Buying vehicle – things to check before starting engine

There are many things you will want to inspect before start the vehicle. This page is the beginning of a series of pages dedicated to helping spot potential problems.

Once you have picked out the vehicle you want to look at, you should first gather a few things to bring with. These items are a flashlight, rag or cloth, tire pressure gauge, a jug of windshield washer fluid, and a mirror (Figure 1-1). The flashlight will be used to look into the darker areas of the vehicle such as the engine compartment and trunk. The rag or paper towel will come in handy when checking the fluids on the vehicle. A tire pressure gauge is used to measure the amount of air that is in each tire. The washer fluid might be needed to test a vehicle’s system if it is empty. It’s much cheaper to buy a bottle of washer fluid to test the system rather than have to buy a new washer pump. Finally, the mirror will be extremely useful to check under the car to look at the exhaust system as well as hard to view places in the engine compartment.

Before you start the vehicle, there are a few things you should check out, the first of which is to note the general condition of the vehicle. Does it appear that the previous owners have taken care of it? Look on the ground where the vehicle is parked. Are there any visible oil stains?

Now it’s time to ‘pop’ the hood. The latch is typically located to the left of the steering wheel near the driver’s side foot area. Once the hood is securely propped, there are a few items to inspect. The first of which is the engine oil. The oil dipstick will be located off the engine block and often is painted yellow or labeled ‘Engine Oil.’. If you can’t find it, ask the seller where the dipstick is located. If the car is low, ask the seller to fill it to the top line. There are some engine conditions which a vehicle might smoke until the oil level is down to a certain point. When inspecting, pay attention to both the level and color of the oil. If it looks milky, this typically indicates water is mixing with the oil, and depending on how long this condition has existed, the engine might not last much longer. When checking, first pull the dipstick out once, wipe it clean, then reinsert it and pull it out again. Read the results.

Next, check the power steering fluid level. Again, if you can’t find it, ask the seller. The dipstick should have 2 levels. One for ‘Cold’ and one for ‘Hot.’ Be sure to compare your readings to the ‘Cold’ fluid level, which is sometimes represented by a ‘C.’ Now is also a good time to get a general view of the engine compartment. Check for any loose wires or leaky fluid which may be collecting around the top of the motor.

The last thing to check under the hood for now is the belt wear. Most cars are equipped with a serpentine belt which operates all the engine components, while others have V- belts. Regardless of which the car has, be sure to look at it to see if it is beginning to dry rot or crack. Typically if it breaks, you will lose the charging system of your car and it will stall out and not start back up until a new belt is installed.

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