How To Do A Used Car Interior Inspection
Andrew Maness December 8, 2015

2012 Mercedes Benz R350 interior


We’ve all been there, sitting in the used vehicle of our dreams, wondering what kind of heinous acts were perpetrated within it by the previous owner. You can ask them point blank what kind of life the vehicle has lived, and what it was primarily used for, but they’re under no obligation to tell you about the time they went car camping in Maine during mud season, and ended up shacking up inside instead of in tents.

You might be thinking to yourself “well that kind of behavior is only an issue with private sellers“, which is a nice thought, but far from the truth. In fact, in my experience I’ve had better luck with full disclosure from individuals rather than dealerships. Bottom line is this, you have to sweat the details if you want to walk away from a used vehicle purchase with real piece of mind. How do you accomplish this? Easy, just follow these four simple guidelines.

1.) Control The Clock

Purchasing a vehicle takes time, more than most of us would like, but considering the amount of money changing hands, a number of hours spent going over every little detail shouldn’t be an issue. As the buyer, you have all the power, so if you’re feeling drained at any point during the process, let the seller know. Go get something to eat, take a walk, heck you can take a nap if you want to, anything that’ll re-set your mental state will do.

There’s a reason why dealers, and seasoned individual sellers want to drag the process out, and that reason is fatigue. Looking for minimal wear on seats, or hidden carpet stains will do a number on even the most focused minds. It’s at that point when buyers often slide into “lets just get it over with” mode, and could miss crucial areas. I’ve seen it happen to people firsthand, and I’ve even been there myself. It’s ok if the process takes all day, just make the most of it by being sharp the entire time.

2.) Turn Up The Lights

After inspecting it three times, I once bought a car that I thought was in above average condition, only to find that I had missed a number of issues. I was mad at myself for not catching them, and on top of that I was confused as to how I had missed them. After all, this was my 6th vehicle purchase, and I thought I had a pretty good handle on things by that point. Then it dawned on me, I had failed to look at the car during normal daylight hours.

The first time I checked it out it was the middle of the day but it was overcast, the second was during evening hours in a parking garage, and it was nighttime when I purchased the car. Upon getting in the car the following day, I noticed a number of scratches on interior surfaces, loose carpeting, and worn edges on the rear seats. The lesson I learned with that vehicle was a very valuable one, always look at the interior under the harshest lighting conditions possible. You do not want to be the person driving a vehicle that looks better at night.

3.) Open Your Eyes

Out of sight, out of mind” is one of the worlds dumbest phrases, especially when applied to vehicles. There so are many issues that could be lurking beneath the everyday surfaces of a vehicle, that it’s hard to believe anyone would tell you that the interior is so clean you could eat off it. What they’re really saying is “We went through this sucker with some Amor-All wipes and a Dustbuster, so we’re all good here right?”. 

The answer is of course, no, we’re not all good here.

When you set up a time to inspect a vehicle, ask that the seller not use cleaning products on it, have all the floor mats removed, and vacuum it. That’s all you need to have done in order to get a really good idea of a.) what kind of shape the interior is truly in, and b.) what type of seller you’re dealing with. If the interior has been vacuumed well, you’ll be able to tell. There is a certain amount of grime that accumulates in vehicles over time that can’t be cleaned out, unless of course someone puts in a significant amount of effort. If the interior is really spotless, you know you’re dealing with a standup seller, and you can proceed with the buying process.

Having the floor mats removed allows you to get a good look at the carpet, see if there’s any mold, stains, rips, etc. If there are no floor mats to be removed, it’ll be very apparent what kind of abuse the vehicle went through, and it won’t be pretty.

Lastly, having the seller not use cleaning products before the inspection is akin to a person not putting on makeup. You want to see things in their natural state, not all dolled up. If you arrive to inspect a vehicle, and it smells like an Old Spice bomb went off inside, walk away, the seller is likely hiding something.

4.) Know The Whole Story

There are two instances when it’s acceptable for a person to obsess over the details of a potential purchase. One is if you’re buying a house, the other is if you’re buying a vehicle. Anything outside of these two big ticket items falls under being nitpicky. The reason that it’s ok to inquire as to the specific origins of the sticky substance at the bottom of the center console, is because that should factor into the decision making process just as much as what’s under the under the hood.

I can’t tell you how many used vehicles I’ve looked at where the seller is banking on the performance reputation to make up for a poorly cared for interior. In some cases it may not even be an issue of care, but an issue of initial quality that the manufacturer never took responsibility for, and a seller expects you to overlook. It’s a shame that many aesthetically appealing luxury vehicles from the past decade suffer from shoddy materials, but exceptional appearance, and performance is nothing without a quality interior. You cannot ignore minor inconsistencies in a vehicle, or tell yourself that they’re an easy fix, because they’re not. I’ve been there, I’ve done that, and it got expensive quick, as it always does.

To that point, you must be ruthless in your inspection. Leave no button un-pushed, handle un-pulled, or compartment un-inspected. It may seem like stating the obvious, but you’d be surprised how many people don’t sit in every seat, buckle every belt, or test every light. If you do all of these things, you’ll have a very clear picture of the vehicle, and only then can you begin to form an honest opinion of whether it’s worth bringing home with you.

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Andrew Maness Head Writer

Native New Englander currently residing in Los Angeles. I like to go fast and tell stories, sometimes from behind a camera, sometimes in front of one.