Depending on your motivation and budget for buying a used car, you might like to consider buying privately, auction or from a business selling new and used cars, such as a car dealer, independent garage or vehicle trader. Nevertheless, regardless of where you buy a used car, following a standard checklist can improve your peace of mind.
Inspect a used car on a clear day, so that you have every chance of making a ‘warts-and-all’ appraisal of its external condition. Depending on the age of the car, small dents, scratches and rust are to be expected and can be fixed inexpensively, so should not be a major cause for concern.
By contrast, signs of poorly repaired crash damage, such as bodywork panels that are mismatched in colour; or have large gaps between them most certainly are of concern!
Check all four wheels and the spare wheel for signs of damage caused by ‘kerbing’, including all the tyres, not just for depth of tread – which must legally be at least 1.6mm – but also for uneven wear, which may indicate poor wheel alignment, bulges, gouges or splits.
As with the exterior, the interior of any used car will inevitably show some signs of wear and tear. However, the condition of the interior should be consummate with the age and mileage of the car.
Heavily worn, torn, stained upholstery, a threadbare steering wheel and pedals worn smooth are indicative of high mileage, so beware any such vehicle with an advertised mileage of less than 60,000 miles. In any case, if the condition or smell of the interior of the car is not to your liking, negotiate the price downward to account for the cost of repair or treatment.
Under the Bonnet
Beware of any engine that is filthy dirty or sparkling clean, on the basis that it may have been neglected or steam cleaned to disguise problems such as oil leaks. Check fluid levels, including oil and brake fluid, and look for signs of leaks in the engine compartment and on the ground beneath the vehicle.
While you are checking the oil level, be aware that a white or light brown gooey sludge under the oil cap is symptomatic of a blown or leaking head gasket, which can potentially result in total engine failure.
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Taking a Test Drive
Visible inspection gives you a fair idea of the general condition of a used car, but to verify aspects of performance such as brakes, steering and suspension, you really need to take a test drive. Of course, you need to be insured to do so, so check with your insurance provider that you have an appropriate insurance policy.
If not, you need to arrange temporary insurance cover, unless the seller already has a motor trade policy with so-called ‘demonstration cover’, which allows you to test drive the car on public roads prior to purchase.
Aside from noting any unusual behaviour or noises, including, but not limited to, the car tugging to one side when driving or braking, judders, squeaks, rattles and so on – use your time in the driving seat to test all the controls, including the electrics.
Note any warning lights that remain on when you are ready to drive away and any chips or cracks in the windscreen, particularly those in your line of sight; either could result in a costly MOT failure!
Check that the details on V5C registration certificate, also known as the ‘logbook’, match those held by the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) in terms of the make, model and registration number.
If the car is fitted with trade plates, they must not obscure the existing number plates. Likewise, check the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN), a unique, 17-digit number, usually found near the bottom of the windscreen, matches that on the V5C registration certificate.
Check previous MOT certificates and the service book to make sure the car has been regularly maintained to legal standards and that the mileage displayed on the milometer is genuine.
Finally, take your time to look around the vehicle and don’t feel pressured in to deciding on the day. It’s always worth remembering, anything that seems too good to be true, usually is.