Buying a Used Car: Your Important Check List

The New Year signals all manner of changes for many people as they make New Year Resolutions, carry out a spring clean on their homes and for some, they might consider buying a new or used car. If the car is new then you do not have to worry as your warranty will protect you from any faults that might crop up after the purchase. But if you are buying a used car then it is a totally different story. There is no garage to go back to after a couple of months if your car develops a fault, even if they have offered you a warranty, typically it will only be for a couple of months or less. And if you buy from a private seller you have even less rights. So how do you make sure you are buying a good runner and not an old banger? By reading our check list that’s how.

Checking the Exterior of the Car

  • Check around the whole vehicle for bumps or scrapes that have not been mentioned on the advert. The paint on the bodywork should be the same shade all over the car; if not, it may have had some damage and a re-spray. Bubbling paintwork indicates rust underneath and is common under the wheel arches and around the window frames and bumpers, but check everywhere. See if there is paint around the rubber seals, this also points towards a re-spray.
  • Make sure any gaps between panels are the same width – if not, it could mean that the car may have been crashed and repaired. The doors and the boot should open and close smoothly. If they do not it could also be an indicator to a cut and shut job which is potentially life threatening.
  • Push down carefully on the car at each corner and then release, the car should return smoothly to its normal height – if it bounces several times before settling the suspension could need work.
  • The Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) should not show any signs of tampering. You can find it in several places; on a metal strip at the base of the windscreen, under the bonnet or beneath the carpet on the driver’s side. This is a good time to check that it is the same as the one printed in the logbook.
  • Check all the tyres and the spare tyre with a tread depth gauge. You are looking for a minimum legal tread depth of 1.6mm across the width of the tyre; the more there is the better. The tyres should have even wear and not more wear on one side of the tyre. This is an indication that the suspension or tracking alignment could need adjusting, or it could also point to crash damage
  • If the car you are inspecting is a convertible, check that the roof moves up and down smoothly and locks fully into place, check the material for tears, and make sure the rear window is free from cracks and discolouration

Checking the Interior of the Car

  • Look at the mileage on the odometer, it should be consistent with the car’s paperwork such as MOT forms and any servicing that has been carried out on the car.
  • Another way to check the mileage is to look at the wear and tear on the upholstery, high mileage will correspond to wearage on seats and side bolsters and the steering wheel may have a shiny appearance.
  • Check to see that everything inside works, such as the heating, the windscreen wipers, the water spray, all of the electric windows, the seats can be adjusted and the bonnet can be released and see that the petrol cap is a lockable one and there are two keys.
  • If there is damage to the steering column and ignition it could be an indication that the car has been stolen at some point
  • Check that all the seatbelts work, if any look frayed or worn it could mean that the car has been in an accident. Look at the dashboard to see if there is any damage to it. If there is this is an indication that the car’s airbags may have been deployed in a crash

Checking under the Bonnet

  • Have a look at the general state of the engine, if it looks unkempt and there are loose wires, broken hoses and oil, water or other fluid leaks, it has not been cared for properly and probably not had regular services.
  • Make sure the car is on level ground, then remove the engine oil dipstick, wipe it with a cloth and replace it. Remove it again and check the oil is on or around the ‘max’ level; the oil should be golden and free from debris – if not, the oil will need changing and could indicate neglect.
  • Check the top of the engine and underneath the engine oil cap for a white, mayonnaise-like substance which could indicate that water has got into the engine and damaged the head gasket, causing irreparable engine damage.
  • Check the fluid levels for the engine coolant (large, often round tank with a screw cap filled with pink fluid) and brake fluid (small bottle, often attached at the rear of the engine bay) are at the correct indicated level when the engine is cool.
  • Make sure the battery terminals and connectors on top of the battery are rust-free and in good condition.

Checking the Paperwork

  • When you go to inspect a used car, make sure you always visit private sellers at their home address and check it is the same as the one listed in the car’s logbook.
  • Look through the car’s logbook, service history, previous MOT certificates and any old bills and receipts. This gives you the chance to see if the car has been cared for, identify recurring faults and to check the car’s mileage is genuine by checking the MOT certificates, the car’s total mileage should increase at a steady rate at each MOT and service interval.
  • Do not accept photocopies of the logbook or any other piece of paperwork. Only accept original paperwork, and check for forgeries – the logbook should have a watermark. If you are at all suspicious, you can call the garage the last MOT was carried out at and the previous owner to check the car’s past

Finally, drive the car for at least half an hour on different kinds of roads to test the speed, acceleration, braking points, and start it up from cold to see how the engine responds. Don’t feel obliged to buy anything you are not happy with, instead, go away and think about it as it is an expensive item to get wrong.