How to Check the Car Engine When Buying a Used Car

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How to Check the Car Engine When Buying a Used Car

Whether customers are purchasing a vehicle for the first time or whether they have had experience with automobiles in the past, it is essential for each buyer to check a car's engine when searching for a used car. The car may seem perfect, but without a dependable engine, it will likely serve as nothing more than a driveway decoration. Luckily for those who are not automotively inclined, checking an engine is very systematic and can be done by following a number of simple instructions that pertain to different parts of the engine or to specific occurrences. Potential car buyers need not feel overwhelmed if they follow the tips that are presented in this guide. They do not have to be expert auto mechanics to sort out the lemons from the true gems, as there are many websites, auto parts stores, car service shops, and online retailers like eBay that can help aid buyers in finding a used car that has a healthy engine. Simple steps like checking the odometer,, opening the hood, driving the car, examining the recently driven vehicle, taking a closer look at the engine, and conducting final research can all ensure that a car that a customer is considering buying is worth its asking price.

Check the Odometer

One of the most simple and easiest things to do when searching for a used car is to check the odometer. If the engine has powered the vehicle for more than 100,000 miles, that car's lifespan is most likely coming close to an end, and it is often not worth the cost of buying a used car if it has very high mileage. Though the parameters of the term "high mileage" is often disputed, many consider it to be 155,000 miles or greater.

Open the Hood

Another step that buyers can take is to lift the car's hood and check for any indication of poor care, such as dents, damage, or rust. Start the vehicle and pay close attention to see that it starts properly and without any stalling or hesitation. The engine should run smoothly after it has been started. If there is any unusual noise, including grinding, knocking, and pinging, they could be signs that a larger and much more costly issue. Noises can indicate wear on the internal engine parts. Buyers should note, however, that pinging and rattling are normal if the engine is a diesel engine.

Drive the Car

Buyers should make sure that they test the vehicle by driving it on both town or city roads and on highways. They should take notice of any abnormal vibrations or whether the car seems to have trouble accelerating or decelerating. Sometimes if drivers know that they would like a certain model of vehicle, it is helpful to test drive several on the market (both new and used) to compare the way that each one runs and to know if any aspect of the vehicle seems abnormal.

Beware of Smoke

If there is any smoke coming from the engine, that could be a bad sign. Buyers should watch for a smoking engine while the car is accelerating. A little bit of black smoke is normal for a diesel engine while starting it. However, blue, black, or white smoke most often is a sign that the engine is in need of repair. White smoke with a sweet smell, for example, could indicate that the engine has blown a gasket.

Hazard Messages on the Instrument Panel

A car's instrument panel should not have any warning signs that indicate that the engine needs to be checked or that the oil pressure needs to be adjusted, for example. Many salespeople will try to talk the customer out of their concerns with these hazard messages, citing a default with that particular model and stating that there is no issue. Unfortunately, if a car is up for inspection and those hazard messages do appear, it is the responsibility of the owner to fix the problem so that the message is not present. Doing so can cost drivers more money.

Examine the Recently Driven Vehicle

Once drivers have finished test driving a vehicle, they should park it in a level spot and, once again, open the hood.. They should then turn the car off and check under the vehicle for any leaks. The use of a flashlight can help with this task. The lower part of the engine and the transmission may be somewhat wet, but no oil drips should be present. Prospective buyers should note that if the air conditioner has been running, water coming from the drain tube is to be expected.

Check the Oil

In order to check the oil, buyers should locate the oil dipstick and pull it out. They should then wipe the oil onto a rag and note its color. If the color is a light brown to clear, that is a positive sign. Clean or full oil does not, however, always mean that the engine is in good shape. The dealer could have changed the oil recently, so it is important to take that into consideration. However, if the oil is dark or black, that could indicate negative consumption of oil by the engine. The exception is with diesel engines, where black oil is normal. Carbon deposits along the length of the dipstick, which show up as dark stains, is also a negative sign. A light gray colored froth may be a sign of the car having overheated, as water has leaked into the engine, or a gasket could be blown. Customers should never purchase a vehicle that has overheated, as it can create major problems.

