Buying a Used Car Checklist - for under the hood

Here's my version of a "buying a used car checklist" for those of you who dare to get under the hood and take a look. And, that should be most anyone who is interested in finding out a bit more about the potential reliability of a used car.

Assuming you've already used the checklist for examining the pavement and undercarriage, let's roll up our sleeves and take a look inside the engine compartment with this checklist.



There are three basic areas to look at:

On the Underside of the Hood

This is essentially the ceiling of the engine compartment.

___Look for indications that fluids that have been flung up onto the "ceiling" by pulleys and fan belts. Try to determine whether the marks you see are from water or from oil or other fluids.

___Try to determine the origins of oil marks by matching up which parts of the engine would be just below where the oil marks on the hood appear.

Firewall and Cowling

Look for signs of fluid leaks in places like:

___master cylinder attachment point to the power brake vacuum booster (possible brake fluid leak/seepage point)

___heater hoses going into the passenger compartment

___windshield washer fluid and coolant from plastic reservoirs mounted on the wheel wells (look for puddling in the engine compartment and on frame members below)

Engine, Engine Components and Radiator

Look for signs of problems such as:

___oil leaks (excessive black dirt/dust accumulation)

___power steering leaks (examine hoses and wipe a paper towel under the power steering unit)

___coolant leaks (visually trace hoses, smell for coolant, look at the bottom of the radiator to see evidence of puddling, and look for tracks where it is/was leaking out of the engine and running down)

___brake fluid leaks (visually trace the lines)

___engine alignment (if crooked, or fan marks on radiator, then there is a possible motor mount failure)

___transmission dipstick (level, color, smell)

___power steering dipstick (level, color, smell)

___brake fluid reservoir (level and color)

___oil dipstick (level and appearance)



Since this "buying a used car checklist" isn't a diagnostic tool, I can't pinpoint specific problems, but I can offer some suggestions regarding what findings might indicate.

  • Oil marks on the underside of the hood could mean bearing failure of engine components or excessive oil leaking from the engine.
  • Leaks that aren't clearly from a hose, hose connection or gasket could mean a cracked housing which is an expensive repair.
  • Coolant tracks down the side of the engine means gasket failure and this will be expensive to repair.
  • Low brake fluid could mean a persistent leak in the brake system. Compare with miles since last brake replacement as fluid level gets lower as brakes wear, unless it's topped off.
  • A burnt smell or brown color associated with transmission fluid or power steering fluid could mean a bad or misused transmission (very expensive) or a failing power steering pump.
  • Oil level and appearance can suggests owner care and oil loss from burning (PCV valve failure, valve seals, or worn engine)

I hope my version of a "buying a used car checklist" has been helpful for investigating potential problems under the hood of a used car you're considering buying. As always, when in doubt, get a qualified and disinterested mechanic to look at the vehicle so you have a better idea of what you're about to purchase.



Done with Buying a Used Car Checklist, back to Buying Used Cars

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