint blistered?
    ___ _____ Check fluid levels.   Look for leaks
    ___ _____ Check fluid condition with flashlight
    ___ _____ Any play in main crankshaft pulley?!$
    ___ _____ Any play in any of the other pulleys?
    ___ _____ V-Belts cracked?   frayed?   missing?
    ___ _____ Radiator corroded?    Hoses cracked?
    ___ _____ Check coolant; run finger inside radiator neck to check for oil.
    ___ _____ Heater hoses stiff? Cracked? Patched?
    ___ _____ Vacuum hoses stiff? Patched? Capped? Missing?
    ___ _____ Is emissions equip original & working?!$
    ___ _____ Are catalytic converters original & working?$
    ___ _____ Distributor, cap, rotor, and points OK?
    ___ _____ Wiring harness appearance?  Any new electrical tape?
    ___ _____ Open fuse box. Any missing? Any wiring hacks?
    ___ _____ Any non-stock engine modifications?
    ___ _____ Remove grounding cable, check for shorts
    ___ _____ System polarity:    +  or  -   ground?
    ___ _____ System voltage:     ___________ volts
    ___ _____ Battery age/voltage ______/_____ volts
    OK Not-OK
    ___ _____ Is anything broken?  Torn?   Patched?
    ___ _____ Carpets OK?   Underlayment condition?
    ___ _____ Rust, rot or water under the carpets?
    ___ _____ Any wiring hacks under the dash?
    ___ _____ Seats dirty or torn? Look under cover
    ___ _____ Do both seats adjust?  Seat heaters?
    ___ _____ Dash cracked?   Headliner torn/dirty?
    ___ _____ Windshield cracked? Chips? Scratched?
    ___ _____ Windows all open & close? Any cracks?
    ___ _____ Mirrors all present and adjustable?
    ___ _____ Steering play? Does shaft move at all?  Why?
    ___ _____ Brake pedal feels right?  Smooth?  Firm?
    ___ _____ Clutch pedal feels right? Smooth?
    ___ _____ All gauges/controls work?  Stereo?  Tape?
    ___ _____ Headlights high/low work? Lenses OK?
    ___ _____ Tail and side lights all work? Lenses OK?
    ___ _____ Brake lights all work? Any broken lenses?
    ___ _____ Turn signals all work? Any broken lenses?
    ___ _____ Windshield wipers & washer work?
    ___ _____ Heater, defroster, AC, and fans work?
    ___ _____ Safety equipment (seat belts, horn work?)
    [Table of contents]


