35 things to check before buying a used car

Avg Reading time: 7 minutes

In this article we cover pre-sale research options, how best to look over the stationary vehicle, how to get the best from the test drive, as well as some useful post-sale information.

Buying a used car always represents a risk given it is a step into the unknown. There are inherent risks that are assumed by the buyer upon purchase, hence the often used phrase “Sold as seen” indicating the buyer bears all the risk once transacted upon. However there are steps you can take in order to mitigate such risks, and this article will outline some key practical advice the average car buyer can accommodate.


Pre-Sale Online Checks and Research

MOT History

You can check the MOT history and related mileage submissions if you have the registration plate at the above link. This documents all major (failure) and minor (advisory) issues as well as the recorded mileage. It can be crucial to know of any significant failure reasons as well as advisory items including how and when they were resolved. Mileage discrepancies should also become visible upon review.

HPI Check

There are numerous online sources that provide a HPI check to verify a vehicles history. Generally they will reveal; any outstanding finance the vehicle remains subject to, if the vehicle has ever been recorded as stolen or written-off, if the V5 logbook in circulation is legit, vehicle identity check in accordance with the DVLA database, if any registration plate transfers have been recorded, as well as verifying the number plate and VIN chassis number correspond to the DVLA records.

ULEZ Check

A relatively new development and one that will impact London residents only is the new ULEZ tax charge based on emission pollutants. The £12 daily charge is currently restricted to the congestion charge zone, but will inevitably expand at a rate until the entire Greater London will be covered.

Insurance Group

Each vehicle has a designated insurance group between 1 to 50, as documented on the Parkers website. If your prospective new purchase falls in a band with a higher group than your current vehicle, you can anticipate your insurance premium to rise (assuming all other factors remain static).

Insurance Quote

Engaging the wider market rather than just your current insurance provider for a quote is always advisable given the continually shifting landscape. Obtaining an insurance quote prior to viewing the vehicle is highly recommended so you have peace of mind of knowing the full picture. Going into a purchase with a healthy insurance quote can make the difference in the outcome.

Owner Club Research

Reviewing online vehicle owner forums can prove extremely useful when purchasing an unfamiliar vehicle. You can read about the different vehicle iterations in the range, typical problems and resolutions, typical upgrades/modifications, find good garage recommendations. Many have buyer guides specific to the make/model of vehicle, which will often include an informative and exhaustive list of traits compiled over many years by those with strong practical experience. Many also have a section listing members’ cars for sale, which may be of interest compared to generic sales platforms. We recommend establishing if your target vehicles engine is chain or belt driven and what mileage these should typically be replaced at. Armed with this knowledge you can ask the seller if they have a garage receipt for the work, or at the very least be prepared for an impending maintenance cost.


The Vehicle

All prospective buyers should be wary, especially for private sale adverts. If possible travel with someone else and preferably without cash, except maybe deposit money. If your unable to take some company ensure someone you trust knows where you are travelling to, why and what time to expect your return. If the seller is overly secretive about disclosing information – think the vehicle registration plate, their name, their contact details, their address etc. then it may be worth walking away. Honest sellers have no reason to be cautious and try to hide any information the buyer requests. It is always recommended to ask the seller if the vehicle has a recorded damage category as sellers do not have to volunteer this information, but is obligated by law to disclose when asked.

Once you have peace of mind the seller is legit you turn your attention to verifying the vehicle is also legit, or at least worthy of the asking price. To remove the likelihood of overlooking a feature of the car to inspect it can be beneficial to compile a list of items to visually examine.

Vehicle Exterior

  • Check suspension by pressing down gently but firmly on each corner of the car being attentive for any unwanted excess play and/or noise
  • Check bodywork by running your finger along all body panel joins to feel for any inconsistencies in the joins
  • Check underneath the vehicle for any signs of rust. You may wish to bring a magnet as a useful tool to check in hard to reach places as rust will not exert any pull force on a magnet
  • Check the wheel arches thoroughly for any signs of wear and tear or rust as this is often a problem area, especially for cars that have not been appropriately cared for
  • Open and close all doors, boot and bonnet to ensure all function well
  • Check the boot for the spare wheel and any other ancillary items. Where viable inspect underneath the boot carpet to ensure no nasty surprises lurk
  • Ensure the lights are all operational, front, back, indicators and fog lights
  • Verify VIN chassis number aligns to that disclosed in the HPI check
  • Engine bay – pay close attention to the front section to see if anything is rusty, perished, misaligned or differs from a standard bay (you can search for google images for pictures) as front-end damage may have been sustained
  • Check the engine oil level is between the minimum and maximum level on the dipstick. Ensure there is no white ‘gunk’ on the inside of the oil cap
  • Check the battery is stable, secure and the terminals are not corroded
  • Check for any signs of wear on any belts that may be visible

