Car Buying: How To Check A Used Car

How to check a used car before buying

There is no excuse for buying an unroadworthy heap. Mileage is irrelevant, unless it is a high miles diesel as they are complex and difficult to fix, or a tiny petrol hatchback which could be worn out. The overriding factor is the condition. It must have an MOT, start stop and not make any nasty noises, belch smoke or drive all over the place. Make sure that is the case by looking carefully at the following…oh and take a mate with you.

Check A Used Car 1: Under The Bonnet

  • Look for rot around the suspension mounts, or bulkhead.
  • Remove the dipstick and look at the oil. Ideally it should be clean (honey, not black), at the correct MAX level with no hint of bubbles.
  • Unscrew the oil filler cap, which should be free of any milky deposits.
  • Unscrew the radiator cap, can you see any oil or rust in the water?
  • Are the hoses secure, perished or covered in gaffer tape?
  • Look at the clutch and brake levels too. Ideally you want to see a clean, dry leak free environment.


Check A Used Car 2: Around the Body

Although we don’t care what it actually looks like, it really is important that:

  • All the doors, open, shut and lock.
  • Serious rot in the sills, bulkhead, or floor is a no.


Check A Used Car 3: Tyres

Tyres are one of the most important features on a car check them by;

  • You can kick them if you want. This can tell quite a story.
  • It would be nice to see the same branded tyre on every axle, which suggests that somebody cared.
  • Certainly they must be legal and reasonably treaded.
  • Remoulds, bulges, bald spots and different patterns are bad.
  • As are chipped and scraped alloys.

Read Our Tyre Guide


Check A Used Car 4: Paperwork

If there isn’t any then make your excuses and leave. It’s a pain to get a V5 registration document replaced, suggests dodginess and doesn’t reflect well on the last keeper. At the very least you ought to see:

  • The registration document
  • MOT and last service
  • A few sundry bills for something substantial


Check A Used Car 5: Start the Engine

It might seem like a simple thing to do but it can tell you a lot about the car. 

  • It shouldn't be pre-warmed. The seller will have done this for a reason, usually because it’s a pain to start from cold.
  • With a diesel it might be worn out and lacking compression.
  • Ask your mate to stand at the back and check whether there is loads of smoke coming out of the exhaust.


Check A Used Car 6: Play With The Buttons

As you wait for the engine to warm up and adjust yourself for comfort, prod and press at all the buttons to find out what does and doesn’t work.


Check A Used Car 7: Test Drive

  • Engage the gears and pull sharply away. If there is an audible 'clonk', on rear wheel drive cars this could mean that the propshaft needs replacing.
  • When accelerating, the car should not jump out of gear, otherwise it needs attention.
  • An automatic gearbox should change smoothly and quietly.
  • Compared of course, to the kind of car you are used to, does it feel sluggish? It may be that the engine needs a simple and cheap tune, or it could be that the engine is about to expire. It may also suggest catalyser failure.
  • Overall you don’t want to hear crashes, bangs, screeches or whines.
  • The steering shouldn’t pull to the side.
  • The suspension shouldn’t crash, bang or sag.


Check A Used Car 8: After The Test Drive

  • Look under the bonnet with the engine running.
  • Are there leaks, smoke or strange noises?
  • If you like it, get it MOT’d. You pay.
  • Get a HPI data check to make sure it isn’t stolen, on finance or a write off.


Check A Used Car 9: Is It The Right Price?

If you discover anything that the seller hasn’t brought to your attention that’s an excuse to lower the price. Start with a low offer and work upwards from there. Hold on though, don’t rush into anything…

That’s just a brief guide to looking at a car. We would recommend that you use this format for looking at several cars to get lots of practice. The more used cars you look at the better you will become at spotting what a good one looks like.


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