If the vehicle is on no lists, check anyway for water marks on the exterior and in the engine compartment, mold or dampness on the carpet or upholstery, rust underneath and in unusual spots elsewhere, odors and odd dirt buildups.
Have all the recalls been completed?
Some are relatively minor and you probably wouldn't mind handling them yourself. Some, though, involve serious safety issues, and you might not even want to drive the car unless those are fixed.
See Also: The Dreaded Car Recall
Plug the VIN into recall sites from the government's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration or from the automaker's own recall-information site. To find an automaker's site, simply search the internet for the name of the brand (Ford, Toyota, Hyundai, etc.) and "recalls."
What's the service and repair history?
The CarFax and AutoCheck sites will show (for a fee) not only routine service but also nonroutine repairs on many vehicles, including body repairs following accidents. Auto dealers and previous owners sometimes have the service and repair records; ask for them.
Are any big fixes imminent?
Knowing a good independent mechanic or repair shop is priceless. If you don't know one, ask friends what trustworthy shops or technicians they use. The important point is to find one that has no stake in whether you buy the car.
Also, check websites that rate services and shops, such as Angi. Beware of internet ads or sponsored sites that look like rating sites but aren't objective.
Expect to pay for the exam. In return, you'll get a list of pending issues and their costs, so you know what outlays you're facing if you buy the vehicle. And perhaps even double-check with a second shop to see if the estimates are similar.
Is it reliable?
You'd hate to dump money into a car that, once it's yours, bedevils you.
Consumer Reports is a go-to site for many shoppers because it not only lists cars in various price ranges that it believes are reliable but also warns you which ones not to buy — info that could be just as valuable. Other sites can be helpful, too. Bankrate.com, Kelly Blue Book and Popular Mechanics are among the places where you can find lists of reliable used cars.
Does it have good crash-test scores?
You're probably not thinking about having an accident when you're car shopping, but crashworthiness is worth putting on your radar screen.
Major providers of the scores are the government (safercar.gov) and the trade group Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS.org).
(More about how cars are crash-tested and scored.) .
Does it use much fuel?
You might care only a little when gasoline's $2.50 a gallon, but you'll care a lot if it's $4.
You can check out a vehicle's expected fuel mileage at fueleconomy.gov. The mpg numbers for older models, before mileage tests were made stricter, have been adjusted to approximate what the ratings would be using current mileage-test methods.