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How to Inspect a Car's Interior & Exterior

When you’re looking to buy a previously-owned car, the appearance of the vehicle can be a great indicator as to what’s happened to that car during its lifetime. It’s important that as a potential buyer, you examine all aspects of the car – from the taillights to the floor mats – to make sure you’re making the purchase that’s right for you. Here’s a list of areas and features to check when you visit your potential new car.

Think outside the car

  • Suspension: Make sure the car is located on flat ground and check that the vehicle is level to the ground. It shouldn’t be sagging to one side.
  • Paint/exterior: Check the vehicle’s exterior for rust, paint chips, rough spots, cracks and sections of paint that don’t match. Looks for any areas that have fresh paint – this could indicate that bodywork has been done or paint was used to cover rust. Examine all angles of the car; ideally, you want to see a smooth and shiny exterior. Watch for large or small gaps between the door panels and the trunk and hood panels as this could mean a panel has been replaced or repositioned. Make sure the gap width is even and consistent on panels throughout the vehicle.
  • Outside lights: Bring along a friend so they can help confirm that all of the lights on the vehicle are working. This includes: headlights (daytime, nighttime and high beams), hazard lights, fog lights, brake lights, the license plate light, turn signals and back-up lights. Look at the exterior lights to ensure that they aren’t cracked, missing or filled with moisture.
  • Windshield: Examine the glass for any chips, cracks or scratches. While a chip may seem small, it could mean a full windshield replacement if left unfixed.
  • Trunk: Ask yourself if the trunk is large enough to suit your needs. If you’re frequently lugging around a stroller or oversized sports equipment, bring these measurements along. Consider how high you have to lift these items to get them into the trunk. Will this be a nuisance for your day-to-day activities? Check the trunk for a musty smell and look for water damage as well as mould as this could indicate that the vehicle has experienced water damage, or has even been in a flood.
  • Keys: Double check that the seller has two sets of keys for the vehicle and test the key in all of the door locks and the trunk lock.
  • Under the hood: Although it’s best to leave this area up to your mechanic during the pre-purchase inspection, you can check here for any obvious rust spots or cracked hoses.
  • Doors: Open all of the doors to ensure that they are in working order. Are they big (or small) enough for your needs? Will your children or elderly family members have difficulty getting in and out of the car?
  • Measure: If you’re planning to park your car in your own garage, in a shared garage or in a small parking spot, bring along a measuring tape so you’ll know whether or not the car you’re interested in fits.
  • Tires: When it comes to the wheels, check the tires for cracks or bald spots. The tires should be worn evenly and the brand and size of each tire should match. Turning the steering wheel will help you inspect more of the front tires. It’s also a good idea to ask the seller about whether or not a spare tire is included with the car.
  • VIN: Make sure the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) is located on the right side of the vehicle’s dashboard when you’re looking through the windshield from outside of the vehicle. It can also be found on the inside of the driver’s side door, near where the door latches. Write this number down because you’ll need it to run a CARFAX Canada report if the seller hasn’t provided one already.

Spend time inside

  • Seats: Take the time to sit in each of the vehicle’s seats and get family members to give you their opinions as well. Are the seats and head restraints easily adjustable and do all of the controls work? Do you like the look and feel of the seats? Is there any damage to the upholstery or leather such as burns, holes, tears, stains, spots or scratches? Does your family fit in the backseat and how comfortable would they be during a long car ride? Will the backseat accommodate your car seat? Can you access the trunk from the back? If the seats fold down, test them out to see how well they work.
  • Inside lights: Are all of your interior lights and controls fully functioning? This includes your headlights (daytime, nighttime and high beams), your ceiling and interior lights, glove box lights and mirror lights.
  • Dashboard: Record the odometer reading and compare it to the car’s listing. Look at the dashboard lights – are any of them burnt out? Does the car display any warning lights?
  • Smell: Does the car have an odour? That air freshener hanging from the rear view mirror could be masking a smell that might be difficult to get rid of. Sniff for musty floor mats (another possible sign of water damage or flooding) and check the ash tray or cigarette lighter for signs of use if the vehicle is supposed to come from a non-smoker.
  • Controls and accessories: Try out every control and switch to make sure they are in proper working order. Consider checking the windshield wipers and fluid control, heater/air conditioning, vents and airflow settings, mirror adjustments, GPS, door and window locks, power windows or roll-up handle, stereo, power outlets, front window and rear window defrost, speakers, horn, clock, steering wheel tilt adjustment, sunroof controls and the releases for the hood, trunk and gas cap. Are these controls easy to use and can you reach them from your seat, without having to lean forward? Will you be able to use some of these functions without being distracted while out on the road?
  • Manuals and information: Does the vehicle come with a manual? Can you access any maintenance or service logs from the previous owner?

By giving the inside and outside of the car a thorough and detailed examination, you’ll be better informed about what’s happened during the lifespan of your vehicle. Arming yourself with these details will help you in your quest to find the car that’s perfect for you.