Checks before you buy a used car

In Car Tips
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What to look for, what to check.

From handy hints on how to spot if a car is stolen to alterations on the mileage, here’s our essential list of questions to ask, and items to check when you’re viewing a used car.

If you buy a used car privately, it’s a case of ‘Buyer Beware’. You don’t have the same legal protection as when buying from a dealer. It’s up to you to ask the right questions and check the car thoroughly before you buy.

If you don’t feel confident about carrying out any of these checks or if you just want a second opinion, we offer car checking services.


Box to tick Can the seller show you the V5C registration document? You won’t be able to tax the car without it.

Box to tick Is the seller the registered keeper shown on the V5C? If not, why are they selling it for someone else?

Box to tick Does the registration document have a watermark?

Box to tick Any spelling mistakes on the registration document?

Box to tick Do the VIN (vehicle identification number), engine number and colour match the V5C?

Box to tick Does the number plate match the V5C?

Box to tick Has the VIN plate been tampered with?

Box to tick Do VIN numbers etched on glass or lights match the VIN plate and V5C?

Box to tick Any sign of scratches on glass to remove etched-in marks?

Box to tick Does the fuel filler look as if it has been forced or replaced?

Box to tick Does the car have a current MOT (if the car’s more than three years old)?


Box to tick Does the mileage, age and appearance of the car look consistent?

Box to tick Any sign like worn screws that the instruments might have been tampered with? (Digital odometers can be tampered with electronically so clues like this won’t exist)

Box to tick Check recorded mileage on service records, MOT ‘certificates’ and other documents.

Box to tick Does it look consistent with current mileage/condition and increase steadily year on year?

Accident Damage?

Box to tick Any signs of inconsistent gaps between panels or mismatched colours that could be a sign of extensive repairs?

Box to tick Is the paint finish even across the car?

Box to tick Any traces of paint spray on handles, window seals or plastic mouldings?

Box to tick Could the car’s colour have been changed? (Look under carpets and in other hidden areas in particular.)

Box to tick Any unusual looking welding under the bonnet or in the boot?


Box to tick Are the tyres in good condition and all of the specification and dimensions? Tyres with less than 3mm of tread will have to be replaced soon.

Box to tick Is the spare wheel or tyre inflator/sealant kit in serviceable condition?

Box to tick Are the jack and other tools present?

Box to tick Do all the seatbelts operate correctly? Check there are no cuts or fraying that could affect the way they work.

Box to tick If airbags are fitted, Check that warning lights operate as described in the handbook – normally they will come on with the ignition and then go out?

Box to tick Do all lights and windscreen wipers/washers work correctly?

Test Drive

Box to tick Do all warning lights operate normally?  Lights will generally come on to test and then go out – unless there’s a fault.

Box to tick Are the brakes effective or does it take a long time or a lot of effort to stop?

Box to tick Is braking even or does the car pull to one side?

Box to tick Any unusual noises when you brake?

Box to tick Is the handbrake effective?

Box to tick Any steering vibration or pull to one side?

Box to tick If ABS is fitted, does the warning light go out after the engine is started?


Box to tick Any abnormal noises when the engine is started from cold?

Box to tick Does the oil warning light go out as soon as the engine starts?

Box to tick Any signs of excessive visible exhaust emissions?

  • White water vapour from the exhaust is normal while the engine is cold
  • Blue smoke isn’t normal – that’s oil burning
  • Faint blue smoke from diesels is OK but black smoke is serious

Box to tick Does the clutch operate normally? A noise when you press the pedal or a high biting point could mean that repairs will be required soon.

Box to tick Is the catalytic converter in good condition? Look for a recent emissions test, either alone or as part of an MOT. This will confirm that emissions are within the stringent limits applied to modern cars.

Box to tick Is there sludge on the underside of the oil filler cap? This could indicate poor servicing or predominantly short journey use.

Box to tick Is the oil level right? Too low shows neglect; too high could be a clue that the engine is using oil but it could just have been over filled in error.

Box to tick Has the cam belt been replaced according to the service schedule?

Locks, windows and general controls

Box to tick Do all the locks, including central locking and remote control, work properly?

Box to tick Do all windows, including any sunroof, open/close normally?

Box to tick Any signs of forced entry, damaged or different locks, suggesting they’ve been replaced?

Box to tick Have you got all the right keys? Check the handbook to see which keys were provided when the car was new. Modern keys are expensive to replace, particularly the coloured ‘master’ key provided by some manufacturers to programme new spare keys to the car.

Box to tick Are locking wheel nuts fitted? Check that the special adapter required is included with the tool kit. Make sure it fits too.

Box to tick Do all the minor controls operate correctly – heating, ventilation, air-conditioning, radio/CD, navigation etc?

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