My wife’s 1999 Pontiac Grand Prix that we purchased from her aunt as a car to tide us over when we were running on one vehicle has served its purpose well. Now, the time has come to replace it – and with good cause. It had some dents when we got it; now it’s got a few more. Oil leaks from somewhere, but I haven’t put the time or money into fixing it. Electrical gremlins abound; the reverse lights are on a toggle switch I installed to get it to pass inspection and the shifter can’t be moved out of park without the use of the manual override, even though the sensor that controls the lockout has been replaced.

With all of that, and the addition of a third child to our family, we’re using a portion of our tax return to go shopping for a used vehicle to replace the car with. Car shopping for a used vehicle can be frightening, because the condition of the vehicle can be completely unknown. With that being the case, I thought I’d share my used vehicle “shopping checklist” with you all to perhaps make your life easier in the future if you are on the hunt for a vehicle.

1. Go equipped. Take a flashlight, pen/paper, and a rag. Rubber gloves are a good idea too. This will allow you to note things, look into dark areas, and poke/prod to your heart’s content without getting filthy.

2. Know trouble spots. Some year/model combinations are known to be prone to certain issues. Be aware if your choice has a trouble spot, and inquire about the history of that item in particular.

3. Touch. Poke, prod, push, and pull on EVERYTHING. Test it all – you don’t want to find out after you commit to buy that the driver’s seat only moves one way and then gets stuck, or if a window doesn’t work right, etc.

4. Smell. Inside and outside, in the engine, in the trunk. Pick up floor mats. If it smells heavily of air freshener, it probably means that something was being covered up. Smell the trunk – if it smells damp, there’s a leak somewhere (or it was left open in the rain. If it smells of mold, then it got wet and never dried properly.

The engine bay has its whole own set of smells. I’ll go over the major things to check quick:

  • Oil: pull the dipstick (normally yellow). It should smell of…well, oil. Kind of a cooking oil smell. If it has a sugary/sweet smell, that means that there may be some anti-freeze/coolant mixing with it – DO NOT BUY. If that’s the case, it means that the head gasket(s) need replaced. Color should range from gold to brown. If it’s black, then it hasn’t been changed properly. Open the oil filler cap. Make sure there is no water condensation, or any sort of “gooky” stuff on it. If there is, that’s bad (aka possible engine damage). I
  • Transmission: This applies for automatics. Pull the dipstick (normally red). Fluid on it should be pink to light/medium red. If it’s dark red to brown, then it hasn’t been changed on schedule. It should smell a little bit of floor polish. If it REEKS of varnish and smells kind of burnt, then the car has been abused and may need transmission repair in a relatively short time frame. There normally is no fill cap. Manual transmissions don’t have fluid to be checked, really. With the clutch in, they should shift easily R-1-2-3-4-5-6 (or however many they have) and 6-5-4-3-2-1-R. They should NOT be able to go from top gear (4, 5, or 6) straight to R – you should have to come to neutral first and then to go R. This mostly applies to 5-speed manuals with R opposite 5 – it’s known as ‘reverse safety’ or ‘reverse lockout at speed.’
  • Brake fluid: This is normally towards the back of the engine bay on the driver’s side. Brake fluid is normally clear. If it’s black, then it’s never been changed/flushed. An orange/brown color is to be expected and is okay. Not much to be said of smell here.
  • Power Steering: Basically the same as brake fluid. Found by the engine belts, it’s also normally clear and gets orange/brown with age.
  • Coolant: Several varieties. Should smell sweet and sticky. Can be orange, green, or pink. NEVER MIX COLORS. If there is gelatin-like substance on the radiator cap (not the fluid fill cap), then the various kinds of antifreeze have been mixed (VERY bad). If the color is extra pale, or there’s no color at all, then the owner has too much water in it and the vehicle could have had a leak in the past and not been put back to the proper ratio of water/antifreeze.

Tires are easy to check. Take a penny with you. Put it upside-down into the middle of the tread. If it doesn’t cover Abe’s hair, then the tires need replaced.

In cold weather, exhaust leaks are self-evident. In warm weather, they’re harder to find. Rev the car with it sitting still – if there’s a “race car growl” as you rev up or as it comes down to idle, then there’s an exhaust leak somewhere.

Flashlight is good for just about everything. Looking for rust in behind the tires, looking in the back of the engine bay, and most importantly, helping you spot leaks. If you look under the car, you should see very little that’s shiny. If something looks shiny and wet, that could mean there’s a leak somewhere. If it seems that everything is crusted over with a layer of what looks like tar or black grime, then that could signify an oil leak in the past.

That’s pretty much everything I go through. Make sure you check A/C, even if buying a car in the winter, and heat even if buying it in the summer. It doesn’t stay hot (or cold) all year long, and you don’t want to find out too late that you need to get one or the other fixed.


I hope something in here is found helpful by at least one of you!