You can find some very good deals in the secondhand car market if you know what model you want and how to give it a proper once-over. Here are some things you can do when examining the used car you want to buy. Disclaimer: These are based on my own personal experiences. Other folks might go about it differently.
1. Gently knock on each body panel, including the roof. Why? Because this is how you can tell if there is putty or masilya hiding underneath that shiny paint job. A fresh panel sounds like a can when you tap on it gently. "Lata" is what we say when the panel is fresh. But if you get a sound that is like a dull thunk, there’s masilya under there. Should you walk away? Not necessarily, but at least you are aware that bodywork was probably done to repair a dent or some rust.
2. Open and close the doors. Do they feel light or heavy? Do they close solidly? Do the strikers and catchers do their job effortlessly? Are they in alignment? Again, a heavy-feeling door means that there might be masilya under the paint. And if a door is not in alignment, it was probably hit at some point, and the repair wasn’t very good.
3. Observe the panel gaps. In a brand-new car, these should be even all around. If the gaps are inconsistent, this is a sign that a repair has been done. If that’s not an issue for you, use it as a bargaining chip.
4. Raise the hood. You can tell if the front clip has had a repair if some plastic parts are missing, or if the clip has a mismatched color from the rest of the car. Only a good body shop will pay attention to this kind of detail. Also, check for paint overspray anywhere in the engine bay. This will also reveal if the car has been involved in a frontal collision. Are the fluid levels proper? If everything is satisfactory, ask to start the engine and let it get up to operating temperature. Listen for any squeaky belts, rattles, or tapping or knocking sounds from the engine.
5. Crawl underneath, or have the car put on a lift. This is to check if the engine is leaking oil, if bushings are still intact, or if any of the suspension components have any damage. Take a look at the shock absorbers also. If they are of the fluid type, they will leak with age. If the car is raised, grab a wheel and try to shake it. If the wheel feels loose, the wheel bearings might be worn.
6. Sit inside and make sure every control is functioning as it should. Switch on the high beam, low beam, turn signals, horn, power-window switches, side mirror adjustment, and interior lights. Are any trim pieces missing? You would want a complete car, after all. An intact interior also means that the owner has cared for his ride.
7. Take a good look at the instrument cluster, using a flashlight if you have to. Is there muddy residue in there? Maybe even just a minute trace? If so, that's a sign that the car has been flooded up to the windshield (and maybe beyond). Check for this muddy residue in the headlights also. If the seller is honest with you about something like this, you don’t have to walk away. But if he is lying, well... How can you tell he is lying? Read on.
8. Read the registration papers. There will be an address on there. If the previous owner lived in a flood-prone area, you will know about it. It’s a long shot, but it pays to do some detective work.
9. Note the odometer reading. If the number doesn’t match the wear and tear on the interior, there might be something fishy going on. My estimate for the average use based on how much I drive--with trips to and from Baguio City--is roughly 10,000km to 20,000km a year.
10. Kick the tires. Just kidding. Have a look and just check that they have even wear. If they don’t, there might be an irreparable alignment problem there.
11. Drive it. None of these checks can take the place of a proper test drive. Does the car have power? Does it track straight? Is braking adequate? Does it feel right? Only from behind the wheel will you know. Walk away if the seller won’t let you drive the unit. He or she might be hiding something. Respect the owner, though. Don’t drive like a dick.
Photo by Vernon B. Sarne