Used car buyers’ checklist

5 minutes

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Buying a second-hand car is becoming increasingly popular.

Shortages of electronic parts mean the waiting list for modern cars can reach up to six months. This has led to many people heading to the forecourt with an eye on a used vehicle instead.

There are many advantages to buying second-hand, too. You can often find the same make and model you love at a much lower price than when it was new, even if the car in question is only a year or two old.

But there’s a lot to keep in mind when buying a used car. Buying new generally means you can be confident everything’s in good working order when it rolls out of the factory. With second-hand cars, it’s worth doing some checks to make sure you’re getting the best deal possible and to give you peace of mind that your new car will stand the test of time.
That’s why we’ve created the ultimate used car buyers’ checklist, to guide you through the process and help you avoid the most common pit falls. Whether you’re buying privately or browsing the forecourt, we’ll walk you through some of the most important factors to consider as well as the essential used car checks to make before buying.

Check the car’s documentation

One of the first things you’ll want to check is that the vehicle has all the correct documentation. This is especially important when buying privately, as you need to be sure the seller is the current registered owner, and that they actually have the right to sell the car. If they do, they should have the documentation to prove it. 

The V5C document is important as you’ll need it to tax the vehicle after you’ve bought it as well as register it in your name. You should also make sure any registration documents have the right watermark on them and are free of spelling errors that could indicate tampering. 

It’s also worth checking if the car has a current and valid MOT, which you can do on the government website. This will show you when the car last passed an MOT, any faults that came up during the test, and how long it has left on its current MOT. 

Finally, you should check out the car’s history. You can do this on websites like Auto Trader to flag up whether the vehicle has ever been written off by an insurer, which can impact your premium. It will also reveal if it’s ever been reported stolen or has any outstanding finance on it, both of which can cause potential legal issues for buyers. 

Identify the insurance group

Before you buy a car, you probably want to know how much it’s going to cost to run, and that includes insurance prices. Understanding roughly what insurance group the vehicle falls into is an important car check before buying – especially for second-hand vehicles.

It can even be worth getting some speculative car insurance quotes before you buy, so there’s no big shock when you do make the purchase.

Examine the engine

The engine is the most important part of your vehicle. It’s what gets you from A to B, so its health is a vital part of any used car buyers’ checklist. If you’re not an expert, it might seem daunting to try and work out what’s happening under the bonnet, but there are some simple checks you can do. Pay close attention to:

  • Oil – check whether the oil level falls below the minimum fill mark, which could suggest a leak or unwanted wear and tear. Any oil on the engine block, particularly around the cylinders, can also be a sign of underlying problems.
  • Leaks – check around where the car’s parked for any patches on the floor to make sure the engine’s not leaking. Take the car for a 20-minute test drive to check if any fluids leak while moving.
  • Noise – turn the ignition on and listen to how the car sounds. Any clicks, ticking noises or anything that doesn’t sound right could be a sign something isn’t working properly.
  • Exhaust – excessive fumes are rarely a good sign but you should also check the colour of the exhaust fumes. If the smoke’s black, blue or has an unusual smell, the engine may be in bad health.
  • Clutch – on a test drive, make sure the clutch works normally with no strange noises, as this could be the sound of you shelling out for costly repairs in the future. If it feels very different to what you’re used to, it’s possible the clutch is on its last legs.

Check the bodywork 

Checking the car’s bodywork isn’t just about how it looks. Of course, you want your new car to look good, but any car check before buying should also include close attention to the bodywork for safety reasons. 

Check for inconsistencies in the bodywork that could be a sign that the car’s been involved in an accident. Are there any scratches, dents, or crumpled areas? Search for any areas of paintwork that look a slightly different colour. All of these could indicate previous damage that’s been painted over.

And remember the golden rule of checking car bodywork: never view a potential purchase when it’s raining. The rain can hide damage that shows up more clearly in drier weather.

Inspect the tyres and wheels

Looking over the wheels and tyres is vital. Check the tyres have enough tread all the way around (above the minimum legal limit of 1.6mm) and that any wear is consistent across the whole width of the tyre. You should also check for any bulges or gouges on tyres, as they could leave you at risk of a puncture or blowout if ignored.

Scratches and scuffs on the wheels themselves are normal. However, any big dents or chunks in alloy wheels could mean the previous driver has hit a kerb, which may lead to the wheel bending and buckling over time.

Brakes and steering

A very important car check is to make sure the brakes and steering work properly before buying. Always take the car out for a test drive, so you can get a feel for how well it’s running. Does the steering pull to one side, or does the wheel feel juddery? Either can signal that something isn’t right.

When you press the brake pedal, you should also make sure it doesn’t feel too loose or heavy, as this could suggest the brakes are worn and dangerous – not to mention costly to replace.

Check the lights and indicators

The last thing you want after driving away in your new car is to have to start changing bulbs, so it’s important to check all the lights work properly. This is easy to forget if you’re looking at a car during the day, but it’s a vital used car check. 

To check the lights, turn on the headlights, fog lights and hazards and walk around the car to make sure they’re all working properly. For checking brake lights, have someone stand behind the car while you press the pedal, or look for the reflection in a window or garage door. 

When checking the lights, it’s also worth taking the time to look for any warning lights on the dashboard. Switch the car on and look out for any lights that remain on while the engine is running. Look out for: 

  • Brake warning light – indicates that the brake fluid level is low, which should be fixed before you purchase the vehicle.
  • Engine management light – could suggest a range of potentially serious engine issues, from broken sensors to faulty internal control systems.
  • Airbag warning light – highlights an issue with the airbag safety system that must be looked into.

Inspect the interior

The final check on our buying a car checklist for second-hand vehicles is to make sure the vehicle interior is in good condition. A lot of these checks will be purely aesthetic but look out for any internal damage. If it’s in poor condition on the inside, this could be a warning sign that the car hasn’t been particularly well looked after.

Keep an eye out for rips and tears in the seats, any electrics not functioning properly, as well as any damage to the seatbelts, as this could have serious implications for safety. 

If you’re on the market for a new set of wheels, check out our flexible Flow Annual car insurance to make sure your used car is fully covered and ready for the road.