Schedule the test drive for a time when there’s no rush. If it’s bad weather, reschedule. Take a little notebook, write a quick check list based on this article, and make notes. When you approach the car’s owner, be friendly, polite and courteous. Do NOT try to “beat them down” to get a better deal. While you have every right to ask direct questions, you have no more right to insult their car than one of their children.
First, check the tires. Pull the steering wheel all the way to the left (and then right) so you can see the entire tread. Uneven tire wear– marks on the side or deep grooves in the middle– may indicate suspension issues. And nothing screams “lemon” louder than cheap, bald or strangely worn rubber.
Next, open and close all the doors several times, including the trunk and hood. Check for paint on the hinges and moldings. If a door creaks, it’s usually no big deal. If a door has trouble closing, it can signal anything from a broken hinge to frame damage.
On the driver’s side, make sure that the VIN sticker or VIN plate hasn’t been removed.
Have a quick look at the panel gaps, especially the hood and trunk. Unless you’re looking at an old Land Rover, they should all be even. Check for water leakage in the trunk. Damp and/or a mildew smell often indicates problems underneath.
When you climb aboard, don’t be put off by worn seats or busted radios. Most interior surfaces and parts can be repaired and/or replaced easily and cheaply.
Lower the window and fire up the car– a few times. Do you hear any tapping or pinging sounds, or does it kick over with a smooth ‘vrooom’ and settle into an easy, quiet idle?
Test all the buttons and switches including the radio stations. If the owner listens to aggressive music, chances are the car’s been thrashed.
Flip on the A/C. It should kick out cool air within fifteen seconds of ignition. Same goes for heat. (HVAC repairs can run as high as $500 to $1500.) When you’re on the road, test both of them again to make sure the temperature and fan speed are constant.
Finally, turn the steering wheel all the way to the left and right. The motion should be seamless and silent. If there’s a lot of resistance, or the force required is uneven, the steering system may need anything from power steering fluid (cheap) to a power steering pump assembly (moderate) to a new rack (first born).
Now put the car in gear. Aside from a few models (older Mercedes in particular), a late or rough shift from park indicates that the car’s transmission may soon give up the ghost. If you experience rough or late shifting, you’re done.
Brake force should be quick and constant. Unless the brakes have been recently replaced (ask), you shouldn’t hear any squeaking sounds.
Drive the car through a variety of traffic conditions, inclines and speeds, for at least a half hour. When going uphill, take your foot off the accelerator for a moment. Coast downhill as well. If the car’s transmission hunts, clunks or has trouble catching, the vehicle probably has a transmission or linkage issue.
If you hear a lot of ‘clacking’ or other unusual engine noises on initial acceleration, the engine’s components may need attention. If there’s an oil gauge, keep an eye on it. It should show approximately 25 to 80 psi during acceleration, and 10 to 20 when idling. The coolant temperature should hit a fixed point within ten minutes and never move.
After about twenty minutes of driving, take the car to a gas station. Keep the engine on. Open the hood and the gas cover release to make sure they’re in proper working order. If you know where the transmission dipstick is (and it’s a damn good idea to find out), check the level. Does it have bubbles? If the fluid is brown or black, it could be a sign of future transmission issues.
Turn the vehicle off and check the oil. If it’s not between the marks (too low or too high) or discolored, you’re done.
Finally, get a wet paper towel, wipe the dirt off the relevant reservoirs and check the coolant, power steering and brake fluids to make sure they’re at their proper levels. S-l-o-w-l-y open the reservoir tank and check the coolant’s color. If it’s a multi-colored muck or brownish black, note it down.
By this point, you should have a pretty good idea whether your next step is towards purchase or home sweet home. If you’re blowing it off, thank the owner politely and leave promptly, without engaging in any further discussion whatsoever. (“It’s not what I had in mind.”) If you’re ready to move forward, it’s time to schedule a professional inspection.