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The Essential College Readiness Automotive Checklist for Parents

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It’s back-to-school season and you’re about to hand your college bound son or daughter the keys to the old family car. It’s been a trusted car for many years, but it has over 100,000 miles on it! How can you ensure it’s safe for your college student to drive? For peace of mind, have the car serviced and inspected by a qualified professional. For the parents who insist on inspecting the vehicle themselves, here’s a list of essential items to check.

By having it inspected from bumper to bumper, that’s how. To help out, we’ve comprised a list of essential items to check.

, The Essential College Readiness Automotive Checklist for Parents
Have the old family car serviced and inspected by a qualified professional before handing over the keys to your college-bound son or daughter.

What to check before giving a used car to your college student

Most college students are interested in parties and pizza – not automotive maintenance. It’s up to you to make sure the family cruiser is in good enough shape to keep your brilliant young mind safe.

To make things easy (and who doesn’t love easy?), we’ve put together an automotive checklist for you to go over with your mechanic. The items included are the bare essentials that should be inspected and serviced as needed before your child hits the road.

Note: the following is for informational purposes only. Have your vehicle inspected by a qualified professional to ensure it is safe and road ready.

1. Fluids and filters

You know to change the oil and filter in your car periodically. But did you know many other fluids and filters need routine service as well?

That’s right – the car you’re about to bequeath your child has a menagerie of maintenance items. Depending on what type of vehicle your family has, and want kind of condition it’s in, you may need to service one or more of the following:

  • Engine oil and filter: Oil lubricates and cools critical internal engine components. But the fluid breaks down over time. That’s why both the oil and filter must be replaced regularly to ensure vehicle reliability.
, The Essential College Readiness Automotive Checklist for Parents
Checking engine oil
  • Coolant: Coolant acts as a heat transfer medium to help keep your engine cool. The vital fluid must be serviced according to the manufacture’s maintenance schedule. Otherwise, it becomes corrosive and can no longer do its job.

Warning: coolant should never be checked while the engine is hot. Personal injury may result.

  • Transmission fluid: The gears and internal workings of your transmission need clean fluid for cooling and lubrication. Automatic transmissions also rely on fluid pressure to complete gear shifts. Much like engine oil, transmission fluid breaks down over time and requires routine service.
  • Power steering fluid: Many newer cars have electronic power steering. But if you’re passing an oldie-but-goodie down to your child, chances are, it has hydraulic power steering. And that type of system uses pressurized fluid to provide steering assist.

Many automakers don’t have a recommended service interval for power steering fluid. Some experts, however, recommend replacing the fluid periodically or when it starts to darken.

  • Transfer case fluid: Four-wheel drive vehicles, as well as many all-wheel drive vehicles, have transfer case fluid that must be serviced.
  • Differential fluid: Vehicles with rear-wheel drive, four-wheel drive or all-wheel drive have one or more differentials. The units contain fluid that should be serviced according to the manufacturer’s maintenance schedule.
  • Brake fluid: Although many automakers don’t have a recommended brake fluid service schedule, the fluid picks up moisture over time. The phenomenon can compromise braking system components and, in some instances, reduce stopping ability.
  • Fuel filter: Most newer vehicles have a non-serviceable, in-tank fuel filter. If your car is older, though, it may have a filter located in the fuel line. And that type of external fuel filter must be replaced regularly to prevent damage to components, such as the fuel pump and injectors.
  • Engine air filter: The air filter prevents dirt and debris from entering the engine, while also helping the engine breathe freely. Over time, the filter becomes dirty, clogged with dead bugs, etc. and needs to be replaced.
  • Cabin air filter: So you can breathe easily, many vehicles have a cabin filter that prevents impurities from entering the passenger compartment. The component also helps protect select heating and air conditioning components from dirt and debris.

All of these items (except, perhaps, the cabin filter) are vital to vehicle reliability. And you want your car to be dependable, especially if your child will be traveling a long distance.

, The Essential College Readiness Automotive Checklist for Parents
Check out this infographic for a quick rundown of all the things you need to inspect in your old family car before handing it over to your college-bound kid.

2. Wheels and tires

The tiny, pizza-sized wheels on your old car might be ugly – but they get the job done. Make sure both the wheels and tires are in good condition before your child departs. Here’s what to look for:

  • Tire tread: Tires that have less than 2/32″ tread depth are unsafe and should be discarded. Most experts recommend replacement once the tread is less than 4/32″ as well. Tire tread should also be checked for cupping and other irregularities that could hinder vehicle safety and performance.
, The Essential College Readiness Automotive Checklist for Parents
Checking tire tread depth
  • Tire age: The seemingly cryptic DOT number, which is stamped into the tire’s sidewall, is where you’ll find the tire’s age. The last four digits of the DOT indicate the production date.

For example, if the number reads 0314, that means the tire was manufactured during the third week of 2014. Keep in mind, the example given here only applies to tires built after 2000; older models are more difficult to decipher. As a general rule of thumb, tires more than ten years old should be replaced.

  • Tire sidewall: While the tire’s age is being checked, the sidewall should also be inspected for bulges, cracks and other irregularities. Such problems warrant tire replacement.
  • Wheels: A bent rim can affect the balance of the wheel/tire assembly, reducing vehicle performance and safety.
  • Wheel bearings: The wheel and tire rotate on a bearing assembly. If the bearing fails, it can result in loss of control. Fortunately, wheel bearings can be checked for issues such as abnormal noise and excessive play.

3. Brakes

Your young adult, who is often more interested in fiddling with the radio than watching the road, requires maximum stopping ability. Make sure to have your car’s brakes checked thoroughly before handing over the keys.

