Start with a general check: Check for "bad" records in a VIN history report. Read the maintenance records and the mileage proof. Check how many previous owners the car had. Ask why they are selling. Ask if there were there any accidents, engine, and transmission repair. Ask if the car passed its last Emission Test.
The Exterior: Check if the exterior lines are straight. Check if there are ripples or misaligned panels. See if the driver's door have free play in the hinges, or if it difficult to close. Check to see if the gaps between panels are too narrow or too wide on the side of the car. Check for rusty spots. Check for mismatched colors or painting over spray; does any panel of the car seem to be repainted? Find out why. See if there is a trailer hinge. Ask if the car was ever used for towing. Find out what it towed.
The Engine: Check for any oil or coolant leaks from the engine. Check if the engine is dirty or oily. Check if the oil level is low. Check if the oil on the dipstick is too dark. Look for any indication of poor quality repair work or lack of maintenance. For example; look for badly corroded battery terminals or a very low oil level. Start the engine: See if it works evenly. Listen for any sound there shouldn't be. Look for smoke. Look for warning lights come on the dashboard while the engine is running. Look for a "Check engine" light. Check if the engine oil pressure is too low at idle. Look for any hesitation on acceleration. See if the engine is powerful enough. See if it looks dirty under the oil cap. Check for a smell of burnt oil under the hood.
Start the engine again and try to switch the gears from P to D and from P to R holding down the brake pedal. Check if the time between shifting the gear and the moment the transmission kicks in is too long, Check for there any noises or jerks. During a test drive check for any delays or trouble shifting the gears. Check for a shudder in the engine. See if the transmission slips or jerks. See if the shifting seems to be delayed.
The manual transmission: look for leaks. Listen for noises while driving. See if you have any trouble changing the gears or if the clutch is slipping. Check if there is any trouble shifting into reverse.
Check the suspension: Check the shock absorbers for leaks. See if any of the shock absorber boots are broken. Check the steering wheel for free play. See if the car bounce too much when you push one of the corners down. Check the wear on the tires for irregularity. Check if the car is level. During a driving test: Listen for knocking or creaking noises when you drive over bumps. See if the car pulls to one side. Check if the steering wheel is off center. Check if the vehicle feel unstable when you drive fast. Listen for humming or growling noises.
The brakes: Check the brake fluid container for leaks. Check the brake fluid level. Check that the brake pedal goes down to the floor. Check if the break pedal is too soft or too hard. See if there are any brake fluid leaks under the car.
During the test drive: Listen for a brake pedal or steering pulsation when you brake. See if the vehicle pulls to one side when you brake. Listen for a grinding noise. Tires: Check for cracks or bruises on the tires. Check the tread. See if the tires are mismatched. See if the rims are damaged. Listen for a vibration or humming noise at a high speed. See if the ware on the tire is even.
The interior: Check the driver seat or the steering wheel for excessive wear. Check for dampness under the carpet or in the trunk. Check if the Radio, CD or Tape player is working. Check the odometer for any evidence of tampering. Check the air conditioner to see if it provides really cold air. Check the power locks, windows, mirrors, heater, rear window defogger and sunroof to see if it is working. Check for wind noise while driving.Check to see if you feel comfortable in driver's seat. Check to see if everything is visible when you sit in the driver's seat. Check the seats, seat belts, mirrors, controls, steering,spare tire, jack and wheel wrench.