1: Body Condition
Look at the lines of the wings and doors. Large gaps or misaligned panels indicate a sloppy repair.
Look for scratches, dents, and rust on the roof and the car panels. Check that the gaps between the panels are even.
Remember that rust can look innocent enough at first but can get bad quickly and is expensive to fix.
Pull the top of each tyre back and forth. If you feel play, or notice a clunking noise, there may be an issue with the wheel bearings or suspension joints.
Check that the car is standing level, you do this by walking around the car and if it sags to one side, it may have a suspension issue.
Bounce each corner of the car up and down. If the shocks are in good shape, the car should rebound just once or twice and not multiple times.
Look to see if there are signs of excessive paint chipping around the front of the car.
Have the person who accompanied you stand outside the car and confirm that all lights are working ok.
Test both high-beam and low-beam headlights, parking lights, indicators and fog lights.
Ensure light lenses are fully intact, not cracked and fogged with moisture.
Has it been in a crash?
The obvious thing to do here is to ask the owner.
A car history check will reveal if the car has ever been written off.
Look to see that paint colour is uniform. It's quite difficult to duplicate the texture and finish of a manufacturers paint effect.
If you suspect that a dent may have been covered over, use a magnet. If a dent was filled with plastic body filler, the magnet won't stick. Obviously this test won't work if the car has plastic or fibreglass parts.
Look for signs of over-spray or paint adhering to the rubber seals around the car body openings.
Usually minor cosmetic flaws are no cause for concern, but rust is. Look particularly for rust spots around the wheel wells and the sheet beneath the doors and the bottom of the doors themselves.
You should use a torch to look inside the wheel wells for rust.
Open and close the doors, bonnet and the boot. You need to check that they work freely on their hinges and close smoothly.
Gently lift and let go of each door. If the door is loose on its hinges, the vehicle may have seen hard use.
Inspect the rubber seals around all openings to be sure they're intact.
Your vehicle's tyres say a lot. If the vehicle has less than 25,000 miles on the clock, it will probably still have its original tyres. If a car with low mileage has new tyres, think!
If there are different tyre brands or sizes on the car, ask why.
Check that tread wear is even across the width of the tread. It should also be the same on both sides. Aggressive drivers usually tend to put a lot of wear on the outside of the tyre. If the shoulder has a lot of wear the car may have been driven hard!
Lightly stroke the tread on each tyre with the flat of your hand. If you feel raised parts, it may not be aligned properly. This symptom could point to a simple maladjustment or an expensive suspension problem. Tyres with this type of wear tend to make the steering wheel vibrate at high speeds.
Examine the windscreen and all the other windows to make sure there are no cracks.
A small bulls-eye from a stone is probably not something to be worried about, though you might be able to use this as something to negotiate on.
Cracks on the windscreen often get worse over time and could lead to pricey repairs.
5: Brake Discs
It is important to check the rotors on the disc brakes. Most vehicles have disc brakes in front and drum brakes in the rear; some cars have disc brakes on each wheel. Cars with ABS have disc brakes all round.
Use a torch to see through the front wheel rims. The rotor discs should be not have any deep grooves, and should be smooth. No need to worry about traces of surface rust on the discs.
The discs should look clean and smooth after you have used the brakes during the test drive.
6: Inside the Car
Smell the car. Does the car have a mouldy, musty smell? This could be an indication that the car has water leaks. Such leaks can be very awkward and costly to find and fix.
Take out the mats, and look for damp spots on the carpet.
Inspect the pedal rubber. Are there signs of excessive wear? This is a good indication of use. Look at the rubber on the clutch, brake and accelerator pedals. If the car has low mileage it shouldn't show too much wear. High mileage shows itself through worn spots.
If the clutch pedal is badly worn it may mean the last owner was in the habit of riding the clutch, which could cause clutch and gearbox problems for you.
Look to see if the numbers on the meter appear stretched, or misaligned.
Start up the car and let it tick over. Notice if it's hard to start when cold. Note that the seller may have started up prior to your visit. Also check whether the engine ticks over smoothly.
Try out every control, instrument, and button. Try all the doors, windows and any locks the car might have. Beep the horn.
Try the heater at max power and check how quickly it gets hot. If it has air conditioning switch it on and see whether it blows cold air. Try the seat heaters if it has any. Test the radio reception on AM,FM,LW and try playing a tape or CD if there is a player.
Seats. Test all seats even though you might not be planning on sitting in the back. While the driver's seat will have more wear than the passengers, it still should not sag. If the car has low mileage on it the upholstery should be in good condition.
Check out all the driver's seat controls; also look at the height and reach of the steering wheel to ensure you have a good driving position.
7: Check Out The Boot
Like the car interior, sniff for musty smells and check for damp spots. Also have a look over the spare wheel for rust.
Make sure the car jack and all the car jack bits are included.