Recently, 90 percent of vehicles inspected during National Car Care Month (in the US) failed one or more aspects of the inspection, which underscores the need for consumer education, according to the Car Care Council. Only three Canadian provinces - New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island -require annual car inspections. Many provinces require an inspection the first time an out-of-province vehicle is registered. Several other provinces require car inspections by a licensed mechanic before the purchase of a used car. Even if its not required, you should make this (and the provision of satisfactory results) a requirement of any used car purchase. Even if from a dealer. Also, check these items on the car you will actually drive off the lot!
Accidents - The following may indicate a previous accident: bent or welded frame; doors, hood and trunk that have gaps or do not close properly; paint color is not uniform; ripples in the metal, and steering to one side. You should get it on a lift for a full inspection, but it's worth the trouble.
Battery - Cables, clamps and terminals needed maintenance in 19 % of the vehicles and 5 % of the batteries were not properly held down. Ten percent of the vehicles inspected had low battery fluid and 8 % had improper test eye readings. These indicate initial servicing required right after you buy the car.
Belts and Hoses - Worn belts and hoses can be good indicators of how the previous owner(s) maintained the car. If these items are in bad shape, beware. At least one belt was reported as unsatisfactory in 19 % of the vehicles and 12 % of the vehicles required at least one new hose. Sixteen percent of the vehicles checked needed new air filters.
Body - Look for over-painting (a sign that hidden damage has been repaired after the car left the factory). Use polarized sunglasses to inspect the paint-work for slight scratches. Move the car from its display location to examine it in different light (indoor/outdoor or sunny/cloudy) Use a larger ball-bearing to check the fit and finish on body panels Brakes - While your car is up on the lift, examine the brake system. This involves removing a couple of wheels to reveal the state of the pads, shoes, rotors, drums and hydraulic parts.
Brake pedal - A brake pedal pad that has worn through to the metal beneath it is a good indication of a vehicle with excessive mileage. Think of all of the stop and go traffic it took to wear through the rubber, not to mention the wear on the braking system. If the odometer says 12,000 miles, RUN.
Coolant - Fifteen percent of the vehicles had low levels of coolant. 13 % needed a coolant flush, which protects the system from accumulation of rust, dirt and mineral deposits.
Drivers Seat - If the seat's outer edge has worn through the car has excessive mileage, unless the driver was obese.
Engine and Transmission - The engine powers the car and the transmission "transmits" this power to the wheels, so these two systems are critical. Check these both visually and with a test drive. The car should run quietly and smoothly. If it is a manual, the gears should shift easily. Recent engines can be diagnosed quickly by computer.
Exhaust - That hot-rod noise may sound cool, but it could indicate a leak in one of several places. If this leak is in the catalytic converter, you could possibly fail a motor-vehicle inspection.
Floor mats and interior carpet - First, don't be fooled by a new set of floor mats. Look underneath for signs of water leaks or look for wear on the right of the accelerator pedal and directly underneath.
Interior - The condition of the interior is another important factor to consider when purchasing a used car. Excessive wear and tear on the interior may actually be a good indicator of a vehicle's mileage without even looking at the odometer.
Lights - In the lights area, 8 percent of vehicles inspected needed work on at least one of their turn signals. Six percent of vehicles had problems with at least one of their brake lights and 5 percent of vehicles failed their side light inspection. Only 1 percent of vehicles failed the inspection for their headlights, parking lights, taillights, backup lights and license plate lights.
Lubricants and Fluids - Most cars have over ten fluids. The important ones to check are the engine coolant, oil, transmission, power-steering, and brake fluids. Contaminants or low fluids can be your clue that the car has been poorly maintained. Forty-six percent of the vehicles inspected needed washer fluid (not expensive). Thirty-eight percent of vehicles had low, overfull or dirty motor oil (which could cause or mask engine problems). Twenty-five percent had low or dirty power steering fluid, 22 percent of inspected vehicles had either low, overfull or burnt transmission fluid and 10 percent of vehicles had low brake fluid.
Odometer & Instrument Panel - Take a close look at the instrument panel to see if there has been tampering. Look for fingerprints or scratches inside the plastic cover, numbers not aligned evenly acros, scratches on the numbers.
Roof Leaks - In T-top cars, convertibles, and those equipped with sunroofs, water marks on the headliner are good indicators of a leak. To test for leaks, use a hose and cover the roof with a good spray of water. If it leaks, expect to spend money on new seals (T-top seals are least $100 per side, plus installation).
Steering and Suspension - Too much play in the steering may mean worn parts (both bad and usually expensive). A car's suspension system (which "suspends" your car over its four tires) refers to its shocks and/or struts, which affect the ability to steer over rough terrain, and can make your ride dangerous or bumpy. Use the "bounce test" on each of the corners to check it out.
Tires - Fifty-four percent of the vehicles had improperly inflated tires and 14 percent had worn treads and were in need of replacement. Check the tread on all five (including the spare) tires. Worn treads mean you'll soon be investing in new tires. Treads that have worn unevenly indicate poor alignment. Check that the spare appears properly inflated.
Windows - Check for potential leaks in the weather-stripping, windshield or the vehicle's heater core. Foggy windows indicate excessive moisture inside the vehicle. While sitting in the drivers seat, look at the windshield, checking for pitting in the glass or stone chips.
Windshield Wipers -Twenty-one percent of vehicles had front windshield wiper failures and 14 percent of vehicles needed service on their rear wipers and/or washer.