    OK Not-OK
    ___ _____ Temp light should come on! Connected?
    ___ _____ Oil warning light should come on! Connected?
    ___ _____ Charge warning light should come on!
    OK Not-OK
    ___ _____ Temp   warning light goes out?
    ___ _____ Oil    warning light goes out?
    ___ _____ Charge warning light goes out?
    ___ _____ Do all idiot lights go on/out right?
    ___ _____ Are all the instruments working?
    ___ _____ Does it start easily when cold?
    ___ _____ Does it run smoothly when cold?
    ___ _____ Depress clutch several times. Noises?
    ___ _____ Oil Pressure:  idle_______ 4000 RPM_______
    ___ _____ Volts/Amps:    idle_______ 4000 RPM_______
    ___ _____ Any odd engine noises when cold?
    ___ _____ Exhaust condition/noises? Pressure even?
    ___ _____ Cap pipe with clipboard.  Any exhaust leaks?
    ___ _____ Any deposits on clipboard?   Does it smoke?
    ___ _____ Turn car off. Does it restart?  Restart again.
    ___ _____ Now pull forward.  Check for leaks on ground.
    ___ _____ Do you have any gas?  Does gauge really work?
    TEST DRIVE (Allow 30-40 minutes)
    OK Not-OK
    ___ _____ Test the foot and hand brakes first!
    ___ _____ Relax, drive a bit to get used to it.
    ___ _____ How does car ride?   Soft or hard?
    ___ _____ Revs smoothly to red line? flatspots?
    ___ _____ Any unusual engine noises/vibrations?
    ___ _____ Any drive train noises or vibrations?
    ___ _____ Any noticeable slop in drive train?
    ___ _____ Reverse works?  Rev.lights go on/off?
    ___ _____ Trans shifts smoothly to all gears?
    ___ _____ Overdrive engages/disengages properly
    ___ _____ Turbo engages/disengages properly?
    ___ _____ Any clunks, whines, rumbles, rattles?
    ___ _____ Clutch smooth? Slippage on hill test?
    ___ _____ Hand brake works? Test against engine
    ___ _____ Is the low engine speed operation OK?
    ___ _____ Brakes strongly to stop from 50mph?
    ___ _____ Do brakes still work? Stops straight?
    ___ _____ Make 2 tight 360' turns each way. Any noises?
    ___ _____ Accelerates smoothly from dead stop?
    ___ _____ Are there any hesitations/flat spots?
    ___ _____ Does the power seem right?   Hill test.
    ___ _____ Is it running too hot or cold?   Why?
    ___ _____ Drive beside a long wall.  Any unusual sounds?
    ___ _____ Is it too noisy in general at highway speeds?
    ___ _____ Any noises or vibrations when accelerating?
    ___ _____ Any noises or vibrations when coasting?
    ___ _____ Any noises or vibrations when decelerating?
    ___ _____ Any noises or vibrations when braking?
    ___ _____ Steering action loose or tight? Parallel park.
    ___ _____ Handles OK on bumps, curves and sharp corners?
    ___ _____ Slams OK?  Bad understeer, oversteer, lean?
    ___ _____ Tracks straight with hands off steering wheel?
    ___ _____ Brakes straight with hands off steering wheel?
    ___ _____ Brakes still work? Pulls? Pulse? Drag? Noises?
    ___ _____ Having fun yet?  Comfortable?   Does it fit?
    ___ _____ Do the heater, defroster and AC work right?
    ___ _____ Are all the instruments & lights still working?
    ___ _____ Now let it idle a while.  Is temp stable/OK?
    ___ _____ Any exhaust, gas or coolant odors? Pull forward.
    ___ _____ Turn it off.  Go back to check ground for leaks.
    Have friend get out and watch the car driving:
    OK Not-OK
    ___ _____ Tracks straight?  (Frame bent?)
    ___ _____ Smokes?
    ___ _____ Wheels wobble?  Any noises?
    ___ _____ Leans? General impression?
    OK Not-OK
    ___ _____ Open hood.  See or hear anything unusual?
    ___ _____ Does engine seem too hot?
    ___ _____ Check for fluid leaks after shutdown.  (Oil, Coolant,
              Hydraulics, Trans, Fuel, Differential)
    ___ _____ Check oil cap and dipstick for signs of water. (Oil off-color, brown/grey/white or bubbly)
    ___ _____ Compression test: (disconnect coil, remove ALL plugs)
    1. Dry:   1____ 2____ 3____ 4____ 5____ 6____ 7____ 8___
    2. Oiled: 1____ 2____ 3____ 4____ 5____ 6____ 7____ 8___
    ___ _____ Plug condition? (OK? Burnt? Oily? Sooty?)
              1____ 2____ 3____ 4____ 5____ 6____ 7____ 8___
    ___ _____ Does it restart when warm?   Why not?
    [Table of contents]

