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How to Buy the Best Car

How to Check and Test Drive a Used Car

By Daljinder Nagra

Article 3 of 4

You should always inspect a used car and test drive it before you buy. Our tips will help you confidently buy a used car, even if you're not an expert.

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Inspecting and test-driving a used car can be exciting – it means you’ve found a model you’re interested in buying – but it’s crucial you take your time and do it properly. Don’t be distracted by chatting to the dealer or private seller, but do ask them plenty of questions about the car’s history, and how well it’s been looked after.

Top tip: You may want to take some plastic gloves with you to prevent your hands getting dirty – you can get these for free at many garage forecourts. And avoid checking a car in the rain or at night (unless it’s very well lit) as both scenarios make it harder to spot problems.

Want to just start browsing the best cars you can buy? Take a look at all our Best Buys.

1. Inspect the bodywork and chassis

Check the physical condition of the car carefully. Crouch down and look along the sides for dents and scratches hidden by reflections – they can be surprisingly expensive to put right if you’re bothered by them.

Uneven gaps between the body panels can indicate poorly-repaired crash damage. Lift the bonnet and check the metalwork inside for signs of an impact or botched repair, such as folds in the metal, cracked plastic, or fresh or mismatched paint.

Also look underneath the car – it will probably be dirty, but again look for signs of damage. Check the jacking points to see whether it looks as though the car has been jacked up recently or frequently, which may indicate it’s had some problems.

2. Check the oil level

Feel the engine – it may have been pre-warmed to disguise a starting problem. If cold, lift out the oil dipstick to see if the level is correct.

The oil should ideally be a light, yellowy-brown – dark, dirty oil is a sign of poor maintenance in a petrol car, although diesel-engine oil will be slightly darker in colour. It’s also worth checking the underside of the oil filler cap – white deposits are a potential indication of serious engine problems.

3. Look for 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 and switches to make sure everything works as it should. Items that are easy to forget to check include the interior and exterior lights (especially if it's a sunny day), air conditioning (in winter), the heated rear window, electric seats and sun roof.

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. 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) or check its online vehicle enquiry service to confirm 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 – ask them to show some proof of ID, such as a driver’s licence or utility bill

7. Check servicing records

Ideally, a used car should come with a full service history (ie. garage stamps in a maintenance record) and a folder of receipts for all servicing or repair work, plus (if it's older than three years old) old MOT certificates and report sheets.

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. The MOTs should also show the mileage, so check that they seem to tally.

8. Does it have a valid MOT?

Ensure that the MOT certificate is valid and see if there were any ‘advisories’ that may need attention soon, such as worn tyres, fluid leaks or emerging rust on crucial components. Beware of used cars that are sold with a short MOT or none at all – the owner may know something you don't, and if it doesn't have an MOT, it's not road-legal.

9. How does it feel to drive?

Check that you can get comfortable in the car and operate all the controls easily.

Before you take a test 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.

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. If it’s safe to do so, hold your hands only very lightly on the steering wheel briefly and see if the car tries to pull to one side, at a steady speed or under braking. If it does, it could highlight one of a number of problems, including oddly worn brakes, unbalanced wheels, wheel bearing issues or simply an under-inflated tyre.

10. Remember it’s one of thousands

Used cars are plentiful, so don’t buy one you have any doubts about, or feel pressured into buying by the seller. Unless you’re after a rare model, there will always be an alternative example for sale not too far from you – and if you’ve seen several, which we’d recommend doing, you may be able to use this knowledge to haggle down the price.

Ready to start car shopping? Head to our Best Buys page to see the cars that excelled in our rigorous tests, or simply browse our reviews of more than 700 new and used cars.

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