Checking a car's history

Checking a car's history

A car's history can now be determined with more certainty - find out what you should be looking for when buying a used car.

Over the years car security has moved on, not only in terms of the devices used to protect against theft, but also those used to prove the integrity of a vehicle's history.

Gone are the days of manually adjusted mileages along with antiquated practices such as the cut and shut (where two or more vehicles were welded together to make one 'new' one).

That said, cars are still a valuable commodity, forcing unsavoury types to move with the times and adopt new, harder-to-spot techniques to disguise a car's history.

See also:

With that in mind, we've compiled this guide so you know what you should be looking for when investing in a used car.

Does all the paperwork add up?

In this day and age the paperwork confirming a vehicle's life is a lot harder to adjust or replicate than any repair or physical element.

In order to get any paperwork about a car's history you need to provide ID and, usually, pay a charge.

If the seller is advertising a car honestly by highlighting the absence of service history, you may still be able to secure some via a dealership if you do buy the car.

Service historyclassic_car_generic

If a vehicle is being sold with full history without that actually being the case, it'll be easy to spot.

Dealerships seldom fill things in by hand these days and, if they do, there's still a digital print-out to back it up.

If you're dealing with a seller who tries to move past the paperwork side of the deal quickly, they could be trying to hide something.

With modern used cars there are only two legitimate options - the car has official, documented history, or it doesn't.

If you see so much as one stamp which looks out of place, one filled-in box that doesn't seem quite right, or obvious discrepancies in things like dates and mileages, just walk away.

A dealer should always officially rectify a mistake in the service book, not just re-write the correct information over it.

See also:

  • Questions to ask before buying a car
  • Should I buy or lease a car?
  • Alternatives to car ownership

Mileage paperwork

If the clocks have ever been changed (normally due to a technical or electrical fault) this has to be documented. It's a legal requirement to do so, as it preserves the history and integrity of the car.

With that in mind make sure you're confident the mileage is accurate because, once a mileage disclaimer is signed, you'll have no legal comeback.

Look long and look hard at the vehicle

If the car has hidden secrets, you'll be able to spot the tell-tale signs with ease, mainly because most cars simply won't stand for being taken apart unless it's being done by a franchised dealer.


Check for any small dents or blemishes on the seams around the dash binnacle - they act as evidence that it's been opened up without the correct tools. Car insurance groups

Look at the digital mileage readout itself. Modern cars don't have manual odometers, they're all digital, and if they're tampered with it's easy to spot.

Elements of the LCD display will fail, flicker or appear to be dimmer. This is almost always a sign that the clocks have been removed.

If they've been legitimately changed, you should be shown the paperwork to back it up. If not, it's a very bad sign indeed.


Check the obvious mechanical areas. We know not everyone is a keen or practised mechanic, but that doesn't mean you can't check the obvious.

Listen for knocks and bangs when on the test drive. Check the car pulls up straight under braking and make sure it basically drives as it should.

See also:

  • Cover to drive other cars
  • Additional driver insurance
  • Cover notes

No modern car should feel difficult to drive so, if you do notice something, it could mean an element of the car's life is being hidden from you.

Look for accident damage

With modern cars nothing simply bolts on and bolts off, so if it's had even the lightest of knocks you'll be able to see it.

If you're viewing the car having been informed it's had a bump in the past, fair enough. If, however, the car is billed as a mint example, small things such as differences in paint colour between panels, excessive panel gaps or ill-fitting trim are almost always a sign of past damage.

Also, check the inner wings and boot floor for breaks in the sealant. Most panels on new cars are also bonded into place with tough glue. If this is absent, or if it looks to have been poorly applied, it could show that the car has been damaged.

Go digital

Until recently having your vehicle's history officially checked cost a great deal of time and money.

Now, however, a quick internet search for 'vehicle check' will bring up a long list of companies who will check the history of your car for a small fee - perhaps as little as £3 and a text message.

Enter the details of any car and you'll receive a text or email with information on whether the vehicle has been written off, stolen, or if there's any outstanding finance remaining.

With that information to hand along with all that's detailed above, you can be confident that when you next come to change your car you'll be well informed on how to spend your money wisely.