A simples guide

Checklist for buying a used car

Second hand car dealers get a bit of flak. The old fashioned dodgy car dealer stereotype is largely long gone, but that’s not to say you shouldn’t be careful when buying a second hand car – so here’s our used car checklist.

Dealership vs private seller

If you’re going to buy a used car, where are you going to get it from? Dealerships are usually more expensive but they do offer additional benefits compared to a private seller. Car dealers will often have part exchange deals available, they may offer some sort of warranty and you can be pretty confident that the car you buy has been mechanically and safety checked so it won’t conk out just as you get home. 

The price you pay to a private seller might be more attractive but you’ll be responsible for checking everything’s in order. You can of course hire a mechanic to check it over for you but prices vary and it can be a faff to get it all organised.

Check all documents are in order

You’ll need to check the V5C registration document – you’ll need this to tax the car. It should also show who currently owns it and if you decide to buy the car, you’ll need to update it.

Make sure the V5C is genuine – check for typos and make sure all the number plate details and the vehicle identification number (VIN) between the car and the form, match and also check that the form has a watermark on it. You should take the time to make sure that the car is everything the V5C says it is.

interior of a car

The outside of the car

We all know that you should never judge a book by its cover and that first impressions aren’t always the right ones – same goes when you’re checking out a used car. Dodgy paintwork or subtle differences could be tell-tale signs that it’s been extensively repaired (why – has it been in any accidents?)

Look for rust or paintwork that’s bubbled up – a marker for rust damage. Also check that all the doors, windows and the bonnet and boot open, close and fit properly.

You should also give the car a good old bounce. Pushing down on each of the four corners and then letting go tests the car’s suspension. You want the car to bounce back smoothly – if it doesn’t, you could be in for a rough ride.


Tyres should be in good condition and with a decent tread, ideally you should look for tyres with plenty of wear left, less than 3mm and they’ll probably need to be replaced soon and anything less than 1.6mm is illegal in the UK.

Does the car have its spare wheel or puncture repair kit and all the other bits needed to change a tyre and especially the key for your locking wheel nuts? You may know how to change a tyre but that’ll be useless when you’re in the middle of nowhere without the right tools for the job.

The inside of the car

Check all the instruments work like the horn, windscreen washers and wipers. Seatbelts should all fasten and not be cut, frayed or damaged in any way. Make a note to see if the airbag warning lights work as they’re meant to – the car’s manual should describe this.

You should also make sure that all the heating, air conditioning and ventilation controls work as well as the radio and CD player. If the car comes equipped with a navigation system, ask how to use it – it could show up any flaws.

You should be able to adjust the seats, check the headrests and don’t forget any folding seats should work properly too.

under the bonnet of a car

Under the bonnet

Make sure there’s no oil leaking and check what colour the oil is. If it looks mucky or dirty then it might not have been changed for a while – it could mean that it’s not been maintained well. Coolant should be the same colour as antifreeze and not the colour of rust, lack of coolant could spell out engine trouble later on.

Test drive it

Always test drive the car – afterall, that’s what it’s meant for so you need to make sure it runs smoothly. First up – listen out for anything that sounds angry when you start the engine, funny engine noises shriek potentially expensive repairs.

If the car is manual, see how the clutch and the gears feel to you, they shouldn’t be stiff or stick. If you’re in an automatic, how does the gear shifting sound as you drive?

Most importantly – check the brakes work properly. They shouldn’t make any noise when you stop and braking should be easy and effortless. Also check that the handbrake works (but perhaps avoid doing hand brake turns).

Insure it

Used cars aren’t always going to be perfect, what’s important is that you know what you’re getting for your money and that there won’t be any horrible surprises.

Thankfully, insuring your used car isn’t as complicated as buying one because we’re here to help you. All you need to do is tell us about your car and a little about you and we’ll do the rest, so put your feet up and let us comparethemarket to find the right type of cover for you.

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