With gas prices remaining high, some owners of larger vehicles are trading in their gas-guzzlers for smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles.  According to the National Automobile Dealers Association, the average price of a new car sold in the United States is $28,400. With new cars costing a pretty penny, more and more consumers are considering used vehicles to save even more money. While many prospective buyers aim to find a car at the right price, it’s important to not forget safety and reliability.


Before purchasing a used vehicle, it’s essential to find out as much as you can about the vehicle’s maintenance history and any existing mechanical problems.

“A rigorous test drive and a thorough inspection done by an ASE-certified automotive technician are the best ways to make sure the used vehicle you are considering buying is in good condition,” says Bob Arlotta, NAPA’s 2008 Technician of the Year.

According to Arlotta, inspections typically cost around $90, but if the technician discovers a major defect, you have saved yourself a big headache and potentially thousands of dollars. When inspecting a used vehicle, experienced technicians traditionally check the following areas for existing problems and possible warning signs:


  • Floor wells, doors and lower sills are checked for red stains and dimpled or bubbled paint, which can be signs of impending rust.
  • The vehicle’s panel surfaces are inspected for hail damage and overall fit, as loose side panels may indicate past accident damage.

Under the hood

  • The overall appearance of the vehicle’s engine is important to have inspected as any build-up of dirt or oil can indicate mechanical problems.  Dirty and/or thick engine oil and noticeable sludge in the engine may indicate a lack of routine maintenance by the previous owners.  Also, grey or milky colored engine oil may signify the presence of water, which can cause serious engine malfunctions. Any rattling noises heard while the engine is idle can mean incorrect tuning or excessive wear.
  • When inspecting the transmission, technicians test for smooth gear changes and listen for any rattles or knocking noises.  On front-wheel drive vehicles, these noises can indicate worn constant-velocity joints.
  • Radiator coolant should be clean and brightly colored.  Oil in the coolant may indicate a cracked cylinder head or a leaking gasket. Radiator cooler fins and core tubes are also typically checked for corrosion or damage.
  • The vehicle’s battery is checked for acid corrosion and remaining life.

Underneath the vehicle

  • Tires are checked for uneven wear, which may indicate worn or misaligned steering or suspension.
  • The engine, transmission, axles, brakes, power steering and shock absorbers are assessed for oil leaks.
  • The exhaust system is tested for fumes or excessive noise, which can indicate holes or rust in the pipes or muffler.

Road test

  • During a test drive, technicians look for excessive leaning or wandering on straight roads, which can be a sign of worn suspension or misaligned steering.
  • The vehicle should stop smoothly and in a straight line.  The pedal should not sink to the floor or feel spongy, and the steering wheel should not vibrate.

“Unless you have experience repairing vehicles, it’s probably a good idea to have the vehicle inspected by your regular automotive technician,” says Arlotta. “Spending a little bit of money to learn about a vehicle’s history and find out its current mechanical state will help you make an educated decision about your used vehicle purchase.”

If you have already purchased a questionable vehicle, or would like a second opinion before you purchase, come visit Smiths for consultation.