Buying a car Check and test-drive a used car video
When you've found a suitable used car, you will need to inspect the vehicle and its documentation thoroughly before buying.
All the checks outlined below and in our video can be performed by somebody with no mechanical knowledge. However, it may be useful to take a mechanically-minded friend along for advice. Look at our used car video reviews to find the best car for you.
Video guide to used car checks
Top 10 tips for checking and test-driving a used car
Uneven gaps between the panels could indicate crash damage
1. Inspect the bodywork
Check the physical condition of the car carefully. Crouch down and look along the sides for dents and scratches - they can be surprisingly expensive to put right.
Uneven gaps between the body panels can indicate poorly-repaired crash damage. Lift the bonnet and check the 'slam panel' behind the front grille for signs of botched repair.
2. Check the oil level
Feel the engine; it may have been pre-warmed to disguise a starting problem. Then lift out the oil dipstick to see if the level is correct.
The oil should be a light, yellowy-brown – dirty oil is a sign of poor maintenance on a petrol car. Diesel-engine oil will be dark in colour, however.
3. Look for leaks
Look carefully at the engine for signs of oil or water leaks
Inspect the engine and surrounding parts for evidence of oil or water leaks. Oil will leave brown stains, while water leaves a white, chalky residue.
Don't forget to look at the ground underneath where the car has been parked, too.
4. Test all the electrics
Non-engine electrics are now the biggest cause of faults on used cars, so test all the gadgets to make sure they work.
Items you might forget to check include lights (if it's a sunny day), air conditioning (in winter), the heated rear window and the electric operation of the passenger seat.
5. Is the mileage genuine?
'Clocking' is still a problem - even on modern cars, so see if the condition of the interior tallies with the mileage displayed on the odometer.
Check the mileage displayed on the odometer tallies with servicing bills
Worn pedal rubbers, sagging seats and a shiny steering wheel rim could indicate that the car has covered more miles than its owner claims.
6. V5C registration document
Never buy a car without a V5C registration document (logbook). Call the DVLA (0870 240 0010) to check that the car’s colour, engine size and date of registration match the V5C.
Also, ensure that the person selling the car is actually the owner, and that they live at the address printed on the document.
7. Check servicing records
Ideally, a used car should come with a full service history and a folder of receipts for all maintenance/repair work.
Look at the servicing bills, checking that the odometer’s mileage tallies with the record and that servicing has been carried out at the appropriate times.
8. Does it have a valid MOT?
It's worth checking how many months of car tax are remaining
Ensure that the MOT certificate is valid and see if there were any ‘advisories’ that may need attention soon, such as worn tyres or fluid leaks.
Beware of used cars that are sold with a short MOT - the owner may know something you don't. And check how many months of car tax remain, too.
9. Get behind the wheel
Check that you can get comfortable in the car and operate all the controls easily.
Before you drive, you must be insured. If you have comprehensive insurance, you may have third-party cover to drive another car if the owner allows it.
10. How does it feel to drive?
Try to test the car on a variety of roads. Check that the gearbox, brakes and clutch function smoothly and effectively, and do a three-point turn to check for play in the steering.
Listen for rattles or odd noises that could indicate mechanical problems. When it’s safe, take your hands off the wheel and check the car doesn’t pull to one side, at a steady speed or under braking.