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Buying a used car? Here’s your ultimate inspection checklist

Whether you’re buying a used car privately or through a dealership, it can be a daunting process. While the latter does give you certain protection from a legal point of view, it’s up to you to ask the right questions and do a thorough inspection before you hand over any money.

This checklist is a complete explanation of everything you need to know and keep an eye out for when buying a used car.

The paperwork

  • V5C registration document – Ask to see the V5C. Not only will you not be able to tax the car without it, but there are a few details to look out for.
    • Is the seller listed as the vehicle’s registered keeper? If not, ask why they are selling it for another person.
    • Can you see the watermark authentication?
    • Can you see any spelling errors? This could be a sign of forgery.
    • Does everything match up between the car and the V5C? Check the VIN (vehicle identification number), engine number, number plate and car colour.
  • Does it have an up-to-date MOT certificate? Cars that are more than three years old must undergo an annual MOT test.
  • Does it have a full service history?

Visual inspection

Before you even take it for a test drive, conduct a thorough visual inspection of the interior and exterior of the car. Here are the main points to look out for…

  • TyresHow worn out do the tyres look? How much tread do they have left in them? Remember that the legal limit for tyre tread is 1.6mm, so if they are any less than 3mm be sure to factor in the cost of changing them soon.
  • Bodywork – This inspection is best done in daylight as rain and darkness can hide many signs of damage. Look for scuffs, scratches and dents on the paintwork and any signs of kerbing on the wheels. Has the car’s colour been changed? Take a look under carpets and other hidden areas to check for mismatching. Are there any signs of poor paint spraying on the handles, plastic mouldings or window seals?
  • Electronics – Make sure you try everything, no matter how small it may seem. Do the windows, the lights, the indicators, the radio, the CD player (if you can) and the air conditioning. If it has a button, press it.
  • Wear and tear – Think about the age of the car; does the condition of the vehicle match up to this? It the mileage counter is low but there’s a great deal of wear inside – such as on the pedals, steering wheel or driver’s seat – then that should raise a red flag.
  • Interior – Is the upholstery stained or worn? How does the interior smell? Cigarette smoke is very hard to get rid of and can lower the value of the car.
  • Glass – Are there any chips or visible cracks in the windscreen? Cracks should be an immediate alarm bell, but chips can be dangerous too. Chips can turn into cracks at the slightest knock, meaning the whole windscreen will need to be replaced. If a chip is in the eyeline of the driver then it’ll fail its MOT. Also take a look at the lights for cracks, fogging or moisture.
  • Fluid – Take a peek under the bonnet and look at the oil, brake fluid and power steering fluid. Any signs of leaking should make you think twice about your purchase.
  • Doors – Are there are gaps between the panels and doors? Sizeable gaps could indicate that poor quality repair work has been carried out after a crash. Also make sure the colours of all panels match up.

Test drive

Now it’s time to get behind the wheel of the car for the first time. While it can be daunting if the salesperson comes with you, don’t be afraid to take your time and conduct a thorough inspection.

  • Do all the warning lights work? When the engine turns on all lights will come on too as a test and then go out. If any remain on it means there’s a fault.
  • Your brakes are important, so make sure you test them properly. Does the car pull to one side when you brake? If so, there could be a problem with tracking. Does the car stop promptly or does it take a long time and a lot of effort?
  • Listen out for any strange noises when you brake, no matter how quiet.
  • Does the handbrake keep the car still? Is it effective on hills?
  • Does the ABS warning light turn off after the engine starts?
  • Does the steering wheel vibrate or pull to one side?
  • Check the clutch – is it easy to find the biting point? Does the car pull away cleanly in a quick start or does the clutch judder? Replacing the clutch can be very expensive so watch out for high biting points or noises when you press the clutch.

Engine

  • What happens when you turn the engine on? Listen out for stutters or struggles.
  • Does the car start alright from cold or is it already warmed for you? If so, ask the seller why it has been warmed up beforehand as this could be masking a problem.
  • Check the temperature gauge when the car starts – does it get to halfway quickly and stay there? If not, this could indicate that a new thermostat is needed or could be a sign of overheating.
  • Check for visible exhaust emissions that seem excessive.
  • Take a look at the catalytic converter and ask to see a recent emissions test.
  • Check the oil levels. Too low shows that the car has been neglected. Too high could just indicate an error in filling.
  • Check the oil filler cap. Is there any sludge visible? If so this could indicate the vehicle is primarily used for short journeys or that it has been serviced incorrectly.

General controls

  • Do all the locks work correctly? Be sure to test both remote control and central locking.
  • Do all windows open and close properly? Don’t forget the rear windows and the sunroof.
  • Inspect the locks to look for forced entry, damage or signs that the locks have been replaced.
  • Ask to see all the keys, and the handbook to see which keys were given out when the car was brand new.
  • Is the car fitted with locking wheel nuts?