1. Sight along both sides of the car. Misaligned body panels or differences in paint shade indicate that the car has been in an accident.
2. Check for rust using a small magnet, especially under the doors and around wheel openings. If the magnet doesn’t stick, that may mean a cheap repair with putty. Fixing rust properly is difficult and costly.
3. Stains on upholstery or carpeting and a moldy smell are signs of a rain leak–another problem that can be difficult to fix.
4. Look under the car. Oil or coolant drips could indicate a serious problem.
5. On a quiet street with no traffic nearby, step smartly on the brakes. The car should stop without pulling.
6. Try all the controls and displays, and make sure all the lights are working.
7. With 1997 or later cars, make sure the “check engine” light comes on when you turn on the ignition. If it doesn’t, it may have been disconnected to cover up a problem.
8. On a level road the car should track straight. Pulling could mean either that the body has been badly twisted as the result of a crash or that it has an alignment problem.
9. Examine the automatic-transmission dipstick. The fluid should be cherry red, with no burned smell or bubbles on the stick. The transmission should shift smoothly. A manual transmission shouldn’t grind, and the clutch should engage smoothly.
10. Accelerate in low gear to 15 mph. Then release the accelerator, let the speed drop to about 5 mph, and floor the accelerator. A cloud of blue smoke from the tailpipe is a sign of an oil-burning engine. Lots of white smoke may also mean the car has serious engine trouble. But don’t worry if you see a few wisps of smoke.