This list was created after I bought my 1974 BMW 2002. I was excited
when at the time I was buying the car, and I didn't check the car as
carefully as I should have. My car is fine, but given what I discovered
after the purchase, I should have paid less. I only paid $1800, so I
didn't do too bad.
While this list has some items specific the my old BMW, many of these
items apply to most used cars.
You should also be aware that perhaps 3% of newer cars have been totaled,
given a salvage title, "repaired", and now have a clean title.
Consumer reports has advice and detailed information about used cars
and fraud. Consumer
Reports "telltale signs of a rebuilt wreck"
Disclaimer warning you of possible dangers and/or inaccuracies: I'm
not a car expert, just a guy who has learned a thing or two. There are
many ways to be injured or killed messing with cars. I try to point
out unsafe things so you can avoid them, but you must learn about automotive
repair safety before doing anything with or to a car. As far as I know
my information and advice is good. By the way, I'm always open to advice.
- Crawl all the way under the car looking for rust. If the car has
undercoating (usually black and thick, somtimes rubberized), the owner
may be trying to hide something. See the notes later about jacking
up the car and how to do this safely.
- Try the emergency flasher switch. BMW 2002 flasher light switches
usually break, and the button won't stay in. A new switch is about
$25, and fairly easy to replace.
- Try the wipers and washer. In Winter it is common for a Bosch wiper
motor to run slow until it warms up. My VW Bug does this too. I'm
not sure how serious this problem is. The washer motor looks very
powerful, but the brush holders rust. In the BMW, the pump for the
washers is actually a brass gear pump! I found a new pump, but the
cost was steep, and it wasn't an exact fit. Newer pumps for other
model cars can be used, and run as little as $15.
- Look inside the cowling around the steering column and switches.
1975 and 1976 wiper switches (with the interval wipe) are no longer
available. Mine is being held together with a wire tie. I may try
to switch to the early switch.
- My turn signal switch was bad. I've seen another 2002 with the same
problem. With my bad switch it was almost impossible to turn on the
turn signal without changing to high beams. Again, I replaced the
switch. Replacement was pretty easy. New they are about $85 from La
Jolla Independent (about $114 from Bavarian MotorSport).
- Try the turn signal, and watch the temperature gauge. Does the gauge
move in time with the lights? Sounds like a bad ground. I've got this
minor problem, and I'm not sure how hard it will be to fix.
- While driving around, does the turn signal indicator light always
work? Mine is spotty. Some of this may relate to a short in the wiper
- Late model horn contacts are apparently no longer available. I have
a 1972 steering wheel, and it works great.
- Remove the spare tire and look for rust in the spare tire well in
the bottom of the trunk. Trunk floors rust out in may cars.
- While you are in the trunk, look for rust on the shock absorber
towers. I'm pretty sure that logitudinal rust damage here means that
the upper spring perch is gone. This is common in old BMWs and apparently
hard to fix. The shock towers are those large semi-cylindrical structures
towards the front corners of the trunk.
- Look at the bottom of the doors for rust. Most cars have small holes
or slits where water is supposed to drain out of the door. The water
gets in around the window rubber (this is expected) and drains out
on the outside of the door seal. The problems start when the drains
get clogged and water sits inside the door. Then the doors rust.
- Try to look under the carpets. This is kind of hard because the
BMW carpets are pretty firmly installed. More on this later. I can
tell you that carpets hide rust.
- Crawl in the back seat. The first question is: do both front seats
flip up? Mine were both frozen, and the passenger side has busted
cables. I think the cables are no longer available, but I'm going
to make replacements out of bicycle brake cables. Before cables break,
use fine sandpaper on the hook part of the release, and keep the hook
and latch lightly lubricated. The seat back trim comes off with 3
screws at the bottom, although my seat backs are a little rough, with
a screw or two pulled out.
- Check that the rear windows open, and latch. One of my windows is
ok. The knob turns to lock the window open.
- During your test drive, in each gear accelerate, and then take your
foot off the gas pedal. The purpose is to check for slack in the drive
train, and to try to make the car pop out of gear. Bad syncronizers
will pop out of gear with this treatment. Sadly, I did not notice
that my 2002 popped out of second. A good used 4 speed transmission
was $350, and about another $200 labor to install. BMW clutches are
expensive - $225 just for parts.
- When releasing the clutch, it should be perfectly smooth. Mine isn't
perfect even after replacing the transmission. The mechanic says it
may be a problem with too much play in my engine (end play in the
crank). Any vibration when running, letting out the clutch, or shifting
- Does the car reverse smoothly? Slip the clutch just a little while
backing up a slight incline. Any judder or shaking means repairs to
the clutch, transmission, or driveshaft (or all three).
