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It wasn't long ago that the 50,000-mile mark separated a good used car from one that had been excessively chewed on. Now, who needs to roll back an odometer? Sam Fiorani, VP of global vehicle forecasting at Auto Forecast Solutions, said, "The quality of vehicles has improved so much that a 150,000-mile Toyota Camry brings serious money." His assessment is no hyperbole, either, as vehicles with six figures on the odometer sold for record prices in June of 2021, according to Edmunds.
Buying a used car is still a minefield, though, especially in these times of high demand. Ideally, when you've found a dealer or a private seller with a car you want at the price you want, you know what to look for. To help with that undertaking, we've put together a vehicle checkup kit to help diagnose whether you're looking at a treat or a trap.
Safety glasses and gloves: Yes, you're going to look like an automotive tech when you put these on, especially when wearing an outfit you don't mind getting dirty. And yes, this could get a raised eyebrow or two from the seller. None of that matters. These items are indispensable. You will laud those glasses the first time fluid splashes onto your face or a flake of frame rust falls into your eyelashes.
When you want to give a chassis component or a tire a shake, mechanics’ gloves will keep your hands happy. But we also recommend plain-colored disposable exam gloves or even dishwashing gloves in a light color. Anything that isn't black. When you dip a gloved finger into fluid reservoirs or scrape the underside of the oil filler cap, you need to know what color the fluid is. These gloves are also kind to the seller and the car; when you put on the gloves and lean on the fenders to check suspension action – before touching anything under the hood – you won't leave handprints on the paint.
Napkins or paper towels: Every generation of my family turned their glove compartments into fast food napkin dispensers. I was programmed to do the same, so I always have something to wipe up spills. When inspecting a car that still has dipsticks, you'll need a swab to clear them with. These are also good to clear engine grubbiness off parts so you can see component numbers or specs.
Headlight or flashlight: You want to investigate your potential new ride outdoors on a sunny day on flat ground. Sometimes that's not possible, and you're creeping through the dirt in the back of a barn in fading twilight (another reason you're dressed to get dirty). Even on sunny days, the voluminous hubbub crammed into and around modern engine bays creates more hiding spots than the Batcave. Voila, the humble flashlight, good for checking belts for cracks and examining seepage around that oil filter buried in the guts of the bay. Numerous vehicles are fitted with aero-enhancing panels under the engine, and flashlights let you get a good look down from the top of the engine to see what fluids might be accumulating on the upper side of the aero panel. I prefer headlamps that leave my hands free while I poke around.
Inspection mirror: The perfect partner to the flashlight because, again, inscrutable crevices in crammed engine bays. Want a good look at that dark spot behind the A/C compressor? Tell everyone to stand back while you go pro, extend your telescoping mirror, and make the diagnosis.
Voltmeter or multimeter: We prefer the multimeter, but either tool will clue you in on the vehicle's battery and alternator health. If you've never used one before, you can learn how to take voltage measurements and learn which measurements to take in minutes.
Sadly, they haven't made these for private use to test the state of plug-in-hybrid and battery-electric-vehicle batteries. Those must be tested by a pro.
OBDII reader or scanner: A good reader is an awesome tool — a good scanner (even a phone app with a Bluetooth dongle) is even better. Readers are simpler and easier to use, while scanners can monitor engine activity while the engine is running and provide live data. However, these are invasive tools, so they come with a caveat: You will want to ask permission to plug one into the vehicle's ODBII port. It is highly unlikely you'll do real or permanent damage to a vehicle using a reader or scanner, but it is possible, so don't be surprised if the seller is extremely wary or refuses your request. If you get the all-clear, know how to use your reader or scanner and understand the information it provides. Don't ask the seller to explain what a code is or why you're getting it.
For vehicles older than 1996, before the advent of ODBII ports, look up the particular way to pull codes. It usually involves some tiny length of metal or wire. In my 1994 Toyota Land Cruiser, I can use a paper clip to connect two terminals under the hood to pull codes.
That's it. The whole shebang fits in a shoe box and can be purchased for under $100. And frankly, we think you should keep these tools in your personal vehicles, because sometimes they break down and need diagnosis, too.