    Year, make, and model: ____________________________________________
    VIN: ______________________________________________________________
    Odometer reading: _________________________________________________
    Date and time of sale: ____________________    ____________________
    Seller hereby acknowledges receipt of $______________ in the form of
    ______________ for full and final payment for the above vehicle, which
    is sold "AS IS."
    I, the seller, certify that I or we are the current owner of this
    vehicle, and have the authority to sell it.  I hereby transfer full
    ownership of this vehicle described on this receipt to the buyer(s).  I
    certify that the Title or ownership of this vehicle at the time of sale
    is subject to no outstanding taxes, fees, liens or encumbrances, other
    than those specified on the Title or listed below, if any, and none
    other, and that if there are, the seller will be held fully responsible
    for their payment.
    Buyer(s) hereby acknowledges receipt of the following: the signed
    certificate of ownership transferring seller's full ownership of the
    vehicle and all of it's contents to the buyer; various maintenance
    records; this signed bill of sale and the mileage disclosure statement;
    and all keys to the vehicle as well as delivery of the vehicle.
    ________________________________   ________________________________
    (seller 1's signature)    (date)   (buyer 1's signature)     (date)
    ________________________________   ________________________________
    (seller 2's signature)    (date)   (buyer 1's signature)     (date)
     Seller: _______________________     Buyer: _______________________
    address: _______________________   address: _______________________
      phone: _______________________     phone: _______________________
    [Table of contents]

    (Federal regulations require you to state the odometer mileage upon
    transfer of ownership. An inaccurate or untruthful statement may make
    you liable for damages to your transferee, for attorney fees, and for
    civil or criminal penalties, pursuant to Sections 409, 412, and 413 of
    the Motor Vehicle Information and Cost Savings Act of 1972 (Pub. L.
    92-513, as amended by Pub. L. 94-364) and applicable state laws.)
    I, the seller __________________________, state that the odometer
    mileage on the vehicle described below now reads __________________
    Circle ONE only:
    (1)   I hereby certify that to the best of my knowledge the odometer
          reading as stated above reflects the actual mileage of the
          vehicle described below.
    (2)   I hereby certify that to the best of my knowledge the odometer
          reading as stated above reflects the amount of mileage in excess
          of designed mechanical odometer limit of 99,999 miles/kilometers
          of the vehicle described below.
    (3)   I hereby certify that to the best of my knowledge the odometer
          reading as stated above is NOT the actual mileage of vehicle
          described below and should not be relied upon.
     ___________________________   ____________________________  _________
     |Make                         |Model                        |Body Type
     _____________________________    _______________        _____________
     |Vehicle Identification No       |Year                 |Dealer Stock No.
    Circle ONE only:
    (1)   I hereby certify that the odometer of said vehicle was not
          altered, set back, or disconnected while in my possession,
          and I have no knowledge of anyone doing so.
    (2)   I hereby certify that the odometer was altered for repair or
          replacement purposes while in my possession, and that the
          mileage registered on the repaired or replacement odometer was
          identical to that before such service.
    (3)   I hereby certify that the repaired or replacement odometer
          was incapable of registering the same mileage, that it was
          reset to zero, and that the mileage on the original odometer
          or the odometer before repair was ________________ miles/kilometers.
    ________________________________   __________________________________
    (seller 1's signature)     (date)  (buyer 1's signature)       (date)
    ________________________________   __________________________________
    (seller 2's signature)     (date)  (buyer 1's signature)       (date)
            Seller:                        Buyer:
             phone:                        phone:
           address:                      address:
    [Table of contents]

    Appendix A: Copyright notice

    ORIGINAL: Copyright (c) 1991, Scions of Lucas (SOL). Permission to freely copy and distribute all or portion of this checklist is hereby granted provided that all of the following apply: it is not made part of another copyrighted work, the source is acknowledged, this copyright notice is retained, and no aspect of the distribution is for profit.

    Appendix B: Other WWW Resources

    Yeah yeah, I know this is a very short list, but you'll find that the sites listed here, especially the first three, have more automotive info than you'll ever need, once you start looking around inside them.

  • Yahoo's Automobile Buyer's Guide directory
  • Consumer's Guide to the Lemon Law
    Main / Library / Technical / Model guide / Buyers guide / Guestbook / Photobook / Links / Archive / Specialists
    Nick Johannessen

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