Vehicle Inspections – A Car Buyers Guide

Buying a used car can be an exciting and yet difficult task with so many options and considerations.   Why type of car to buy?  Where to buy?  How to purchase?  What are the hidden costs?  How do I know the car I’m buying isn’t fraught with hidden mechanical or electrical problems?  Is the seller hiding something or maybe not aware of existing problems?

Buying a used car is a large financial investment – you don’t want to get it wrong!

Shopping for a car can be daunting, but there is a lot you can do to quickly weed out those motor vehicles that may not be right for you , show big red flags – or simply aren’t the right choice for you or your budget.

Our inspectors are now available for bookings in Sydney, Perth, Adelaide, Gold Coast, Brisbane and Canberra.

First Impressions are Important:

General Cleanliness

Does the car look clean and well looked after inside and out for its age and price range?  A clean car doesn’t necessarily mean it doesn’t have mechanical or electrical issues – but it’s a good place to start.  First impressions can be a good tell-tale sign of a neglected, or well looked after vehicle.


Are all the tyres the same brand, size and type?  They should be worn evenly and match.  Sellers who skimp on tyres are often most likely to skimp on servicing their vehicle or avoid repairing problems as they arise.  You want to buy from a seller who has serviced their car regularly and fixed any problems quickly as they arise from time to time.

Uneven tyre wear is a sign that the wheels are misaligned or out of balance, that correct tyre pressure has not been maintained or that the shock absorbers are worn or the suspension damaged.

Don’t be afraid to ask – “have you had any issues with the vehicle at all?” – they may not tell you the truth – but often their reaction can be very telling.  Our professional inspectors will uncover any issues should you wish to proceed with a more thorough, professional inspection.

Log book

Does the car have a stamped log book showing regular service intervals and service items?  Does the services include both minor and major service schedules?  This may or not be important based on your budget – but ultimately what you want is a car that has been regularly serviced by a professional mechanic as per the car manufacturer’s guidelines.  Vehicles with large gaps in service history ought to throw a red flag.

Garage / Driveway

Take a look at their carport, garage floor or driveway.  Does it contain oil stains where they would normally park the car?  This could be a tell-tale sign of an engine oil leak.

Here are a few other quick inspections you can do as a buyer before you get the expert vehicle inspectors involved.


Motor Vehicle Exterior


A good way to look at car bodywork is to stand back from the car (front and rear) and look down the side of the vehicle.

This will highlight small dents and creases.  Also look at the gaps between the body panels and doors – they should be equal in width and flush.
Check for mismatched paint on adjacent body panels. This could show that it has been in an accident and has required a respray or bodywork.
Lights, windows and mirrors

Check lights, windows and mirrors.  Remember that cracked or chipped glass – indicator lenses, headlights, mirrors or windows – can be expensive to replace.


General Electrical Condition

Check indicators, high / low beam, electric seats if fitted and make sure the heater heats, and the airconditioning cools.  Replacement of heating or cooling components can also be a very expensive fix as they can often be difficult to replace and very labor intensive.  This may not be a deal breaker in a decision to purchase but may give you leverage in negotiating a better price for the used motor car.


Motor Car Engine

Under the hood

Check the engine bay for signs the car has been poorly taken care of or damaged.  Check for coolant or oil leaks or residue, and check hoses and belts – they should not have cracks, and the hoses should not be overly soft.

Check the engine block for leaks or signs of corrosion.  Dark brown oil stains could be signs of gasket failure and could lead to expensive repairs in the future.

Check brake fluid and reservoir to ensure it is not cracked or leaking.  Ensure levels are as per manufacturer specification.

Check oil level and color by pulling, cleaning and replacing the dipstick – then removing and checking the oil. Rub some oil onto your finger –   the oil should look clean, and the levels should be within specification.  Oil that looks and smells burnt, is overly dirty or gluggy could be a sign of engine damage – or a lack of regular maintenance.

Check the water in the radiator – it should be clean and oil-free and have the color of the coolant designated for that engine type.


Piston rings and valve stems

You’ll need a second person to help you do this test.  Warm up the engine by letting it idle for a few minutes.  Stand at the rear of the vehicle (ensuring the car is in park with the handbrake on) and have someone pump the accelerator pedal.  You want to take the car quickly from idle to high revs and back again. Repeat two or three times.  Watching the exhaust – if you see a puff of blue smoke, beware – this is likely to be piston ring, and/or valve stem problems and is, in most cases, a very expensive repair bill – if not now, then in the distant future.

The dipstick and the oil filter caps can tell you many things. The presence of a creamy white substance could mean that water from the cooling system is getting into your oil through leaking gaskets or a cracked cylinder head.

Let the car stand for a while and check for oil drips or wet surface residue on the engine, gearbox or rear axle under the car.


Test Drive

Check to ensure all switches, openings and electric dials, gauges, seat adjustment and seat belt are working as they should.

The engine should deliver power smoothly and the gearbox or transmission should change smoothly without grinding or shuddering.  At a stop, the engine should idle at an adequate rpm.

Keep your eye out for any overheating issues – both with water and oil.

Ensure dials, temperature, and voltage, pressure (and others) are indicating the correct and proper positions and values.

Steering should be smooth and centered, and under braking – the vehicle should pull up in a straight line without pulling to either side


Seems like a great car – now what?

If you’ve now inspected the vehicle, run through the checks we’ve outlined and feel like this could be the car you’ve been looking for – then it’s now time to get the professionals involved.  It might be a great vehicle – meeting your budget and requirements – however, an experienced vehicle inspector will always pick up on some things you’ve missed.  For peace of mind use an independent stateroads vehicle inspector so you can make your purchase confidently – knowing all the facts, and avoiding nasty surprises.

Call us for a chat today!  Happy motoring!

Contact Us

SYDNEY   (02) 9655 1411 
BRISBANE   (07) 3367 8000
PERTH  (08) 6323 2069
MELBOURNE   (03) 9850 8000
ADELAIDE      1300 737 450

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