Take a Closer Look at the Engine

When taking a look at the engine, prospective buyers should consider whether the engine itself looks clean. Oftentimes, dealerships and private sellers will remove any previous signs of leaks or buildup by steam cleaning the engine. Buyers should look for remaining stains that could indicate fluid leaks. Repairing gaskets can be costly and if they are leaking, it can be a costly process to have to undertake. If there are new spots of silicone in the gaskets or if there are areas that have been repaired (which are known as spot repairs), it could lead to the need for future replacements down the road. The engine may even need to be taken apart to replace these gaskets, which can be very costly. Buyers should note, however, that water coming from an air conditioning compressor is very normal if the air conditioning has been running. In order to check the engine, a flashlight can be shined inside the oil-fill cap to look at the internal surfaces. If there is any kind of buildup or sludge, it can be indicative of negligence in terms of oil changes and maintenance.

The Timing Belt

Buyers should try to determine whether the timing belt has been changed. Usually, timing belts need to be replaced every 60,000 to 100,000 miles and are an added cost of buying a used vehicle when the buyer is expected to replace it. Buyers should make sure to ask sellers if they have receipts. Timing belts are usually difficult to view because there is a cover protecting them and obstructing them from view.

Signs of Neglect

Bulging gaskets, loose wires, and stripped or dry and cracked belts are all signs of a bad engine. If these issues are present, the engine has simply not been maintained properly. If buyers are unsure about what a bulging gasket looks like, for example, they should be sure to search for pictures online so that they can identify this problem.

Conduct Final Research

If a vehicle presents itself as not having any problems that a buyer is not willing to assume responsibility for, the car's history records should be checked. Prospective buyers can request a report of the vehicle's history using the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN). Cars with a history of bad accidents or flooding should be avoided. If a car has had a history of overheating, it should be avoided whenever possible, as well. Buyers should also make sure that the odometer has not been reset by the seller to mislead them into purchasing a car with fewer miles, and, therefore, less chance of needing costly repairs.

If a seller states that repairs have been done, buyers should ask for the receipts and records of such work. A record of regular oil changes is a great tool in allowing customers to feel confident about a used car.

Lastly, once drivers have decided that an engine is satisfactory, given the above criteria, they should consult a third-party mechanic. This mechanic can perform an inspection and be able to tell a driver whether the engine is in acceptable condition, and if their inferences regarding the engine were correct. Having an inspection performed on the vehicle can be costly but could ultimately save customers money, as the mechanical inspector is able to accurately determine the worth of the vehicle.

How to Use eBay to Help Check a Car Engine

Though it may not be obvious to some buyers, eBay can be used as a resource with helping to check a car engine while buying a used car. Research is incredibly important when making any major purchase, including searching for a used car, so you can search for reference tools, such as car engine guides on eBay. Any supplies that are needed for inspecting a car can also be found on eBay, including flashlights and cleaning cloths.. You can also research prices for different vehicles, as cars are also sold on eBay. This can help you determine whether the automobile that you are interested in is being sold at a competitive price. For example, you can type "Toyota Corolla 2001&" into the search box on eBay's homepage and find thousands of results. You can even look for results in your area and possibly find the car that you have been seeking.


So much of checking a car engine when buying a used car can be done by novice customers as long as they are knowledgeable about what is normal and about what can indicate a problem in an engine. Once buyers are educated, there is no excuse to be ignorant of car maintenance. Doing so not only allows customers to be more informed, but it also facilitates the better care of their subsequent vehicles. Ruling out vehicles with too many miles, vehicles that have been in accidents or overheated, or vehicles whose engines show signs of mistreatment, and having a trained third party mechanic inspect the vehicle are all ways to make sure that the experience of buying a car is an enjoyable one. Customers should remember that signs of mistreatment can manifest in many ways, ranging from the presence of sludge to a tapping sound in the engine. Buyers should remember to be observant. They should not forget to ask for any paperwork indicating previous work done, including oil changes. Following the simple procedures that have been presented in this guide can help to ensure that buyers do not end up purchasing a vehicle with a bad engine.

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