What to check when buying a used car | AA Cars

If you aren’t practised in the process, buying a used car can be an unnerving experience. There are lots of things to consider and check up on when you’re looking at your next prospective motor – but what should you do when thinking about buying a pre-owned vehicle?

Here are some questions you should be asking yourself when assessing a car.

1. Has the oil been correctly maintained?

When checking the oil, it’s important to see whether the level of the liquid sits between the 2 marks on the dipstick. If the level is too high or too low, this could indicate an issue with oil burning or potential leaking.

2. Does the coolant level and colour look correct?

If the coolant reservoir is visible, you should check the level against the scale on the side of the tub. By using either a hydrometer or antifreeze tester, a sample of the liquid in the reservoir can be taken and you can see how effective the solution in use is compared to the scale on the device.  

3. Do the brakes feel okay?

Taking the car for a slow drive is worthwhile. By pressing the brake pedal when driving the car slowly, you’ll be able to hear any squeaks or grinding if they’ve worn down too much or if there is corrosion on the discs. You’ll also be able to detect any juddering if the brake pads are overheated or deformed, and if the vehicle pulls to one side due to uneven brake wear. When you’re at a standstill, looking through the wheels with a torch will usually allow you to see if there’s at least 3mm of brake pad visible between the wheel spokes. Any less and the pads will need replacing.

4. Does the clutch work as it should?

A test drive will also allow you to test the clutch on a manual vehicle. All being well, the vehicle should pull away from a standstill with no issues – with the gears engaged smoothly and progressively, and the biting point for the clutch neither too close to the top or bottom of its travel. If you hear any abnormal noises, such as grinding and popping, then the clutch isn’t in a good state.

5. Are the tyres safe?

It’s vital to check the tyres as they’re the only part of the car in contact with the tarmac. To see if the tread’s okay, place a 20 pence coin in one of the grooves with the flat edge down. If you can see any of the band above the top of the tread, they may be below the legal limit of 1.6mm (the band on a 20p is a bit over 1.6mm). If the outer edge of the coin is obscured, then the tyre is in a usable condition. It’s also important to check the tyres for any scoring, cuts or bulges; these could be signs of an impact with kerbs or potholes that could cause you problems in the future without attention.

If you want a more detailed explanation of how to inspect tyres, check out our tyre inspection guide.

6. Are there any chips on the windscreen?

You should be on the lookout for any smaller scratches or cracks, as if unresolved, they could cause glare while driving at night or damage to the edge of wiper blades. If the crack is left, it could also get bigger and eventually lead to the need for a new screen.

7. Is the service history correct?

If the car has been looked after properly, it should come with a full service history that has been correctly logged in the vehicle’s service book with plenty of stamps and receipts for necessary repairs. If not, you’ll need to inspect the car closely to see whether it’s been properly maintained.

8. Are there any issues in its MOT history?

Official MOT records have been available online since 2005 so there’s little need for vehicle sellers to keep a sheaf of MOT certificates. Besides test date and location, the gov.uk site also gives you the mileage recorded at the time of each test, and will tell you if there are any outstanding vehicle safety recalls affecting the vehicle that require action (usually resolved by a visit to a dealer for checks/repairs). By going to gov.uk MOT history checker and entering the car’s registration number, you’ll be able to see all the tests the vehicle has gone through. The site will bring up all of the vehicle’s passes and fails, as well as the specific faults that were notified to the owner.

9. Are there any problems with the bodywork?

Be on the lookout for any potentially unsafe repairs to the vehicle following an accident – although, if fixed properly, the car should be in a near original state. Looking inside the bodywork is the best way to spot if there have been any repairs, as filler and paint on the exterior can hide previous bumps and dents. Assessing the gaps between the bodywork, or if the colour of the panels is different, is also a good opportunity to ask if any panels have ever been repaired.

10. Have you completed a history check? 

Getting an AA History Check before viewing the vehicle, you’ll be able to see if the car has any outstanding finance payments on it, if it’s been written off, or whether it has been scrapped by the DVLA. 75 other pieces of information about the vehicle can be looked up on the checker, which is done in partnership with market experts HPI.

There are plenty of things to consider when checking a used car but an AA Inspection means an independent tester checks 13 areas on the car, such as the engine bay, underpinnings and electrics, as well as taking it for test drive for up to 10 miles. There are vehicles that can’t be checked under the AA Inspection service, such as cars imported from the USA and those older than 15 years – but if the vehicle you’re looking at complies, then you’ll be able to get an appointment within 3 or 4 working days.

For non-AA Members, prices start from £142, while AA Members get a 10% discount and prices start from £128 for the inspection. If you’re serious about buying the used model, this service will give you additional peace of mind and ensure the car you’re hoping to buy is in the right condition.


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