You’ve fallen in love with a used car, so all that’s left is for you to hand over your hard-earned cash and drive away into the sunset. Sounds easy, doesn’t it?
Sadly, before you get too carried away, there are a few important things to check. Take note of our advice and you could save yourself a few sleepless nights, not to mention a few difficult conversations with your bank manager.
Even before you look at the car, it’s important to make sure all the supporting documents stack up. The V5C registration document registers the vehicle with the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) and contains all the essential information about the car.
You must ensure the V5C is genuine (check the ‘DVL’ watermark), whilst checking to see if it has been tampered with in any way. Make sure you view the car at the address listed as the registered keeper and that the engine and VIN numbers match those on the vehicle.
While you’re at it, check the most recent MOT certificate, as well as any service history that will not only verify the mileage, but also provide evidence that the car has been looked after.
The gov.uk website includes a handy tool that allows you to check basic information about the used car you are intending to buy. Go to the website, key in the vehicle’s registration number and make, and you’ll be presented with useful info, such as date of registration, MOT expiry date, colour, engine size, year of manufacture, CO2 emissions and current vehicle tax rate.
You can also find a brilliant MOT history tool, supplying details of all MOT tests stretching back to 2006. This is useful for identifying work that has been done, along with any advisories from the most recent MOT.
If in doubt, walk away. Unless you’re viewing something super-rare, like a Sao Penza or SEAT Malaga, there are plenty more used cars to choose from. Don’t make an expensive mistake.
Assuming the car has passed its pre-flight checks, it’s now time for a visual inspection. Ensure you view the car in daylight and start with the basics: scratches, dents, mismatched colours and uneven panel gaps are things to look out for.
It’s not essential to walk away from a car with light scratches or dents, especially if it has a few miles on the clock. Either use them as bargaining tools, or ask the seller to put them right before you agree a deal.
Uneven panel gaps and mismatched colours are more concerning. Ask the seller why the car has been painted and when. A front wing may have been replaced following a low-speed run-in with a shopping trolley, but it might be evidence of a serious accident.
Also, be on your guard if the car looks too good to be true. A vehicle with 80,000 miles on the clock and no stone chips on the front is unlikely, so find out if the car has been resprayed.
A few stone chips and signs of light use are nothing to be afraid of – they actually deliver some reassurance of the car’s authenticity. Similarly, original dealer number plates, window stickers and glass are signs that the car hasn’t been involved in an accident.
Finally, while you’re circling the outside of the car, check for signs of rust. Today’s cars offer far greater protection against corrosion than vehicles of old, but even a relatively new car might be suffering from tin worm. Do your homework: research the car’s known trouble spots.
More thorough checks
Having given the car a cosmetic check, it’s now time to dig a little a deeper. Start with the tyres – do they have sufficient tread? If not, you’ll need to factor in the cost of replacement. Alternatively, use the tyres as a bargaining tool.
Ensure the wear is even right across the width of the tyre. If it’s not, it could be a tell-tale sign of problems with the suspension, or worse, historical accident damage. Note: a set of premium-brand tyres could suggest the car has been cherished by its current owner.
While you’re outside, make sure all the lights work. Changing a bulb might seem trivial, but a short list of issues can soon turn into something quite lengthy. Oh, and look under the car for signs of leaks, which could be costly to repair.
On the inside
Moving to the inside, the first thing to check is that the condition of the cabin tallies with the mileage. You wouldn’t expect to find a worn-out seat bolster, smooth steering wheel and tired pedal rubbers on a low-mileage car.
In the past, a ‘clocked’ car was relatively easy to spot, thanks to a misaligned milometer, but today’s digital displays can be changed using a laptop. Check the service history and pay for an HPI check to ensure the mileage is genuine. This will also alert you to any outstanding finance and previous accident damage.
While you’re inside, check everything works. Do the seats recline as they should? Does the air conditioning blow hot and cold? Does the radio work? Do the electric windows wind down and up again? All simple checks that could save you time and money in the long run.
Be on the lookout for nasty stains, which might be difficult to remove. Similarly, the smells of cigarettes and wet dogs are notoriously hard to remove, so factor unpleasant whiffs into your cabin check.
Under the bonnet
Before you start the engine, open the bonnet for a visual inspection. Is the oil level correct? Too low is a sign of neglect, whilst too much could be a sign that the engine is using lots of oil, with the seller over-compensating to allow for the issue.
Remove the oil filler cap and inspect the underside. A mayonnaise-type sludge could indicate a lack of use or a series of short trips. Worse, it could suggest the head gasket is on the way out. That’s a big concern.
The coolant should be the colour of antifreeze – if it’s rust-coloured, that’s a sure sign of neglect.
Starting the engine
Before you drive away, there are some visual checks to do when starting the engine. Turn the key to illuminate the dashboard lights. The warning lights should come on before you start the engine, before going out once the engine is ticking over. If they don’t, you could have a problem.
Have somebody with you to check for smoke from the exhaust. Some white vapour is perfectly normal when the engine is cold, but blue smoke could mean the engine is burning oil.
A diesel car will emit a puff of faint blue smoke on start up, but black smoke generally means there’s a serious fault with the engine. If in doubt, walk away. Also listen out for unwelcome noises or rattles that could indicate a costly repair job.
The test drive
Only now, after the car has passed all the previous examinations, should you take it for a test drive. Give yourself plenty of time on a mixture of different roads, making sure you use every gear, including reverse.
Does the car accelerate smoothly? Does it pull to one side under braking? Is the clutch biting point too high? Does the handbrake work? Does the car steer in the correct manner?
If nothing else, you could be living with the car for many years to come, so make sure you enjoy the experience. Faults are one thing, but ensuring you actually like the car is another consideration.
There are also a number of specific checks that will vary depending on the car. Find out when a cambelt needs to be changed, as this is an expensive job. Similarly, ask a dealer about service schedules – if the car is due a major service, it could be on the brink of a costly bill.
Other considerations, especially if you’re looking at an older car, include: diesel particulate filters (DPF) – bank on upwards of £1,000 if you need to replace one; catalytic converters – check the most recent emissions test; and ABS – does the light go out once the engine has been started?
You should also ask for the spare set of keys, as replacements can be expensive. In short, you should draw up a shortlist of everything that’s required if you decide to take the plunge.
Add up the total cost and then decide whether or not it’s worth proceeding with the purchase. There are plenty more cars in the classifieds.
It’s often said that you ‘buy the seller’, as much as you buy the car. In other words: if you get a good feeling about the seller, that’s a positive start. Are they keen to answer questions? Do they speak with knowledge and enthusiasm when describing the car? Go with your gut feeling.
Also, beware of a car that’s been over-prepared for sale. Don’t be swayed by a layer of tyre polish, bumper black and some interior air-freshener. It’s always better to view car warts-and-all. Finally, remember, if the deal seems too good to be true, it most probably is.