Buying a used car can be something of a minefield. There are so many things you need to check, and of course, these things change depending on the vehicle and what you want to use it for.
What if, then, there was some way to simplify the process. A hit-list of things you need to always check to ensure you’re not being sold a lemon.
Happily, that’s what we’ve put together here. This list is made up of the things you absolutely must check no matter what the car.
By making sure you check these items, you’ll be able to look deep into the history of the car and understand if it’s being sold honestly, or if some key facts are being hidden.
We’ve gone through all our past advice and cherry-picked these five areas to be the most vital when buying a used car. Though of course, as we said, every car is different, so be sure to check the Haynes Manual for the specific car you’re looking at for more in-depth items to look at.
We cannot stress this enough: tyres are the harbingers of all your car’s secrets. They are the tea leaves at the bottom of the cup, the lines of the car’s palm, the crystal ball. They hold all the secrets to how the car you’re looking at has been treated in the past.
First of all, check if they’re all the same brand. If they are, even if they’re budget, it’s a good thing. A mix of random premium tyres is worse than four matching budgets. Why? Because four matching budget tyres suggest the previous owner wanted to have matching rubber because that’s better.
Odd tyres on each corner mean someone was replacing as they went. Four mismatched budget tyres tell you they were running the car on a shoestring and constantly buying cheap, used tyres. And remember that four worn, old tyres are easy to replace, but a great bargaining tool.
Look at the wear on the tyres, too. It should be even. If it’s not, unevenly worn tires usually indicate the tyres were never rotated. If the seller skipped that, what other service did they not do?
You have to wonder, has the car suffered suspension damage? Is the tracking out and if so, why? Are the tyre walls damaged from clunking into curbs? If so, the past owner wasn’t careful. What else were they blasé about? See, tyres tell all.
Whenever we go and look at a used car, we always look at the bodywork. But do we know why? Half the time we just look at it without actually looking at it, if you catch our drift. Much like tyres, bodywork holds the secrets to a car’s past. Dents and rust are obviously something to be hugely cautious of because it shows that whoever owned it before simply didn’t care. If they didn’t care about the visuals of the car, how much dd they care about the mechanicals?
Attempts to fix the damage at home – the over-enthusiastic use of a touch-up pen for example – can be unsightly, but shouldn’t be dismissed. The previous owner care, they made an effort. That’s a good thing. They might lack the skills to do a good job, but they cared enough to at least try and fix it. That’s a good thing. And if it’s an old car, can you blame them for not wanting to spend £100s at the body shop to fix a scratch?
Then there are the panels themselves. Do they line up correctly? If not, the car could have been in an accident and subjected to a second-rate repair. Also, look at the paint. Is it full of swirls and scratches? Has it had to endure a lifetime of token care from an abrasive car wash, rather than the considerate hands of an owner with a bucket of decent shampoo?
Also have a look for uneven panel gaps, which may indicate that even though the panels themselves were repaired the car has been bent.
You’re not just looking at the interior to make sure it’s clean and free of crumbs/fingernail clippings. You’re also looking at with your detective hat on. Look at the steering wheel, the pedals and the carpet just below the pedals. If the car has 150k on the clock, then you’d expect them to be worn, but if it has just 50K on the clock, one has to wonder why they’re so worn. Has someone clocked the car to make it look less used than it actually is?
Look at the seats. Again, is the wear on display commensurate with the mileage? If you’re not sure, have a look online for other cars for sale with roughly the same mileage. Look for stains and burns, both of which are a clear indication someone didn’t really care about such damage. If they’re present, you have to ponder how well the car has been looked after.
04 The Paperwork
Yes, we all look at the paperwork to make sure it has MOT and to make sure it’s been serviced. But look at it in more detail. Where were the services done? If they were all at the same garage, great. If the car seems to have been everywhere, you have to ask why.
Using a vehicle checker like Cazana, you can see when the car changed hands, and if different servicing garages line up with ownership changes, that fair enough. If it’s a one or two owner car though, and the car has been to every garage, you have to wonder why?
Has a previous owner been shopping about for the cheapest work, or were they avoiding the work garage A picked up, and instead took the car to garage B hoping they wouldn’t notice?
Look at the MOT history online and look at the advisories. Have they been addressed? Is there any paperwork to back this up? If not, you can only assume a previous owner was running it on a shoestring, just trying to get from one MOT to the next, rather than doing any preventative maintenance.
05 The Test Drive
You should always, always test-drive any car you’re looking to buy. The test drive is when the car drops its guard and tells you all its secrets. You need to drive it to satisfy yourself that it’s not a complete dog.
First things first, when you go to see the car, but your hand on the bonnet. Is it warm? If so, why? Has the dealer had it running a bid to worm it up and thus hide any unsightly cold-start noises? Ask the question. It’s important.
On the road, there are universal things you’re looking for. You want smooth power delivery, a crisp and easy to use gear change, you want the car to drive straight when you loosen your grip on the steering wheel and you want the car to stop in a straight line when you hit the brakes.
If the car wanders all over the place, something is wrong. Accident damage, suspension damage, unevenly worn brakes. It could be a multitude of expensive things.
Lugging the engine in a high gear, then giving it a lot of gas without shifting is a good test of the clutch and whether it is going to slip under stress.
Finally, listen to the engine when the bonnet is open. Does it rev freely and keenly, or is it hesitant? Can you hear any metallic grumbles that could spell internal problems, or can you hear any faint hissing, which may suggest there is something wrong with the intake system?