Under the hood
With the engine cold, check the cooling system reservoir. Depending on the make, model, and year, the coolant will be green or red. Remove the radiator cap – if equipped – and look for the same. Check for leaks around the radiator and all coolant hoses. Also, squeeze each hose as you go to check for hard, frail, cracked, oil soaked, soft or weak hoses. The hose should be firm and flexible.
Check for loose or over tightened drive belts. You shouldn’t be able to move a belt more than a half inch by pushing on it, or it is too loose, but if you can’t twist it 90 degrees it’s too tight. Also check for missing chunks, frays or soaked in oil. Check the top sides and bottom of the engine for sings of oil. Dirt, sand and dust stick to oil, so if you see it caked on in spots the vehicle has probably got a leak.
Check the wires and battery cables for exposure or frays and twist the battery terminals to make sure they are tight. Check for corrosion on the battery and cables, as well. Remove the caps on the battery and check the electrolyte level. If the battery is maintenance free check the color of the charge indicator, it should be green. Unfortunately, this will only tell you the condition of one cell; but if the vehicle cranks and starts you at least know the battery is good for now.
The vehicle should be sitting level on a flat surface. Leaning to one side or one corner is a sign of a worn or failed suspension part. Push down on each corner of the vehicle, it should only bounce once if the struts or shocks are in good condition. Turn the steering wheel back and forth, you shouldn’t hear or feel any clunking noises. Push and pull on the top of each tire to make sure there is no play in the hubs or wheel bearings.
All four tires should have about the same amount of wear if they have been rotated regularly. And, each tread should be worn evenly across the width of each tire. Tires are required to have at least 1/16 inch of tread to pass an inspection.
Many tires have wear indicators. When the indicators are even with the tread, the tire needs to be replaced. If the tires don’t have indicators and you don’t have a depth gauge you can use a penny to check. Put the penny in the tread – head down – if you can see the top of Lincoln’s head the tread is out of spec.
Take a good look at the sidewalls of each tire and the spare for bubbles, cracks, scuff marks, and cuts. Make sure the edges of the rims are not cracked or dented. And, check the trunk for the jack and lug wrench.
Under the vehicle
Get out your flashlight and take a look at the underside of the vehicle. We talked in part one about looking for signs of fluid leaks, now you’ll want to check for any damage or parts that need replacing.
Starting at the front, take a look at the oil pan, if it has any dents in it that’s a sign that the vehicle has been driven roughly and it bottomed out. Damage to the oil pan could mean damage to the oil pickup or pump.
Check for torn or missing constant-velocity (CV) joint boots on front-wheel drive vehicles. There are two CV joints on each drive axle, the boots keep the grease in place and the joints lubricated. A vehicle with a torn or missing boot most likely has a damaged joint.
Take a look at the exhaust system from the front pipe to the tail pipe. Look for heavy rust, rot, broken pipes and holes. If the exhaust is hanging low to the ground, that usually means a broken or missing hanger.
Check the fuel tank, frame and floor pans for dents, kinks rust, rot or holes. Any obvious patches or recent undercoating is a sign someone may be trying to hide some damage.
For more, see Used car buying: Part 1 and Used car buying: Part 3