- Do the back-up lights work? What about brake lights, turn signals
- Jack up the rear end and secure the car on strong jackstands. You
want both rear wheels off the ground, and free to rotate. Make sure
the car is stable. Start the engine, put the car into first gear and
gently release the clutch. Be VERY Careful!! Use an extended mechanics
stethoscope to listen to the differential and CV joints. Don't get
under the car. This dangerous, even with the car on jack stands. My
car makes a very rude grinding noise in the differential because it
was run for years with little or no oil in the differential. Of course,
the outside of the differential is covered in oil. It appears that
mine leaked from the side flanges where the axles attach.
- Shut off the engine. If you are certain that the car is safey supported
by the jack stands, you might consider crawling under the car. Look
at the diagonal brace from the rear of the transmission up to the
shift linkage. Mine was snapped off, and badly repaired. The used
transmission that I had installed included a shifter, so this repair
was included with the installation of a used tranny.
- While you are under the car look for rust. Common areas are the
drain plugs in the floor, rocker panels (logitudinal structures below
the door, behind the front wheels, in front of the rear wheels, inside
the fenders, etc, etc.
- While the rear end is up, set the emergency brake, then release
it. Do both rear wheels turn freely by hand after releasing the hand
brake? Just push the tire around. I can do this one handed with little
effort. A small amount of rubbing noise between the brake drum and
shoes is normal. With my frozen emergency brake cable, the wheel could
not be turned after releasing the emergency brake. One new emergency
brake cable is about $15. There are two. I replaced one of mine. It
wasn't too hard.
- At highway speeds listen for air noise from the quarterlight (wing)
and windows. One car I drove sounded like a turbine was under the
passenger side dashboard. I have no idea what was letting in the air
(I did not buy that car). My door seals are gone at the rear of the
window, so at highway speeds, there's quite a bit of wind noise next
to my head.
- Turn on the heater fan, and do some moderate to high G-force cornering.
If the bearings in the fan are bad, the fan will probably knock when
you make a left hand turn. If the heater fan makes a rattling noise,
then the heater probably has to be replaced. The part is about $150
used. It's a lot of labor to replace since the dashboard has to come
- While you are testing the cornering, see how the steering feels
when changing from a shallow to sharp turn. Do some turns where you
can turn the wheel slowly back and forth during the turn. In my car,
something is not quite right in the front, and there is a kind of
"bump" as though somthing is loose, or I have a bent front
wheel. I expect that I need new ball joints, tie rod ends and an idler
- If the sunroof is stuck be worried. The cables alone very expensive,
and there are two. I dare not touch my sunroof since it is currently
closed and not leaking.
- Try the rear defroster. Mine doesn't work (no great surprise). If
the culprit is the defroster itself, you must replace the rear window.
The window is about $200. I'm told that the heater elements are ceramic
and built onto the surface of the glass.
- Try to lock/unlock the doors. It is probably common that the lock
mechanism inside the door has not been lubricated, and the doors won't
- Check the door brake. This is that strap at the hinge end of the
door that keep the door from swinging to wide open. These are often
bad, and where they connect to the car is often rusted, bent, or broken.
I seem to remember that these things are expensive.
- You probably can't check this before buying a car, but be warned:
upon removing the door trim panel, I discovered that the window regulator
spring was broken, and the lower part of the quarterlight (wing) frame
is also broken. This explains why the wing is at a slightly odd angle.
Luckily, mine neither leaks air or water. My windows go up and down
fine without the spring too. I also discovered that the inner vapor
barrier was badly repaired and had been leaking for some time. I have
repaired this with Tyvek Housewrap and Tyvek construction tape. Here
are photos of the same process on a 1989 VW Golf.
- The emergency brake handle is supposed to go no higher than 4 or
5 clicks (according to the shop manual). It is common for the emergency
brake to be unadjustable. In my late model 1975, I didn't have any
trouble getting it adjusted after replacing the cable. New cable is
$15. The brakes are pretty easy to work on.
- Does the car make heat? Does air come out of the defroster vent?
I don't have much defroster air, and I hope that requires only a small
adjustment. The problem with my heater is that it doesn't quite turn
off. Again, I hope that adjusting the cable to the heater valve will
cure the problem. Check all the fan speeds.
- Does the trunk lock/unlock? Mine locks fine, but is hard to open,
perhaps from when my car was rear-ended earlier in it's life.
- There are unnatural dimples in the body above each rear wheel of
my car.I suspected a mild rear end collision. This was confirmed when
I met an acquaintance of the original owner.
- I've never tried this, but old timers say to go over the car with
a magnet. The idea is that the magnet won't stick to areas that have
thick body filler.
- Look at frame members for weld beads. Most cars made from the 1960's
on are spot welded. Bead welds indicate repairs.