Of course, this is not an ultimate guide and I highly recommend reading specialized forums and asking questions about particular brand/year/model there. Reading the real users opinions at sites like carsurveys.org is very helpful, too.
OK, let’s imagine that you have already made your choice and found a car in a local ad or on the Web, or elsewhere and you’ve got an appointment to see the car.
Step 1: Tools needed
- a flashlight (one big, one small or one small but bright)
- optional: a telescoping mirror
- a newspaper or a piece of plastic (sunscreen works pretty well and is foldable) to put on the ground and look under the car
- a mechanic’s stethoscope (can be found in Harbor Freight for $3-5) http://www.harborfreight.com/mechanics-stethoscope-41966.html
- optional: OBD2 reading tool ($30 on e-bay) or OBD2-USB interface + notebook
- optional: a floor jack.
- liquid soap or cleaning napkin/paper towel.
Where to see the car?
If possible, try to arrange an appointment at seller’s place.
You will see how the cold car starts, check if there are any leaks, and you will also be able to inspect the coolant on cold engine (otherwise it will be a risky business which I won't recommend doing without having an experience).