Buying a used car: the motors.co.uk essential guide
Easy checks you can make yourself to reduce risks when you're out car-shoppingYou’re buying a second-hand car, maybe one that’s a few years old. What bugs you most? The thought that you might pick a bad one. A car that needs one trip to the garage after another to have expensive faults repaired.
Worry not. When you buy a vehicle advertised with motors.co.uk, for most we have already checked their pasts to ensure that they aren’t stolen, ‘written off’ following a serious crash, or imported.
But we’re going further than that. Here we’ll take your through checks you can do to narrow the risk of buying a bad car. You won’t need a mechanic’s training – or any specialist know-how. All you’ll need is common sense, a keen eye, a battery torch that gives a good light, a clean rag, and a 2p coin.
When you’re checking a car, start with the paperwork. Ask to see the registration document (also called the V5C). If you’re buying privately, check that the seller is the also the registered keeper. Is the car at the address shown on the document? If not, why not? Also ensure that the Vehicle Identification number (VIN) shown on the document matches the car’s. You’ll find this at the base of the windscreen, on the passenger’s side and also under the bonnet, usually) on the centre ‘slam’ panel.
Next, look at the MoT certificate and check that it belongs with the car. Also check that the mileage shown on it tallies with the car’s. You should also see that the road tax disc (if the car is sold with one) belongs with it.
A fully stamped service book promises that the car has had all the attention it has needed. Check the first page to ensure that the details entered match the car and ensure, too, that the mileages shown agree with the car’s current total. If the seller has receipts for the services shown, so much the better.
Compare what you see with what the ad says. Are they the same vehicle? Once you’re happy that it is, lift the bonnet and check the oil, radiator coolant and screen wash levels (here’s where the torch and the rag are needed). All should be reasonably fresh and nicely topped up. If they’re not, it’s clear that the car hasn’t been cared for and you may decide to stop right there.
But if all is good, look next at the tyres. A set of brand-name rubber with a fair depth of tread left is what you want, but look also to see that each is evenly worn. Patchy wear suggests tracking or suspension damage. Worn tyres and or a mix of makes including budget brands points to skimped maintenance. By law, tyres should have at least 1.6mm of tread across its breadth and circumference. To check, pop your 2p coin into the tread. If the milling around its edge is visible, the tyre needs renewing.
Still interested? Get the car started. It should fire up easily from cold. If the buyer has pre-warmed it, watch out – he or she may be hiding problems. With the bonnet lifted, listen for creaks or rattles. Take your torch and shine it around the engine looking for oil or water leaks.
Next, get the car parked clear of other vehicles, somewhere flat and level. With the engine running, check under the car for drips of oil or other fluids. Also look where the car’s just moved from: are there tell-tale patches or oil or coolant left on the tarmac? Then, look at the car – ds it sit evenly on its wheels? If it is over to one side, it’s likely that the springs or dampers may need replacing.
Look the car over in strong daylight to catch signs of mismatched, repainted panels. Hunker down and look along the car from front to back, each side – are the gaps between panels tight and even? Do the bumpers sit squarely with the car? Open the doors, bonnet and boot. Manufacturer stickers showing how to operate child locks, or giving the recommended tyre pressures are good signs, meaning the car is as original. But squeaky clean, sticker-less door jambs should leave you suspicious of major damage and repairs.
In the cabin
Sit in the driver’s seat and check that it adjusts easily in every direction that it should. Do the same for the steering wheel. Turn the ignition on and ensure that all the correct lights come on, particularly the airbag check light and that for the anti-lock brakes (if the car has them). Then work methodically across the dash, pressing buttons to ensure that everything works, including the stereo. Pay attention to the heating to see that the heater is effective, that the fan blows on every setting and that the air conditioning (if fitted) blows cold. Pop the lights on to see that they work, test the brake lamps, and also check that every section of the dash illuminates, not forgetting also the interior lamps.
If overmats are fitted, lift them to see what’s underneath. Check that the carpets are dry, clean and in good condition. Do the same for the seats, because cigarette burns and other damage can be surprisingly expensive to correct.
If the car is one that should have a spare wheel, check that it’s present and serviceable. Tools for changing a tyre should also be there. If the car has a tyre repair kit instead of a spare, check that it works and is within its ‘use-by’ date.
Look to see if the boot lining has rips or tears. If the rear seats fold to extend the space, check that they do. Should there be a parcel shelf?
On the test-drive
First, check that you’re insured for the car on your own policy, or the seller’s. Take at least a half-hour drive, taking in a variety of roads and speeds. If you’ve a friend with you, set them in the back with instructions to listen for clonks from the rear suspension or other problems. Keep the radio off and listen for anything that shouldn’t be heard – grinding brakes, rattles from the exhausts, or whirring noises that signal worn wheel bearings.
Find a straight level road and see if the car ‘tracks’ straight. If it needs a hand on the steering to keep it from wandering to the left or right, it’ll need repairs.
Finally, trust your instinct
If you can’t find anything wrong, ask yourself: do you feel happy with buying? If yes, go ahead. If not, hold off. Even if you can’t quite decide what’s wrong, intuition can be powerful – and is worth heeding.