Vehicle Interior

  • Pay close attention to both front seat bolsters for excessive ware, especially driver side
  • Check all of the interior electrics are functioning as expected
  • Ensure the front seat adjustments all function as expected
  • Ensure all seat-belts are fully functioning
  • Ensure rear seating area functions as expected (including windows, doors and handles, air con, seat fold-away etc.)
  • Verify the mileage aligns to the advert, MOT history check and HPI check
  • Check the audio equipment is in good working order, head-unit/speakers

Test Drive

Finally, if the prospective vehicle has passed all the above criteria we arrive at the all-important test drive - the crucial hurdle to unearthing your next vehicle.

  • Cold start – check no smoke from exhaust
  • Adjust drivers seat position so you are comfortable, side and rear-view mirrors so you can see well - some steering racks also adjust
  • Check the clutch has sufficient but not excessive play/depth and that the bite point feels controlled and consistent
  • Engine should start without incident and idle smoothly, somewhere between 600-1,000 rpm
  • Gearing changes smooth on up and down shift, try changing by more than one single gear – also select reverse gear a few times to ensure a smooth engagement
  • Tracking – at low speed release the steering wheel momentarily to see which direction the car may pull in
  • Brake check – advisable to pre-warm any passengers, but it’s crucial to perform at least one hard braking scenario to ensure the calipers are functioning and not freezing, the disc isn’t pitted, and the pads still have some stopping power
  • Check the hand brake to ensure it engaged and disengages properly with no excessive play
  • Ensure all vehicle dashboard cluster dials are responding smoothly and appropriately to the sensor inputs
  • Warm start – check the car restarts without issue if you shut down and try at least one warm start at the end of the test drive


Post Sale Useful Information

V5 Document

Also known as a Vehicle Logbook, the V5 document sets out who is the registered vehicle owner as administered by the DVLA in the UK. Upon purchase the buyer will commit their personal details to the green shaded section 10, which in turn the seller sends off to the DVLA to amend the registered keeper and despatch the replacement V5 logbook.

Agreed Valuation

Be aware insurance companies will pay out based on criteria that often significantly undervalues the vehicle, along the lines of how “We buy any car” arrive at their basement level valuations. Submitting a vehicle valuation to your insurance provider has no bearing on the pay-out value, so it might well be worth establishing an agreed valuation price with the insurer, although they will likely increase the premium.

Declared Modifications

Your own personal taste may be anywhere from subtle to pimp-my-ride style or somewhere in-between. Please be aware another issue insurance companies like to benefit from is what they consider the failure to declare any modifications – that is anything on the vehicle that has been altered. It’s quite possible a previous owner to switch an item to an aftermarket part where the new owner may not be aware. Beware as some unscrupulous practitioners in this industry has set the bar as low as categorising a removable sat nav as a way to invalidate claims. Wrapping or painting your vehicle a different colour; remember to notify the DVLA so insurance does not become invalid.

Road Tax (Vehicle Excise Duty)

Upon purchase, assuming a valid MOT certificate exists, the new owner will be required to pay road tax to the government. This is always backdated to the first day of the calendar month the cover was taken out on. Tax rates are vehicle specific and are higher for vehicles deemed excessive polluters than their peers.

It is our intention the content of our articles are a good read and imparts knowledge and insight into our shared passion for all things automotive. Feel free to share this article, submit a comment and continue absorbing our Car Torque posts. From the team here at Compare.Parts; thanks for reading and enjoy your motoring one and all


Written by greg

Tags: Brake Upgrades, Braking, Car Brakes, Motorsport Category: Tech Talk, The Knowledge
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