By: Gov Auctions | 15 September 2014

Buying a Car at a Glance - What to Look For

Buying a car at auction is a great way to pick up a bargain, but how do you know it’s in good condition? This guide tells you what to look for when buying a second hand vehicle and how to tell at a glance whether it’s a peach or a lemon.

NB: If you don’t know a lot about cars, it is recommended that you take someone along with you who does; ideally a mechanic, but at the very least a mechanically-inclined friend or relative.


The first thing to check is the car’s credentials. Is there a mechanic’s report? Does it have a logbook? This will tell you whether it has been serviced regularly in the past.

Check the VIN number. This is the Vehicle Identification Number and should be on the inside of the door, under the trunk lid and at the base of the windshield. If all the numbers don’t match, it is likely that the vehicle has been rebuilt after an accident.


Start at the roof and check the paintwork over the entire body of the car, looking for mismatched colours, paint runs, oversprays, scratches, dents, signs of rust, or misaligned panels. Use a small magnet on any areas where you think a dent may have been patched with body filler. If it is present, the magnet will not adhere to it.

Rust can be a major concern, so look everywhere for signs of it, including under the wheel arches with a flashlight, on the rocker panels under the doors, under the doors themselves and in the spare wheel well in the trunk.

Open and shut each door in turn to see if there is any looseness or sagging, which can indicate extensive use and do the same for the hood and the trunk. Inspect the rubber seals around the doors for signs of rot or tears.

Roll each window up and down to make sure they are sealing properly and check the windshield for chips and cracks. If a stone chip is longer than half an inch, it may develop into a larger crack and require replacement of the windshield.

Push down on each corner of the car and then release to check the suspension. If the shock absorbers are working properly, the car will rebound straight away. If it continues to go up and down slightly after being released, the shock absorbers may need replacing.

Wheels & tires

Check the tires for signs of wear. If the tread is worn on the outer edges of the front tires, it may indicate that the vehicle was owned by an aggressive driver. If there is uneven wear along the tread, it could indicate steering, suspension or brake problems.

Insert a quarter into the tread grooves, with Washington’s head facing down. If you can see the top of his head, the tire tread needs replacing. Also check the sidewalls for bulges or signs of scuffing.

Grip the top of each tire and tug it backwards and forwards to see if there is any play in the wheels, which could indicate problems with the bearings or suspension joints.

Lastly, make sure that the spare tire is in good condition and that the correct tire jack and lug wrench are both in the trunk.

Under the hood

Open the hood and check the general condition of the engine and engine bay. If there are signs of oil sprays or oil on the crankcase or sump, this could indicate problems.

Pull out the oil dipstick and check that the oil is clear, free of contaminants and within the safety level marks on the dipstick. If the dipstick has foam or water droplets on it, this could be a sign of a blown head gasket or a cracked engine block.

Pull the transmission dipstick and check that the oil is a pinkish colour with no signs of metal particles in it. Also check the power steering and brake fluid levels.

Squeeze all hoses to ensure they are supple rather than dry or cracked and check the drive belt for signs of fraying. Remove the battery caps and check the electrolyte levels in each cell,

Remove the radiator cap and check that the coolant is green or orange in colour. If it is milky or rusty looking, the vehicle probably has radiator problems.

Under the car

Slide under the vehicle with a flashlight. Check for oil leaks, rust, signs of welding or dents in the floor pan or gas tank, which could indicate a previous accident. Any fresh application of undercoating may also indicate there is something to hide.

If it is a front-wheel-drive vehicle, inspect the constant-velocity joints behind the wheels. If the black rubber boots are split or leaking grease, this indicates a CV joint problem.

Finally, check the exhaust for signs of rust. Check the inside of the tailpipe, where the residue should be dry and dark gray. If it is black and greasy, this indicates burning oil, which is a problem.


Check the condition of upholstery, roof linings and carpets. Look for signs of damp, which could mean leaks, and sniff the air to see if there is an odor of damp or mold, which could indicate that the vehicle has suffered water damage.

Hopefully this guide has shown you where most of the likely trouble spots can be in a used vehicle. Providing you follow a thorough checklist when inspecting before the auction and take an experienced person along with you, there is no reason why you can’t drive away with a perfectly sound vehicle at a real bargain price.