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Checklist for buying a used car

While the dodgy second-hand car dealer stereotype no longer stands, you still need to be careful when buying a used car. This is our guide on what to look out for.

While the dodgy second-hand car dealer stereotype no longer stands, you still need to be careful when buying a used car. This is our guide on what to look out for.

Daniel Hutson
From the Motor team
minute read
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Posted 31 OCTOBER 2019

Dealership or private seller?

More than 8.1 million Brits bought a second-hand car in 2017. If you fancy joining them, where should you buy one?

Dealerships are more expensive but can offer additional benefits. Unlike private sellers, dealers often offer part-exchange deals and warranties. You can also be confident the car has been checked and won’t break down just as you get it home.

You might pay a better price by going to a private seller, but you’ll also be responsible for checking that the car’s in good working order. You can, of course, hire a mechanic to check it for you, but this is likely to be expensive and inconvenient.

What should I look for?

There are a few things to look out for when used-car shopping:

  • a V5C registration document – if you’re planning to buy the car, make sure you get the V5C registration document. This tells you who the registered owner is. Make sure it’s genuine – check for spelling mistakes and make sure the number plate and vehicle identification number (VIN) are the same on the car and form. Make sure the form has a watermark and take the time to check the car is everything the V5C says it is
  • the exterior paintwork – first impressions aren’t always the right ones – and that certainly applies when you’re checking out a used car:

    1. Dodgy paintwork or subtle differences in colour could be signs that the car’s been extensively repaired, indicating that it may have been in an accident

    2. look for rust or paintwork that’s bubbled – an indication of rust damage. And check that all doors, windows, bonnet and boot open, close and fit properly

  • check the suspension – you should also give the car a good bounce. Pushing down on each of the four corners, 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

  • the tyres – tyres should be in good condition and have a decent tread. If they have less than 3mm, they’ll probably need to be replaced when you buy the car; anything less than 1.6mm is illegal in the UK. Check the car has its spare wheel or puncture repair kit, along with everything else you need to change a tyre – particularly the key for locking the wheel nuts. You may know how to change a tyre, but if you’re in the middle of nowhere you’ll need the right tools for the job

  • the interior – check all the instruments work:

    1. Horn, windscreen washers and wipers

    2. Seat belts should all fasten and not be cut, frayed or damaged in any way

    3. Make a note to see if the airbag warning lights work as they’re meant to – the car’s manual should show you what they’re supposed to do.

    4. Also make sure the heating, air con and ventilation controls work, along with the radio and CD player. If the car comes with a sat nav, ask how to use it – that could
    show up any glitches

    5. You should be able to adjust the seats and headrests, and check any folding seats work too

  • under the bonnet – make sure there’s no oil leaking and check the colour of it. If the oil looks dirty, it might not have been changed for a while, perhaps indicating that the car hasn’t been properly maintained. The coolant should be the same colour as anti-freeze and not rust-coloured. Lack of coolant could spell engine trouble later on

Test drive the car

Always test drive the car to make sure it runs smoothly. Listen out for anything that sounds ‘angry’ when you start the engine – funny engine noises signal potentially expensive repairs.

If it’s a manual car, see how the clutch and gears feel – they shouldn’t be stiff or stick. If the car’s 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. And check the handbrake works.

Insure the car

Used cars aren’t always perfect. What’s important is that you know what you’re getting for the money, and that there won’t be any nasty surprises down the line.

Thankfully, insuring your used car isn’t as complicated as buying one can be. Simply tell us a little bit about yourself and your car, and we’ll compare quotes from a variety of insurance providers to help you find car insurance that’s right for you. Start a quote today.

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