A used car is a big investment, yet a 2009 study from The Office of Fair Trading revealed that nearly two thirds of buyers don't get any general advice before making a purchase.
The prospect of being sold a ‘cut-and-shut,’ a stolen car, or one with a former owner still contracted to a finance deal means that only fools rush in. And there’s a lot more to a thorough check than kicking the nearside wheel…
“Remember there are thousands of cars on the market at any one time,” warns Tim Shallcross, head of technical advice at the Institute of Advanced Motoring (IAM). “The one you fall in love with today could be your biggest worry of tomorrow.”
Do your research
Learn the value of the car you want. Search its common traits and problems. Usedcarexpert.co.uk lists all known faults with most models, and it’s free.
Get covered for your test drive
Dealerships sometimes have car insurance policies in place; private sellers don’t! Check your own policy to see if you’re able to drive another car with the owner’s permission. If not, think about a temporary insurance policy.
Recruit a mechanic. If you don’t know one then call on the services of a qualified engineer. Independent vehicle inspections cost over £100, so your pre-visit homework needs to be thorough. Check the car yourself first. If you’re really interested, return with a mechanic.
Consider your budget
“It depends how much you’re spending,” advises Matt Sanger, used car editor at What Car? magazine. “If it’s £2,000 or under, make sure your money goes as far as possible and do your homework. Know exactly what you’re doing and have a decent test drive.”
There are lots of data checks available, which will tell you whether there’s any outstanding finance owed on the car, if it’s been a write-off or whether it’s been stolen. Ask for the registration, Vehicle Identification Number and MOT certificate number.
The Vehicle & Operator Services Agency offers a full history check via the MOT certificate number. It will even tell you whether the tyres need changing soon.
Ask the seller immediately for the vehicle’s log book (VC5). It’s the final test to make sure the car is legal and belongs to the person who’s selling it. Check the watermark and contact the DVLA to ensure it’s all above board.
Engine and bodywork
Before you start the motor, pop the bonnet. “Open the oil cap,” says Shallcross. “If there’s a creamy fluid that looks like a latte the head gasket may have blown.” Now, check the dipstick: if the level is low, or it looks decidedly black, then it’s a sign of poor maintenance or excessive oil consumption. There’s one exception to this rule; if you’re buying a really old, cheap car and the oil looks like it’s been recently changed, alarm bells should start ringing. A fresh oil change will mask various large problems waiting to happen.
Request a cold start. Starting up a cold engine will tell you more than one that’s recently been running. How does the ignition sound? If anything rattles, then it’s a sign of something being badly worn. Check all switches and icons on the dashboard.
Walk around the car and look for any discrepancies in colour. Look for dents and rust and keep them in mind when it comes to the final price. You may also find evidence that the car is a ‘cut-and-shut,’ a potentially dangerous amalgamation of two damaged cars. These can be hard to spot. Look under the carpet, check for any joins in the sills. Ill-fitting seams are another sign of cut-and-shuttery. It’s very difficult to disguise a weld.
Incredibly, it’s not actually illegal to alter the mileage on display! The Office of Fair Trading reckons there are around 50 businesses in the UK openly offering 'mileage correction’ services. If the mileage seems low, look for other signs of wear and tear such as worn steering wheel or pedals. Older, pre-digital display cars that have been tampered with may show signs of skulduggery around the screws of the dash.
Take around 30 minutes to put the car through its paces. Take the car over as many bumps as possible, and listen for rattles under the car. These are a sign of worn suspension. Drive down a hill in third gear. Put the load on and take it off. If it feels jerky then the gear box is gone. After 20 minutes’ drive, let the engine idle and see if there’s any grey smoke or an acrid smell coming from the exhaust. These are signs of a worn engine.
Be brutally honest about the drive. The price or type might be blinding you to some obvious faults. If it sounds too good to be true, it usually is.
Stay tuned for the final part of the series, in which ways of getting the best deal possible will be explored. For a run-down of the options of where to buy from, check out Part One of our guide.