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How to Check Out a Used Car Like a Mechanic WillNotes From the Road

How to Check Out a Used Car Like a Mechanic Will
By Wayne Scraba/

What to Really Look for When Shopping for an Older Car -

New cars are nice. They're state-of-the-art. You can buy one with the equipment, colors and trim that you want. They don't have any road rash. There's no hidden damage. And they smell special too. Unfortunately, not everyone can afford to buy that brand spanking new car, which leaves only one option: The used car market. Of course, that isn't necessarily bad: You can save countless dollars on first year depreciation alone. Here we"ll teach you how to check out a used car like a mechanic will, to find the best used car for you.

Finding the Right Used Car
Finding the Trouble Spots
We admit, the search for the "right" used car isn't always easy. In most cases, a proper search (and by using this article as a guide) will unearth a special car that's almost exactly what you're looking for. Sure, it's not going to be showroom new, but it might not break the bank either.
Assuming you've found a couple of good new-to-you, used-car candidates, how do you first find the trouble spots and locate any hidden damage? A lot has been written over the years about what to look for during a test drive, but you can learn huge amounts about a car before you ever turn the ignition key. In fact, that's exactly how most used car appraisers work. They usually make their mind up about a car long before a road test. Here is your used car shopper's checklist. Take it with you on your shopping trip and check every one to find the best used car your money can buy:

Before doing anything else, walk around the car and make mental notes of areas that might need a bit more attention. Rust and previous accident damage are two of the most critical things to look for.
Top of the Instrument Panel at the Base of the Windshield
Leaks and Water Damage
Check out the top of the instrument panel at the base of the windshield (exterior) along with the area directly behind the wheel wells (near the rocker panel). Water drainage in these locations can be extremely poor, but compounding the problem is dirt and crud accumulation, especially on the inner side of the fender. The panels will begin to rust from the inside out.
While you're checking the rocker panels, check the leading edge of the door area, the doorjamb and, most importantly, the base or lower edges of the doors. Many cars used a system of "flush and dry" rocker panels. It works great, unless the system is plugged. Use a flashlight and probe the bottoms of the doors with a screwdriver.

Back windows can leak. If the leak is left unchecked, the water will spill into the trunk. Water trapped by a poor window seal will not have a place to drain, and that's where rust begins. While checking the back window, take a close look at the sheetmetal just below the window along with the trunk floor in the area. If the window leaked heavily in the past, rust will begin in this area.
Use a Flashlight to Examine the Trunk and Quarter Panels
Hidden Accident Damage
Use a flashlight to examine the inner sections of the trunk and quarter panels carefully. In some situations, patch panels, heavy bondo or even fiberglass will be used to repair these areas. This type of repair can be well hidden with undercoating. Be sure to take your time and check all nooks and crannies with extreme care.
Prior accident damage can be well hidden. Obvious damage is easy to locate, but what about some carefully disguised repairs? A good place to look is the firewall. If the car was involved in a typical front-end accident, there is a good chance the firewall will have sustained some damage. If the car was hit hard enough that it required work on a frame machine, you might be able to find evidence of the pulling operation on the firewall (the resulting kinks and bends are difficult to remove and repair and, as a result, they can often be detected).

If the car was hit hard in the nose or on one side, the hinge area on the cowl may have sustained damage. A hit on the nose or the side may have tweaked the respective hinges. With the help of a flashlight, look into the hinge area. Examine it in detail for signs of welding, bent hinges and rippled sheet metal. While examining the hinges, try lifting the rear of the door (at the handle) while the door is open. If the car is a high-miler (but doesn't show it on the odometer), the door will move on the hinge pins. The cure is a new set of hinge pins and/or bushings, but always keep the odometer reading in mind (does it match the condition of the car?).

Examine the panel fit. If the car was hit and poorly repaired, the panels will not fit well. Keep in mind that on a mass-production vehicle, panel fit isn't always perfect, but gross panel mismatches should be a hint of past damage. Watch for things like excessive shims at fender bolt locations, radical gaps in the hood, deck lid, doors and other sheetmetal.

Look for evidence of a poor repaint. Over-sprayed window fuzzies, door weatherstrip, poor paint within the doorjambs and trunk jambs along with the areas around lock cylinders and door handles. These are places where you can spot telltale signs of a repaint. A bad repaint can often tell you the car is hiding more troubles inside.

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