Pre-Purchase Inspection Part 2
By Courtney Evans
In last week’s essay, we discussed the importance of performing a pre-purchase inspection (PPI) before purchasing that “new” used vehicle. This inspection could save you from a lot of the headaches that usually accompany purchasing a used car or motorcycle. You definitely don’t want to inherit the previous owner’s problems. At least not knowingly. We broke the PPI into two levels. Level 1 is more of a cursory, touchy-feely inspection that will reveal any obvious issues or problems. For more info on the Level 1 PPI, see last weeks issue here. The Level 1 PPI is what is performed by most people, however, it is not as thorough as Level 2.
So, at this point I’ll assume that you’ve already performed the Level 1 PPI and have elected to take a closer look at this used vehicle. You now know quite a bit more about the car’s story. The story is not yet a nightmare and you want to see what other secrets the car will reveal to you. The Level 2 PPI can be performed by you or by a reputable mechanic that you trust. This is not a free service. If you are going to pay over $10K for the car, spending a couple hundred dollars for a more extensive inspection is money well spent. If the car is being sold by the dealer, do not hire a mechanic that works there and is already familiar with the car. You want new, fresh eyes. Familiarity breeds contempt and biased results and we don’t want any of that.
Let’s get started.
Check the computer
The first thing you want to do is to interrogate the cars computer system. What does it have to say about the present and near future condition of the car? How can you find out what it has to say? By using an OBD II scanning tool of course! Connect the scanning tool to the OBD II port located near the steering wheel of the car. You can find more information in the previous essay “The OBD II Scanning Tool: Worth is Weight in Gold“. The scanning tool will tell you if there are any current faults. If there is a check engine light (CEL), it will let you know why. It will tell you if there are any pending codes and will shed light on any future problems. Make note of any codes, current and pending.
Body and Chassis
From our Level 1 PPI, we’ve already check the body for dings, dents, and scratches. Let’s dig a little deeper. Examine the body panels. Particularly if the car has been in an accident. The Carfax that you acquired in Level 1 will let you know if the car has been involved in any accidents. You did get the Carfax, didn’t you? Ok, check the gaps between body panels, doors, hood, trunk, and hatchback. The gaps should all be even and the same throughout vehicle.
Next, you need to take a closer look inside. Get the car off the ground by safely jacking it getting it up on 4 jack stands. Look inside the wheel wells. This is the area around each wheel where the body curves around. You are looking for rust and any evidence of a bad repair or weld. If the car has wheel well liners, remove them so that you can get a better view.
Open the hood and look at and around the strut towers. There will be 2, one on the left and one on the right. Look for consistent welds with no cracks and certainly no rust. The strut bolts should be free of rust and in good condition. The structure should look and be solid.
Now, lets move to the trunk. Remove the trunk carpeting and taillight assemblies. You are looking for non-factor welds or cuts. Basically, evidence that a repair has been done. It will be obvious if it has been botched.
Since I mentioned rust above, let’s talk about that. There shouldn’t be any. Rust is like a cancer and it will spread if it is not attended to. Not only is it ugly, it will compromise the integrity of the car. Rusty strut and shock towers can cause those components to break and fall right out of the vehicle. Vehicle sub-floors can break. Seats and feet can fall right through the floor. I’m sure you can see the inherent danger here. If you find rust, use this fact while bargaining the price you’re willing to pay.
Brakes, Suspension, and Running Gear
Before removing a wheel, check for play around the wheel. Grab the tire with both hands and try to move it from left to right and up and down. Everything should be solid. There should be no movement or noise coming from the wheel. Check the bearings. The wheel should turn smoothly, without any noise or grinding.
Remove the wheels to examine the suspension. It should be tight and without play. It should be free of damage. You can use channel pliers to squeeze ball joints and any other rubber located between joints. It should be firm and free of cracks and damage. Look for any bent components. The sway bar mounting points should be solid and the rubber should be firm and in good condition. Look for leaks in the steering rack and in other steering components such as the power steering pump and hoses.
Check the brake pads and rotors for excessive wear. The rotors should be smooth and free of ridges. Check the calipers for fluid leaks and examine the brake fluid lines and hoses for damage and seepage. Test the brake fluid for excessive water content. Water causes corrosion in the brake system.
Examine the running gear. This is also known as tires. Check for excessive wear. The tires should be wearing evenly. If it is wearing unevenly, say more wear on the inside treads than on the outside, the alignment is probably off and needs to be adjusted. Check the date of manufacture of each tire. This can be found on the sidewall and it should show the week and year the tire was manufactured. Any tire over 15 years old is unsafe and this should be noted.
Engine and Transmission
Take a look at the general condition of the engine from above and from below. Examine the hoses and wiring harnesses. Look for any indication that critters have taken up residence. This is definitely a potential problem as rodents chew on wires, creating an electrical nightmare. Check the fan shrouds, housing, and blades for damage, cracks and rust. Check the coolant reservoir for leaks and cracks. Examine all belts for cracks, rips, and excessive wear.
Look for fluid leaks. This includes oil, power steering fluid, transmission fluid, brake fluid, coolant, and window washer fluid. Pay particular attention to the valve covers. Leaks are very common on engines with lots of miles.
Perform an engine compression test as well as a leak-down test. These test will assess the general health of the engines internal parts. Pull a couple of spark plugs to see if there is excessive carbon build up or oil fouling. Examine the transmission pan and differential for leakage as well. Draining and examining the fluid from both the gearbox (in the case of a manual transmission) and the differential will let you know if excessive wear is occurring.
So, here’s the recap
1. Check the computer using an OBD II scanning tool
2. Examine the body for dings and dents
3. Examine the body panel gaps for consistency
4. Check the wheel wells and body for rust
5. Check the strut (under hood) and shock towers (in trunk or hatchback)
6. Check wheel bearings and tires
7. Examine suspension and steering components
8. Check brake components for excessive wear and leaks
9. Check the engine components for leaks, cracks, and damage
10. Perform compression, leak-down, and spark plug checks
Wow! That is thorough! Performing a pre-purchase inspection at Level 2 will reveal the true health of the vehicle. It will let you know if the car’s story is a nightmare or a fairytale. The inspection will inform you of the good, bad, and the ugly. It will let you know if the owner is telling the truth about the maintenance schedule that he/she did or did not adhere to. If you’re performing the Level 2 pre-purchase inspection yourself, as they say in Australia, “Good on ya mate!”. You saved at least $100. If you elect to let a reliable mechanic to perform it, you will spend your money well.
Buying a used vehicle can be a scary experience that can take you up and down the emotional scale. You can level your emotions and remove the worry when you really know what the deal is. Use the inspection to as your true bargaining tool when dealing with a private owner as well as a used car dealer. Remember, knowledge is power! It can also be money.