  • Road test: A road test should be taken at various speeds while paying attention to brake pedal feel, brake noise and overall system performance.
  • Friction lining: The friction lining on the drums and/or pads should be checked. Generally, the pads and shoes should be discarded if there is less than 3mm of friction material left. Replacement is recommended beginning around 4mm to 5mm.
  • Brake drum and/or rotor: Brake drums and rotors should be replaced when they drop below their minimum “discard” thickness. The specification is either stamped into the front of the component or located in the factory repair information. Drums and rotors should be checked for flaws as well, such as warpage, hard spots and cracks.

4. Interior

Pretty soon, your car’s once pristine cabin will be covered in books, homework papers and dozens of fast-food wrappers. But before teenaged disaster strikes, you’ll want to make sure the integral interior components are working properly.

  • Interior lights: Check that the dome light, dashboard light, etc. are working properly.
  • Seat belts: If a seat belt isn’t working correctly, chances are, your child will toss it aside. Ensure every latch and buckle is up to snuff before their departure.
  • Windows: Do all of your car’s windows roll up and down? If not, you may have a problem with the regulator, motor, switch or wiring that needs to be addressed. A defunct driver’s window can be a real hassle in a drive-thru. Plus, the issue can be hazardous in certain situations.
, The Essential College Readiness Automotive Checklist for Parents
Checking power window operation
  • Climate control: Air conditioning (A/C) and heater operation are essential, especially if your child is moving to a location with an extreme climate. As such, you’ll want to make sure both the heat and A/C work flawlessly on all settings.

5. Exterior

Your family vehicle isn’t an ultra-shiny show car. The exterior only needs to be functional, not pretty. Your mechanic should consider these items while doing a walk-around:

  • Lighting: Check that the exterior lights – headlights, taillights, turn signals, fog lights, etc.- all work. Non-functional lighting is both unsafe and a good way to earn a ticket.
  • Body components: Make sure all of the main components, such as the grille and bumpers, are intact. Missing body parts can compromise vehicle integrity and safety.
  • Mirrors: It’s important that the mirrors, whether power or manual, can move through their full range of motion. Also, make sure that the glass is undamaged and that the heater function (if applicable) works.
  • Glass: Ensure all exterior glass is intact and damage-free. Cracked or otherwise compromised glass is a hazard that could easily break in an accident.
  • Wipers and washers: Functional wipers and washers are a must, especially if your college student is moving somewhere with a lot of rain or snow.

6. Undercarriage

Many undercarriage components, such as those found in the steering and suspension systems, are critical to vehicle safety. Complete loss of control can result from something as simple as a broken tie rod or failed ball joint.

  • Steering: The steering system is of utmost importance. Everything from the tie rods to the steering gear should be inspected and replaced as needed.
  • Suspension: The suspension is more than just the shocks and struts. Also included are components like the ball joints and control arm bushings that, if failed, can be extremely dangerous.
, The Essential College Readiness Automotive Checklist for Parents
Checking steering and suspension
  • Engine, transmission and drivetrain: Taking a look at the engine, transmission and other drivetrain components from below can reveal an array of issues. For example, fluid leaks can be easily spotted from beneath.
  • Axles and driveshafts: Axles, driveshafts and u-joints should be checked for damage and wear.

6. Under the hood

Now it’s time to check the under hood components and take a road test. If you’re like many parents, who don’t know a spark plug from a piston, don’t worry. A good mechanic will be able to spot key issues for you.

  • Road test: An extended road test should be taken while listening for abnormal noises and watching the instrument cluster. Keep an eye on both the temperature gauge and oil pressure gauge, if the vehicle is so equipped.
  • Performance at idle: A lot of nasty problems can be hidden while a vehicle is in motion. Be sure to check performance at idle, when issues such as overheating are more likely to occur.
  • Belts and hoses: Belts that are cracked or frayed should be replaced. Hoses that are swollen, leaking or brittle should be swapped out as well.
  • Warning lights: Make sure all warning lights (i.e., check engine, ABS, SRS, etc.) come on momentarily while cycling the ignition key. Each of the lights should disappear once the vehicle is running. Any that stay illuminated will need to be diagnosed and repaired.
  • Starting and charging system: These days, a technician can check starting and charging system performance with a single, hand-held device. The procedure, which takes only a few minutes, analyzes the health of vital components like the battery, starter and alternator.

7. Miscellaneous

You may have thought we covered everything, but there are still a few odds and ends to wrap up.

  • Recalls: Either the automaker or National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) will issue a recall when a safety-related concern has been identified. Although the vehicle owner is supposed to be contacted when a recall is issued, that doesn’t always happen.

You’ll want to check for recalls yourself. And you can do that by either calling the dealer; checking out the manufacturer website or visiting the NHTSA online.

Have the car’s vehicle identification number (VIN) ready, as that information will be required. The VIN can be found on the lower left-hand side of the dash or inside the driver’s side door jamb.

  • Insurance and registration: If you’re putting a teenager behind the wheel – you’d better have good insurance. Also, don’t forget the registration. In some cases, your insurance will be void if the car isn’t registered. Driving without registration can earn your child a traffic ticket as well.

See them off with love and support

, The Essential College Readiness Automotive Checklist for Parents
Ready to send off your kid to college? Make sure to let them know how much you love them.

Whew! That’s a lengthy list. Now that everything has been checked out, your child is ready to hit the open road. Almost. Before they leave, let them know how much you love them. College is a big step but with a little encouragement – and the family car – your child will be ready for the challenge.

Any information provided on this Website is for informational purposes only and is not intended to replace consultation with a professional mechanic.

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