Is the owner’s manual missing?

Are there large gaps in the service history or no records at all?

Do you suspect the mileage isn’t legitimate?

Does the title include the word β€œsalvage”?

Is there evidence of curb damage on the wheels?

Are the windshield wiper blades damaged?

Are any hubcaps missing, damaged or loose?

Are all the tire pressures properly set?

Is the paint faded or cracked?

Are any panels a different shade or color?

Are any of the panel gaps markedly different than the others?

Are any of the trim pieces loose or missing?

Does a magnet fail to adhere to the sheet metal? (Try several spots.)

Are any of the tires a different brand or size?

Is there evidence of accident damage that has been poorly repaired?

Are lug nuts missing?

Are there any small dark spots or oily film on the bumper near the exhaust pipe?

Are there any small rust spots?

Is there rust everywhere?

Are there any tears or wear marks in the seats?

Are there any cracks, blemishes or broken trim?

Are the spare tire, jack and tools damaged or missing?

Do any of the windows go down or up slower than the others? Do they make noises?

When the climate control is turned on, does the fan squeak or rattle or operate on only one speed setting?

Does the air conditioning blow warm air?

Turn on all the accessories (windshield wipers, radio, power mirrors, etc.). Do any fail to operate properly?

Is the brake pedal worn more or less than the mileage on the odometer would suggest?

Is there any rust or evidence of water in the spare-tire well?

Does the sunroof operate slowly, as if it’s struggling to move?

Is there a stale smell, like mildew or spoiled milk?

Is there evidence of water damage in the glovebox or under the rear seat?
Chassis / Underbody

Are any of the inner fender shields missing or broken?

Put your knee on the bumper, bounce the car three times, then stop. Does the body move up and down more than two times?

Is there uneven wear on any of the tires?

Does oil coat any of the shock absorbers?

Jack up the car and safely support it so the wheels are off the ground. Tug and push on the wheels. Is there any lateral play at the hub?

Pull on the tie rods and the suspension mounts. Do you detect any movement?

Are the brake pads and rotors worn out?

Is there rust on any of the underbody surfaces?

Check the engine bottom. Any sign of fluid leaks?

What about transmission and differential leaks?

Is there any bent or dented metal?

Are there shiny marks on the pinch welds?

Is there fluid seepage around the brake caliper or from the bottom of the brake drums?

Check the ground under the car. Are there any puddles of oil or fluid?

Look at the bottom of the radiator. Is it wet from coolant?

With the engine off, squeeze the hoses (be careful, they may be hot). Do they feel stiff or brittle?

Are there cracks in the belt(s)?

Are there any wires not covered by sheathing?

Are there any loose hose clamps?

Are there any loose and corroded battery clamps?

Is the battery more than 4 years old?

Is there any sign of fluid leaks at the accessories (power-steering pump, brake reservoir)?

Any evidence of nesting mice or other animals?

Is the air filter dirty?

Are fluid levels (power steering, brake, coolant, oil and transmission) below the minimum?

Check for oil change stickers. Is the car long overdue?

Is there seepage at the bottom of the brake reservoir?

Is there sludge in the bottom of the coolant reservoir?

If the engine has a timing belt, is it older than 4 years? If unknown, answer β€œyes.”

Put a drop of oil from the dipstick on a clean, dry rag. Does it appear gooey or black?

Are there shiny metallic particles in the oil?

Does the oil look milky or smell like gasoline?

Remove the oil filler cap. Are there thick, black deposits in the cylinder head?

Sniff the automatic transmission fluid dipstick. Does it smell burnt?

Wipe the dipstick on a clean, white rag. Are there a lot of black particles, or is the fluid dark?
Advanced (Engine)

Check the battery for parasitic drains. Is the standby current more than 75 milliamps?

Check the voltage between the coolant and battery ground. Is it higher than 250 millivolts?

Plug in a scan tool. Are there any pending codes?

Pressure-test the cooling system. Does it leak?

Do a compression test. Are any of the cylinders 25 percent lower or more than the highest?

Do a cylinder leak-down test. Do any cylinders leak more than 15 percent?
Powertrain Startup

Are there any strange noises (belt squeak, exhaust leak)?

Turn the key to the β€œon” position. Do the warning lights fail to illuminate?

Start the car. Do the warning lights remain on?

Does the airbag light stay on or blink?

Does the engine fail to settle into a consistent idle within a couple of minutes?

Automatic transmission: Put the car in drive. Does it clunk into gear?

Manual transmission: Depress the clutch. Does it feel stiff or jerky?
On The Road

Drive the car in tight circles in a parking lot. Does anything rub or clunk?

Brake firmly. Does the pedal feel soft and mushy?

Does the feel of the brake pedal change (e.g., soft one stop, firm the next)?

Does the car veer to one side while braking?

Drive over some bumps at normal speeds. Does the car bounce up and down after hitting a bump?

Do you hear any loud noises from the suspension, such as clunks or creaks?

Get up to highway speeds. Is there any vibration?

Is the steering wheel off-center when the car is going straight?

Do you hear excessive wind noise?

Do the interior pieces rattle over bumps?

Does the car pull to one side?

Accelerate briskly. Does the transmission jerk at the shift points?

Does the car accelerate in fits and starts?

Manual transmission: Put the car in top gear while driving at 30 mph. Floor the throttle. Do the engine revs climb quickly, as if the clutch is slipping?

Do you hear any knocking noises from the engine that get faster with higher engine speed?

Does the car feel tired, as if it’s worn out?
Test Drive (with a buddy)

Have someone watch the headlamps and marker and brake lights as you operate them. Are any burned out?

With your friend standing behind the car, start the engine. Is there sustained visible smoke?

With your friend following, drive the car. Do the wheels wobble, or does the vehicle have an odd stance (e.g., it rides low in the rear)?

Is there smoke coming from the exhaust during acceleration?
Post Drive Inspection

Look under the hood. Do you hear a hissing noise?

Check under the car again. Any sign of fresh fluid leaks?
Website based on  this PDF checklist