Car inspection: Clever ways of inspecting a used car for problems

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Owning up the fact that in Kenya 80% of the cars we buy are second hand, it is important to be cautious with your purchase. If you’ve got a pre-owned vehicle on your short list there are a few things you can check to make sure you don’t get burned. Considering the financial risk of a bad used car purchase, taking 30 minutes to do these checks is well worth the time.

Let’s get started

Back under the hood, pop off the engine oil filler cap and look for any white or light brown gel-like deposits on the underside of this cap. It may mean water or coolant contamination of the engine oil due to a leaking head gasket or a history of short runs that never let the engine completely warm up.

These are not good indicators of long-term reliability. Check the engine coolant reservoir for similar discoloration. Be aware if this container has a pressurized cap. Make sure the engine is completely cooled off before trying to loosen it.

With hands clear, have someone start the engine while the hood is open, giving you a good chance to hear anything unusual. It’s best to do this with a cold engine to find out if there are any valve-train or exhaust noises, which often get quieter as things warm up. Listen for any unusual noises such as the click-clack of a failing valve system or the squeak of the belt.

Whats more?

If it has air-conditioning, locate the AC compressor (belt-driven and located on the pulley/belt end of the engine). Have a helper turn on the AC to its “Max” setting and watch to make sure the AC compressor pulley engages and doesn’t cycle rapidly off and on; the pulley will have a round plate on its outboard end that will remain stationary until the AC is turned on. If it does cycle off and on, the system is probably low on refrigerant gas, and that may be an expensive repair.

Finally, you can get inside the vehicle to check things out. Try every seatbelt to make sure they extend, retract and latch smoothly. Move every seat adjustment. If the engine is still running, turn it off and flip the key to the on position without starting.

This will illuminate every dash warning light to make sure no warning system has been disabled. Fire up the engine again to make sure all the lights go out. Run every control to make sure everything works. Feel the floor carpeting for any signs of dampness. A lot of electrical wiring and components are located under the carpeting. Moisture and electronics are not good friends.

Interior Car inspection

With your seatbelt fastened and mirrors adjusted (you checked to make sure they worked, right?), it’s time to hit the road. Few sellers will ever let you take out a vehicle on your own and that’s understandable. But if you have them as a co-pilot, politely ask them to keep their chatter or sales pitch down so you can hear what the vehicle is telling you. Make sure your test route includes a highway trip you can get up to speed on.

While on the road, check that the vehicle accelerates and shifts smoothly. If it’s equipped with a manual gearbox, note how far you have to release the clutch pedal before the car moves; if the release point is high on the pedal travel, it usually means a clutch that’s on its way out (ouch to the wallet).

Take a few complete corners to make sure the steering wheel re-centers easily without effort. Check for any unusual steering pull or wandering. Listen for any odd suspension or drivetrain noises. If you pick up on any noticeable humming or whirring, gently swerve the steering back and forth. If this noise changes during those moves, it’s most likely a bad wheel bearing. Get up to highway speeds to check for any wheel vibrations and step on the brakes from time to time (when traffic permits) to make sure there is no pull to one side or excessive vibration.

This might seem like a lot, but doing these checks should take no longer than 30 to 40 minutes (including a test drive) — and isn’t that worth it, considering the financial risk of a bad purchase?

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