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.

Written by
Rory Reid
Car and technology expert
Last Updated
23 MARCH 2022
4 min read
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Dealership or private seller? 

More than 7.5 million Brits bought a second-hand car in 2021, according to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT). If you fancy joining them, the question is where should you buy one? 

Dealerships are typically more expensive but can offer additional benefits. Unlike private sellers, dealers often offer part-exchange deals and warranties. Also, you can be confident the car has been checked, which reduces the chances of it breaking down as soon as you get it home. 

Private seller 
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 could be inconvenient.

Buying a car at auction could save you a lot of money, but it’s also one of the riskiest ways to buy a used car. Sellers are looking for a quick sale and don’t usually offer a lot in the way of protection, like a warranty. You might not be able to give the car a proper inspection or test drive either. 

Did you know?

Remember that old bargaining chip of “it’s still got six months of tax left on the disc”? Well, rules have changed. Used-car sellers can no longer pass any unused tax over to the buyer. When you buy a used car, you’ll need to get it taxed yourself before you can drive it away. The seller will get a refund on any remaining tax when the car is sold.

What should I look for when viewing a used car? 

Always arrange a viewing in daylight, ideally when the weather’s dry, as it can be harder to spot damage when it’s dark or raining. 

Here’s a few things to look out for when viewing a used car.

Exterior paintwork 

Look out for: 

  • Dodgy paintwork and subtle differences in colour or gaps between the panels – these could be signs that the car’s been extensively repaired after an accident. 
  • Look for rust. Even a small amount could turn into a big repair job later on. Paintwork that’s bubbled is a clear sign of rust damage. 
  • Open the bonnet, doors and boot, and check if the metal on the inside is the same colour. If not, it’s a sign the car may have been repainted following damage. 
  • Don’t be too concerned about a few minor scratches – it’s a used car, after all. Most small dents and scratches can be easily fixed, and you could use them to negotiate on the price. 

Doors, windows and boot 

Check that the doors, windows and boot open and close smoothly. 

Check the suspension 

Give the car a good bounce by pushing down on each of the four corners, then letting go, to test the car’s suspension. You want the car to return to position smoothly – if it doesn’t, or it bounces around, you could be in for a rough ride.


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 unlocking the wheel nuts. Even if you already know how to change a tyre, if you’re in the middle of nowhere you’ll need the right tools for the job. 

Other things to look out for 

  • Check that the horn, windscreen washers and wipers are all working properly. 
  • Are there any signs of windscreen damage, like chips or cracks? Also, check the front and rear lights for any sign of cracks or fogging. Check the lights and indicators all work. 
  • Seat belts 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 show you what they’re supposed to do. 
  • Make sure the heating, air con and ventilation controls work, along with the radio, CD player or entertainment system. If the car comes with a sat nav, ask how to use it – doing so could reveal any glitches. 
  • You should be able to adjust the seats and headrests, and check any folding seats work too. 
  • Check the upholstery for stains and tears. Does the car smell funny? Bad smells like cigarette smoke can be really difficult to get rid of. Check if it smells strongly of anything the owner might be using to mask another smell. If it smells too nice, it might be a bad sign. 
  • If you have a young child, will the pushchair fit easily into the boot? How easy is it to fit the child seat? 

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 checklist

Always test-drive the car to make sure it runs smoothly and to see if you’ll enjoy driving it. 

You’ll need to make sure you’re insured to drive the car before you take it for a test-drive. If you have your own car insurance, check that you’re covered to drive someone else’s car. If not, check if the dealership or private seller’s car insurance covers you. 

Don’t test-drive a car if you’re not insured. You’ll be liable for any damage you cause and you could get points on your licence. 

Here are some of the main things to look out for when test-driving a used car: 

  • Starting the engine – listen out for anything that sounds ‘angry’ when you start the engine. Funny engine noises signal potentially expensive repairs. 
  • Clutch and gears – if it’s a manual car, they shouldn’t be stiff nor should they stick. If the car’s an automatic, how does the gear shifting sound and feel as you drive? The transmission should be smooth, quiet and in line with the speed and engine load.  
  • Brakes – check that the brakes and handbrake work properly. The brakes shouldn’t make any noise when you slow down, and braking should be easy and effortless. If there’s no car behind you and it’s safe to do so, brake hard to test if the car stops straight or pulls to the side.  
  • Steering – is the power steering effortless or does it feel heavy? If you take your hands away, does it remain straight or pull to one side? 
  • Suspension – is it smooth and comfortable or do you feel every bump in the road? 

Consider a used vehicle inspection

If you’re good mates with a car mechanic, then it’s definitely worth taking them along to view a used car. Failing that, if you’re not sure what you should be looking for, you could book a used vehicle inspection. 

Both the RAC and the AA offer used vehicle inspections. They’ll check that the car is mechanically and structurally sound. The cost depends on whether you want a basic check or a comprehensive inspection.

Check the 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 confirm 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 V5C should also tell you how long the seller has owned the car and how many previous owners it’s had. If it’s passed hands many times over a short period, it could be a red flag that the car has repetitive problems. 

Check the car’s history

Check the car’s details using the DVLA’s free vehicle information checker to confirm they’re the same as those in the V5C logbook. All you need is the car’s registration number. 

Using a paid service that checks if there’s any outstanding finance on the car might also be a good idea.

Check the MOT history

You can also use the Government’s MOT checker to get a full rundown of the vehicle’s MOT history, including when the next one is due.

Service history

Get the car’s service history so you have an idea of how well, or how badly, it has been looked after over the years.

If you decide to buy

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. If you’re happy with the car and decide to go ahead, don’t be afraid to haggle for a lower price.

Before handing over any money

Only hand over money when you’re totally happy and comfortable with what you’re buying. Use a method of payment that can be tracked, such as a credit or debit card. Ask for a receipt for the purchase including the date, car registration number and mileage, and a written acknowledgement of any work that the seller has promised to carry out before you collect.

Can I return the car if I’m not satisfied?

Yes. Under the Consumer Rights Act, all cars bought from dealers must be fit for purpose and as described. Section 75 of the Road Traffic Act 1988 states that it’s illegal for anyone to sell a vehicle that’s not roadworthy, and the Consumer Rights Act 2015 gives you the right to ask for a full refund in the first 30 days after buying any product that proves to be faulty, including a new or used car.  

If you reject the vehicle within the first 30 days after taking delivery because of a fault you can demonstrate, you’re entitled to a full refund or replacement within a reasonable timeframe. From the 31st day until the first six months, you’re entitled to a repair or replacement. The burden of proof will be on the dealer to prove the fault didn’t exist at the time of delivery. Should the repair or replacement not address the fault, you’re entitled to a refund or price reduction. 

From six months, if you encounter a fault that was present at the time of delivery and you can prove this was the case, you’re entitled to a repair or replacement. Should the repair not fix the issue, you’re entitled to reject the vehicle and claim a refund or fair price reduction. However the burden of proof will be on you to show the fault existed at the time of purchase.  

After six years, you’re not entitled to any legal remedy in England and Wales (after five years in Scotland). 

Sort out your tax and insurance

Before you can drive your new car away, you’ll need to get it taxed and insured. This is a legal requirement. You can tax your car using the green ‘new keeper’s slip’, which you’ll find in the V5C logbook. You can do this online at GOV.UK or by phoning the DVLA on 0300 123 4321. Alternatively, you can tax your car at a Post Office.  
Thankfully, insuring your used car is also pretty simple. Just 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.

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