How do I inspect a used car for sale?

Any used car needs a mechanical going-over by a professional prior to purchase, but your own detective work can save you money. Buying a used car is a process of many steps. One of the more critical steps is the vehicle inspection.  

Most used-car buyers aren’t professional mechanics, and the cost of calling out a state motoring association or an organisation such as RedBook Inspect for every car you see will quickly add up.  

Pare back your choices to a short list of about three cars that are worth your time inspecting and testing. Then, when you’ve narrowed your three cars down to the ‘winner’, ask the team at RedBook Inspect to examine that car – and just that one car.  


How do you pick the candidates? 

If you find 10 cars listed on, ask yourself this: are they all the same specification and all within your budget? If not, scratch four or five, plus any others that are located too far away for you to visit in a weekend.  

For the rest, what does the owner’s commentary, the odometer reading and the car’s location tell you about the vehicle? Does it sound credible to you that the vehicle has travelled just 5000km a year if the vehicle is owned by a middle-aged woman residing in a country town? That’s entirely possible, but a low-kilometre car may have also spent months in a workshop waiting for parts to arrive from overseas.  

If something doesn’t sound quite right, ask the vehicle owner...  


The physical inspection 

You’ve settled on three cars to see. Bring along a friend or relative to assist you. 


Here’s what you’re checking: 

  • Does a light tap of the quarter panels return a hollow sound? – no body filler 
  • Is the paintwork faded on all but one or two panels? – older respray 
  • Inspect underneath for structural rust in the floorpan (and obvious rust in the doors, boot/tailgate and scuttle panels) 
  • Is the upholstery worn or cracked underneath car seat covers, floor mats and dash mats? – a further sign the car hasn’t been kept under cover and has led a hard life 

Before the test drive: 

  • Check the engine oil before starting – look for discolouration or contaminants 
  • Check the engine coolant for signs of rusting/corrosion and oil globules floating on top 
  • Start the engine and watch for smoke from the exhaust 
  • Listen for rattles, ticking or other noises 
  • Select a gear and listen for bearing noise and slipping (of the clutch) 
  • Do the brakes pull left or right? Is there a shudder felt through the brake pedal? 
  • Check the steering for free play, hesitation when turning or inability to track straight ahead 
  • Make sure you test all the infotainment systems and other comfort and convenience features 


If the car passes your test – and do take notes for comparison with the next vehicle you see – it might be time to call in RedBook Inspect for their verdict. 



Related articles: 

Inspections & Test Driving 
What to do on a test drive

Any information on this page is provided as a guide only. It is not professional or expert advice and is not a substitute for such advice. The content may not be appropriate, correct or sufficient for your circumstances and should not be relied on as the only reason you do or don’t do anything.
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