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​Inspecting a used vehicle for sale

Don't get stuck with a dud of a vehicle. Here's how.

Precautions to take

Before making an offer, we suggest taking the following precautions:

Do your own inspection

Here's a checklist of things to look for when you inspect a used vehicle you're interested in buying.

If anything causes you concern or if you feel pressured into buying the vehicle, walk away from the sale.

Checking ID and vehicle records

Checked?Item to check
Make sure that the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) on the dashboard identification plate matches the number on the vehicle registration form. Check that it has not been tampered with. If it has been tampered with, this may be a stolen vehicle. You should look for loose rivets, scratched numbers, mismatched rivets, screws in place of rivets, or tape, glue or paint over the VIN plate.

It is also a good idea to have a licensed mechanic compare the VIN numbers on the doorpost and engine firewall.
Look at the original vehicle registration form, not a photocopy.
Check that the vehicle make, model and colour match the description on the vehicle registration form.
Make sure that the licence plate on the vehicle matches the plate number on vehicle registration form.
Look at the seller’s photo ID to make sure that the name on the registration form is the same as on the licence, and that the photo matches the person in front of you. Make sure the person has given you a valid home address and phone numbers.
Ask to see the service records for the vehicle.

Stolen vehicles usually do not come with maintenance records. You might want to call the repair shop to verify that the maintenance work was done.
When purchasing a vehicle from the U.S., make sure it has not been in a flood. Flooded vehicles cannot be licensed or insured in B.C. For details, contact the Registrar of Imported Vehicles. 

Inspecting the vehicle

Walking around the vehicle, look for the following items:

Checked?Item to check
Evaluate the condition of the tires. For example, check if they are unevenly worn or balding.
Press down each corner of the vehicle. It should come to rest quickly. If it keeps bouncing, the shock absorbers may need replacing.
Check the trunk for spare tire, jack and wheel wrench.
Inspect the vehicle body for dents, signs of rust, ripples or signs of repainting, which might indicate recent body work.
If the seats, stereo and tires have been replaced with after-market equipment, ask the seller for receipts. This helps to verify that the items aren't stolen. (After-market equipment is equipment installed after a new vehicle is purchased.)
Check the odometer reading (average is 25,000 km/yr.) to ensure is hasn't been tampered with.

Taking a road test

If you're still interested in the vehicle, take it for a test drive. Look for the following items:

Checked?Item to check
Check that the vehicle starts immediately and idles smoothly once it has warmed up.
Check that the engine gauges and warning lights are working and that the steering does not stiffen up and bind. With power steering, there should be no squeaks or moans.
Check that the brakes feel firm.
Check that the vehicle can drive in a straight line without pulling to the side. Pulling to one side can indicate a problem with tire alignment.


Do a lien search

A lien is a legal claim that one person has made on someone else's property.

A lien may be placed on a vehicle by a person or bank as collateral to make sure the vehicle's owner honours a debt. If the owner can't honour the debt, the vehicle is taken as payment.

It's important to check for liens

If you buy vehicle with a lien on it and the previous owner doesn't pay a debt, the vehicle can be repossessed from you.

How to check for liens on a vehicle

In B.C., liens are registered by the Personal Property Registry in Victoria.

For $10, you can have a lien search done by:

Lien searches

ICBC driver licensing offices no longer do lien searches.

You can get Canada-wide lien information, which includes B.C. results, by ordering a CARFAX Canada vehicle history report.

Invest in a vehicle history report

Although the seller may have maintenance records and receipts, it's still a good idea to do your own research.

A vehicle history report can tell you a lot about a vehicle, such as whether it has had a damage claim (if records are available).

Have the vehicle inspected by a mechanic

After doing all of your homework, you may want a professional mechanic to do an inspection and look under the hood.

If the vehicle has been in any crashes, you can also have a licensed auto body shop take a look at the vehicle to make sure it is still structurally safe. These experts can also tell you if the vehicle has been in any crashes or has been rebuilt and, if so, that the work was done properly.

The seller may have an inspection report for you to help you feel more comfortable. Make sure it is from a designated inspection facility. Even if the seller has a report, it is still a good idea to take the vehicle to an inspection facility. It is always wise to do your own research. Buyer beware!