Items from your junk drawer can help you perform the visual inspection portion of your test drive.
If you have a junk drawer, chances are you can find the raw goods for a basic test-drive kit. These items will help you look for potential trouble spots and help you to to rule out beaters, junkers and other automotive nightmares.
A visual inspection is a key component of your test drive. While nothing will replace a thorough pre-sale inspection by an automotive tech., a visual once-over will help you decide whether or not to road-test the car and move forward with a pre-sale workup.
Pencil and notepad: Take some time immediately afterward and write down your initial gut reactions to the car. Make note of any trouble spots to discuss with the seller or dealer (these trouble spots can also help with negotiating your final price). As an alternative, use the voice memo feature on your cell phone or tablet.
Coin: The perfect cheapie tool for measuring tire tread depth. You’ll want to aim for 2/32 inch at the very least. Take the coin and place it upside down, with the head side facing you. If Abe Lincoln’s head is completely visible, the tires are shot.
Flashlight: This is the ideal tool for peering into nooks and crannies of engine compartments and other hard to see areas. It’s perfect for spotting cracked/swollen hoses, leaky fluid reservoirs, loose fittings, and other potential trouble spots.
A clean cloth: Grab one that has enough space for you to test both the oil and the transmission fluid. The condition of both fluids is a good indicator as to the overall health of the car, and whether or not it has been regularly maintained. If fluids are sludgy or discolored, you could be dealing with a car that’s been neglected.
Magnet: Take a kitchen magnet and place it along any metal surfaces on the the car’s body that activates your “it’s been in a wreck” radar. The magnet will fall off any areas that have been patched or resurfaced. Areas that are dimpled, rough to the touch, or uneven are tip-offs. A magnet coupled with a thorough visual inspection will help you rule out beaters in disguise.
Tire gauge: Tires that aren’t inflated properly can affect the car’s handling and tracking. Tire gauges are relatively cheap and you can grab one for a few bucks at your local auto supply or on Amazon. Look on the sidewall of the tire for the manufacturer’s recommended inflation guidelines.
Mirror: Perfect for peering into engine compartment nooks and crannies to get an additional view. You can buy one for a few bucks online or at an auto supply store. I lent mine out, (and have yet to get it back) so in a pinch I glued an old compact mirror to a ruler. The seller had a good laugh until I spotted some serious trouble spots, nixed the road test and walked away.
If the thought of performing a visual inspection leaves you cold, bring a mechanically-inclined friend with you. You’ll get help in determining which cars are worth a second look and which cars to strike off your list.