If you're buying a used car, it's easy to check the usual items, such as brake lights, power windows, air conditioning and the stereo. But many drivers don't check -- or don't know how to check -- wear items such as brakes, tires and a clutch. We've listed a few tips to help you inspect these items if you're buying a used car. While these tips can't replace a mechanic, they may help you save money on some costly repairs.

Brakes

You don't have to remove a car's wheel to find out if brake pads need to be changed. One way to tell is by simply listening to the brakes while you're on a test drive. If you hear a grinding noise while coming to a stop, it's likely the brake pads need replacement.

But you can also visually check the brake pads to see if they need changing. To do this, look inside the wheel at the brake caliper. That's the metal piece found on one side of the brake disc. The brake pad is inside the caliper -- and if it's less than a 1/4-inch thick, it probably needs replacing.

Tires

Believe it or not, the easiest way to check used car tires is with a penny. It's easy to do: Simply take a penny and turn it to the "heads" side -- the one that shows Lincoln's portrait. Then flip the penny upside down, so Lincoln's head is at the bottom. Finally, stick the penny in your tire treads.

The general rule is that if you can see all of Lincoln's head, including his hair, it's time for new tires. But if the tire treads obscure Lincoln's head, your treads are probably at least 2/32-in deep -- enough to drive on. Of course, the more of Lincoln's head that's obscured by the tire treads, the better.

Clutch

If you're thinking of buying a used car with a manual transmission, replacing the clutch can be a major expense. Short of taking the car to a mechanic, it can be hard to know how much clutch life is left. But there's one easy trick that can help you find out if a clutch is worn.

Here's what to do: Shift the car into a high gear while on the test drive, and then rev the engine to around 4,000 rpm. After that, you should slowly let off the clutch as if you were starting like normal. If the engine speed quickly falls, the clutch is likely OK. But if the engine speed doesn't fall -- or worse, if it increases -- the clutch is probably worn out.

author photo

Doug DeMuro has a wide range of automotive industry experience, from work at a Ferrari dealership to a manager for Porsche North America. A lifelong car enthusiast, Doug's eclectic vehicle purchases include a Porsche 911 Turbo, an E63 AMG wagon, an old Range Rover and a Mercedes Benz G-wagen.

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