Simplify Your Family's Emergency Preparedness

Checklist for Buying a Car

What You Need to Know Before Handing Over Your Money

teen girl test driving a car.

**This post contains affiliate links, which means if you click on a link and make a purchase, I may make a small commission at no extra cost to you.

Buying a car can be an overwhelming experience, especially if it’s your first time. With so many options to choose from and factors to consider, it’s easy to feel lost in the process. If you just want someone to hold your hand and tell you what to ask, what to look for, and what to do before you hand over your hard-earned money, you’ve come to the right place.


Having a checklist to guide you through the process from start to finish can be a game-changer. It helps you stay organized and ensures you don’t overlook any important details. Whether you’re buying from a dealership or a private seller, knowing what to ask and what to look for helps everything go more smoothly.


I put together this car buying checklist while helping my own teenagers look for their first car.  It started out just as a way to get them to take some ownership in the process, and gather information so that I didn’t have to do it all.  By the time I was done, I realized this was a master checklist for the entire car buying process, start to finish!

Don't have time to read through the whole post right now? Click on the red button below to download the car buying checklist.

Things to ask the seller before you even leave your house

It’s fun to look at pictures of cars, but you can usually knock quite a few off your list just by finding out some basic information and doing a realistic assessment of them. To make the most out of this car buying checklist, make sure you do things in this order:


  1. First, fill out all of the information that you can just from the ad. That way you know exactly what information you’re missing, before you ever contact the seller.
  2. Once you’ve filled out everything you know from the ad, you can decide if it’s worth your time to inquire further and get the rest of the questions answered. Asking all of these questions about a car you really have no intention of buying is a waste of time – the seller’s and yours. 
  3. Then, and only then, is it time to decide if you want to actually go and see/drive the car.

 Some of these things might be deal breakers, others are just good information to have.

teen boy taking notes while doing research on laptop.
teen boy taking notes while doing research on laptop.
  • Seller's contact info and where you found the listing

  • Year, Make & Model (and VIN if you want to check CarFax)

  • How many miles are on it? What's the average gas mileage?

  • Has anyone smoked in the car? Had pets in the car?

  • Clean or salvage title? Does the seller have the title?

  • Condition of Exterior/Interior

  • Why is this car being sold?

  • Service and Maintenance history

  • Is the registration current? When is it paid through?

  • What extra features does this car have? (power seats, sunroof, navigation, etc)

  • For the complete list, download the checklist below

Once you decide to go see the car in person

By the time you get to this step, you should already have narrowed down your car search to one or two that you’re seriously considering buying.


And I’m sorry to say, but the research part of buying a car isn’t over yet. Remember, this is a huge purchase and it’s one you want to take your time with. Time spent now will save you even more time and money later. 


Here are a few more things you’ll want to do before leaving your house:

  • Call your auto insurance agent to get a quote for the car you’re looking at.
  • Google what color the fluids should be and if the car should be hot/cold and engine on/off when checking each fluid.

These are the fluids you will want to be sure to look at:

  • Oil
  • Transmission Fluid
  • Coolant
  • Brake Fluid
  • Power Steering
  • Clutch Fluid (only applies to manual transmission aka stick shift)

Things you need to take with you when buying a car

You might leave your house not knowing for sure if you will buy the car, but be prepared to do just that! Some sellers won’t be willing to hold it for you and if you end up thinking the car is a good fit, you want to be prepared to drive it home. Plus, you’ll need a few of the following items just to test drive the car.

Things to pay attention to when you arrive

You know what would make for an awful test drive? Getting in an accident or scraping the car on a curb. You’ll definitely want to document a few things before you get behind the wheel, to protect yourself from possible accusations about causing damage on a test drive.


My friend once had someone take her car for a test drive and they ended up colliding with another car at an intersection. The person tried to argue about some of the damage not being his fault and it turned into a whole mess. Where this example was a nightmare for the seller, the opposite could be true, depending on the situation.


So that leads us to the first thing on the list of things to pay attention to when you arrive:

The Test Drive: Before You Leave the Driveway

Are you starting to get a little twitchy about buying a car?

We’re almost to the more fun part, I promise. But before you hit the road, there are a few more things you need to check. 

Things to Check Under the Hood

When checking fluids, be sure the car is on flat ground. If the car is parked on a hill, you’ll need to move it before checking fluids.

Be sure to check all of the fluids that should be checked when the car is cold before leaving on your test drive.  Pay attention to if the fluid has the appropriate level and color.

person with checklist looking under hood of car.
person with checklist looking under hood of car.
  • Oil

  • Transmission Fluid

  • Coolant

  • Brake Fluid

  • Power Steering Fluid

  • Clutch Fluid (if needed)

  • All belts and hoses (check for cracks)

Things to Check Inside the Car

Turn the key and look for all the lights that SHOULD illuminate when the key is turned. All lights should do a self-check, meaning they all come on (check engine, SRS, ABS, oil, traction control, etc.). Most of them should go off within a few seconds. A couple will stay on until the car starts and has pressure (like the oil light).




So just make sure those lights are actually working, so you can have confidence that you are getting any notices on the dashboard that you should be getting, as far as problems are concerned.


Make sure to also check the following:

  • All locks
  • All seat adjustments
  • All windows
  • Sunroof/Moonroof
  • CD player
  • DVD player
  • Rear camera
  • All mirrors

The Test Drive: On the Road

Okay, now is (hopefully) the fun part. There are still important things to pay attention to, but this is when you get to start picturing yourself driving around town in your new ride, and that’s pretty dang cool.


Back to the test drive checklist…

Feeling Good about Buying a Car?

If the car checks most of these boxes and everything handles good and you’re okay with the condition it’s in, there are just a few more things to take care of.

1 - Cost

Write down anything you come across that will cost you money that you find during your inspection/test drive here, so you don’t forget!

If you want to use these things as bargaining chips, it will be nice to be able to refer back to a list.

2 - Title

DO NOT buy the car if you do not have the signed title in your hand!

3 - Make sure you get ALL of the following:

  • Title (filled out with buyer and seller info)
  • Bill of Sale (included in these printables) – this feels redundant, I know. But we had a nightmare with my daughter’s first car, with a discrepancy with the odometer…I won’t bore you with the details. But then the title got lost in the mail when we mailed it to the DMV, and I cannot tell you how helpful it has been to have a Bill of Sale to fall back on. Just do it. 
  • Copy/picture of seller’s driver license
  • Registration
  • All service receipts
  • ALL keys/fobs
  • Spare Tire/Jack
Picture of the Questions to Ask Before you Purchase a Car

Buying a Car is a big deal

Phew! That was a lot of information.

Fun fact: when I got remarried, my stepson had just turned 16 and was in the process of buying a car. That’s when I started making these checklists.

I called my out-of-state brother who is a mechanic, and he was SUPER helpful when it came to putting together this car buying guide for beginners.

Then I helped my daughter buy her first car. And then her second car. And then my son. I’ve done this a few times. And every time, guess what we’ve used: the checklists.

Buying a car is a big deal, but it should also be fun. Make sure you download the car buying checklist and save yourself some of the research, stress, and headache!

***These printables will be available soon!!!***

Picture of the Questions to Ask Before you Purchase a Car

Related Posts:

hands holding a sign.

5 simple things you can do to get your family prepared if you don't have thousands of dollars or hundreds of hours


hands holding a sign.

So glad you’re here!

Thank you for joining my email list!  I can’t wait to spoil you with freebies and I promise to keep your email address private ❤️

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience.