Knowing what to look for when viewing a used car can be tricky, especially if you’re not familiar with the inner workings of a car.
If you’d rather check a vehicle yourself than use a professional service, there are some things you should keep an eye out for.
Viewing a used vehicle gives you the chance to see any problems in person. And it can also give you peace of mind before making a purchase.
But to make sure the vehicle is just right for you, you should look in the proper places and ask the right questions.
What should you check?
Not every car is the same, but there are some set parts common to all vehicles you can check to make sure they’re in the advertised condition. We also recommend you take the vehicle for a short test drive to see what it’s like out on the road.
Here’s what you should be checking at each point:
- Check the panels to see if they fit together as expected.
- Look for any rust, scratches and dents on or around the bodywork.
- Check the windscreen for any chips and cracks.
- Find the VIN number on the plate at the bottom of the windscreen, on a sticker in the door shut or on a plate in the engine compartment, and check it against what’s in the V5C registration certificate.
- Look for any damage on the seat material and trim pieces.
- See if all the functions work for the individual buttons.
- Check for general wear and tear on all surfaces to see if it’s been looked after.
- Try the lights, windscreen wipers and air conditioning to see if they all work.
- Check the tyre tread depth with a 20p coin. When placed on a flat edge, legal tyres should be able to hide the outer band of the coin. If the coin’s outer band is only just covered, the tyres will need to be replaced in the near-future.
- Look for uneven wear between the tyres on opposite sides of the car, as this could show the wheels aren’t aligned properly or there are issues with the chassis.
- If included, check the spare tyre for any wear or issues. If there’s a repair kit instead, look through that to see if all the equipment’s included.
- Avoid any vehicles producing smoke, as those cars shouldn’t be allowed to pass an MOT
- Listen for any unusual mechanical noises if you’re on a test drive.
- Before starting, check the oil level with the dipstick. Wipe it clean after removing it, then put it back in, before removing it again to compare the fluid level against the high and low marks.
- Oil in diesel cars can darken quickly following an oil change, but petrol car oil should not be too dark or thick.
- Check the coolant and brake fluid levels.
- Ask the seller to start the car from cold to see if there any issues with start-up. If the bonnet’s warm, the seller may have started the car beforehand to hide problems.
- If you take the car for a test drive, check for any leaks in the engine bay and under the car when you’ve finished driving. The air conditioning system does produce condensation that drips, which is normal, so look for any leaks that are out of the ordinary.
- On a manual car, try all the gears to see whether they all work correctly. Listen out for any crunching or abnormal noises. Check the clutch biting point too – as if it’s closer to the top of the pedal travel, a new clutch may be needed soon.
- With an automatic model, make sure the gear changes are smooth and happen in reasonable time to avoid over-revving the engine.
Suspension and steering
- Listen out for any clunks or strange noises when driving along.
- Make sure the car is smooth over the bumps and handles road imperfections as expected.
- Turn the steering wheel from lock to lock. It should be smooth with no notches or make strange noises, such as creaks, knocks or squealing.
- On a test drive, turn the steering to full lock and drive backwards and forwards. Listen out for any knocking, as that could signal an issue with the suspension, steering or driveshaft.
- Check the V5C registration certificate for a brief overview of the vehicle’s history.
- See if the vehicle has been serviced at the correct intervals outlined by the manufacturer – or at least on a regular basis.
- If you can, see if all the documents are genuine. With the V5C, it’ll have a DVLA watermark, so hold it up to the light to see if it’s there. Also check the seller’s address to the one listed on the V5C.
Want to check the vehicle’s history? Use the AA Vehicle Check to get a detailed report on a car’s past, which can help you make a more informed decision. Available from £6 per vehicle, you only need the number plate to start the process.
What questions should you ask?
When going to see a used vehicle, you should prepare some questions for the seller. That way you can attempt to put any potential concerns to rest before deciding to purchase the vehicle.
Here are some examples that you can take with you:
- Why are you selling the car?
- This could help reveal information that wasn’t disclosed beforehand.
- Do you have all of the paperwork?
- If they don’t have the correct paperwork to hand, we’d recommend that you don’t continue with your purchase.
- Does this car have any outstanding finance?
- If it does, then the car could be impounded by the insurance company as not all the payments would have been collected.
- Is the car as it’s described in the advert?
- Asking this could reveal any hidden issues with the vehicle.
- Has the car been written off?
- If so, this should have been listed with the advert. The seller should have documentation stating whether the vehicle has been written off or not.
- Does the vehicle have a warranty?
- If the car is reasonably new, the manufacturer warranty may still be in place. Private sellers don’t have to sell a vehicle with a policy if the original one has expired. However, the potential buyer should be made aware of the vehicle’s warranty situation.
- Can I test drive the car?
- You should ask this before going to view a car, as you’ll need to be insured to drive the vehicle.
- If you can’t test drive it, why not?
- This could mean the seller is trying to hide an issue with the vehicle.