A few things mean the difference between "love" and "lemon"
The test drive, part 1
The test drive, part 2
Vehicle history check
Did the owner care for his/her car? Are the records complete? Not just complete, were oil changes and routine maintenance performed on schedule? Any major repairs? Were the recalls completed if the model was subject to one? An owner who puts off oil changes isn’t someone we’d buy a car from.
If there’s less than 2/32 of an inch of tread left, it needs new tires. If you have a U.S. penny, you shouldn’t be able to see Lincoln’s head when held in a groove. Equally important, though, get down and look at the side-to-side tire wear. If it’s worn unevenly, there may be alignment issues or a previous accident.
Ideally, you should lift the car and have a licensed mechanic check things over. Parts that move (like axles, suspension components, etc.) should still have visible lubricant where they join or pivot. There should be no rust on the frame. If the frame looks welded or one part of the underside looks newer than another part, chances are it was replaced because of an accident.
• Time to look at the body. Are the panel gaps consistent? Stand at the front and rear corner, looking down each side to check for ripples in the metal or paint. Is the entire car the same colour?
• If you look into cracks (with the hood/trunk/doors open especially) is there “overspray,” or exterior paint/primer on a surface it’s not supposed to be on? That means the car has been repainted.
• A big never: never check a car in the rain or when wet. It’ll always look better.
Does the car start on the first try? Does it idle smoothly? If you press the gas, does an excessive amount of smoke come out of the tailpipe? If the smoke is a little blue, it could mean the engine is burning oil. The engine should sound (and feel) smooth, with no hesitation.
First, is it leaking? Is the engine dirty? That can mean the owner didn’t take care of the vehicle.
• Oil: Check when the engine is cool, should be a medium brown. If it’s too dark, sludgy, or the oil level is low — run.
• Coolant: Also check when the engine is cool, make sure there’s enough coolant. This is a good indication if the owner neglected maintenance.
• Transmission: Check fluid when the engine is warm and running. It should be reddish in colour, dark colour means it needs to be changed.
• Washer fluid: Is there washer fluid? For that matter, is the windshield scraped when the driver left the wipers on for too long?
Are the panel gaps consistent? Follow the line from top of a body panel to the bottom: is it wider at one end than the other? That can mean that the vehicle wasn’t repaired correctly after an accident. Modern cars, especially Japanese and German ones will have less of a gap between panels.
Before turning on the engine, turn off the stereo! Make sure you’re comfortable, that you like how the controls feel to the touch.
• If it’s a manual transmission-equipped car, how does the clutch feel? Does it “bite,” or is it mushy?
• If the vehicle has an automatic transmission, does it hesitate when shifting from park to drive?
• Can you hear other noises besides the engine, like a noisy power steering pump or a rattling exhaust?
Take your hands off the wheel. Yes: this will show you if the car tracks straight down the road, or moves to one side — a sign of a bad alignment, bad chassis, or low tire pressures.
• When you accelerate, is there enough power? Does the engine sound strained? Does it hesitate?
• When you brake, does the steering wheel shake? (Bad sign!) After one stop, get the car pointed straight and do another stop with your hands off the wheel — if it pulls left or right under braking there’s a mechanical fault.
• Again, keep the stereo and air conditioning off if possible — they may be masking a serious problem.
• Is it fun to drive? Do you enjoy driving it? If not, move on — no sense spending your money on something you don’t like.
Sites like carproof.com and carfax.com allow you to check a vehicle’s history. Has it been in any accidents? Does the owner owe money on it? Was it registered in the U.S.? These are things you need to know, and could shed light on very serious problems.