How to buy a used car: everything a buyer should look out for

You’ve found what you think could be the car for you. You’ve got your money ready and it’s time to arrange a viewing. It’s a situation I’ve been in countless times, and I’ve learned a thing or two along the way. With that in mind, here’s my best advice on how to buy a used car.

Vauxhall’s incredible collection of classic cars

How to buy a used car: the history

Nowadays, it’s extremely easy (and free!) to look up the MOT history of a vehicle online. Simply visit this government website, punch in the cars manufacturer and registration number and bam, you’ll get the expiry date of the vehicle’s current MOT along with any relevant advisories, this info usually goes back to about 2007 or so.

I can’t stress enough how important it is to get a proper HPI check of the vehicle you are about to buy. These checks use data from the DVLA, police and insurance companies records to tell you whether or not the vehicle has been stolen or subject to a total loss insurance claim (a write off). A HPI check will also tell you if a car has outstanding finance against it, how many owners it has had and whether or not the vehicle has had any colour changes.

Finally, a HPI check will give you the vehicle’s VIN (vehicle identification number), AKA chassis number, and its engine number.

HPI checks are provided by a huge number or companies, some are more thorough than others. At the very least I recommend that you get a text check.

Bodywork and cosmetic checks

Beware: bodywork isn’t usually as cheap to repair as people think it is

Give the car a good look over in daylight, you’d be amazed at how invisible a bad repair can be under the right lighting conditions. Raindrops can also hide damage and bad paintwork so be aware of that too.

When under the bonnet, look for the vehicle chassis plate – it’s normally a large metal plate that’s riveted somewhere fairly obvious. Along with other information on the vehicle, it’ll hold the VIN that we spoke about earlier (HPI check). It’s vital that this matches up to what the HPI check says.

Try and look for inconsistency in the car’s paintwork, and any panel gaps that don’t line up correctly. Often a bad repair will leave overspray on glass or plastic surrounding the affected area, so keep your eyes peeled for that.

The Ford Transit that’s powered by a Jaguar XJ220 engine

Look for rust in common places, different cars will rot in different places so it’s a good idea to check specific buyers guides or owners forums to find this information. In general, though, it’s a good idea to check underneath all wheel arches, sills, doors and the boot floor. Get into the boot and lift the carpet, make sure it isn’t damp and there aren’t any bodged repairs beneath it.

Remember: rust has to be dealt with properly, and there’s only one proper way to deal with rust and that’s to cut it out and replace with fresh metal. Any rust repairs that have been ‘treated’ with a chemical solution will not last.

Engine checks

qsm (52 of 115)
Get the owner to start the engine from cold, and be sure to check the exhaust for unusual smoke


 Remember that HPI check you did? Well, that’ll give you an engine number. Look around the engine block and you’ll normally find the number – ideally, you’ll want this number to match what your HPI check says, if it doesn’t it’ll most likely be a replacement lump.

Prior to starting the engine, it’s a good idea to remove the engine’s dipstick. Clean engine oil will appear almost transparent on the dipstick while oil that has been around a while will be totally black.

Check that the oil is between its min and max markers on the dipstick, if it isn’t then you’re likely to either have a car with an oil leak, one that burns excessive amounts of oil or worse still, an owner that’s neglected to maintain the car properly.

Remove the engine oil cap, take a look underneath, if it is thick with a mayonnaise-like substance then that’s a symptom of has gasket failure — not something you want to see. If there’s a very slight white layer then this may not be a cause for concern, cars used for short journeys, particularly in colder weather will often show a tiny bit of this, it should clear completely after a long drive.

Get the owner to start the engine from cold if possible; that’s because if the engine is already up to temperature it can hide nasty noises and smoke. Talking of which, you don’t want to see any blue smoke at startup, a little steam is okay while the engine is cold (in lower temperatures this will be far more prominent) but it should lessen after the car is up to temperature. Excessive black smoke at the exhaust represents a car that will be running rich, and could have a fuelling/emissions issue.

Steam coming from the exhaust at warmer temperatures is usually a pretty strong indicator of a failed head gasket, which is neither cheap nor simple to replace.

Listen and look to make sure the engine is running smoothly and isn’t hesitating or jumping around on its mounts. Rev the car and ensure it is firing cleanly on all cylinders.

Simple checks for buying a used car

Unlike this example, cheapskate owners tend not to fit quality tyres


Push down reasonably hard on the car one corner at a time. Be sure that you are compressing its suspension (this may not be possible on sports cars with particularly stiff suspension). What you want to see when you release that weight is the car returning in a controlled motion. What you don’t want to see is the vehicle bobbing up and down multiple times, that would usually indicate a tired or blown shock absorber.

Look at the car’s tyres, these can tell you loads about a car. Firstly, are they a good brand? Cheapskate owners tend not to fit good quality tyres, and this can often be an indicator of a poorly maintained vehicle.

Best-case scenario is that you’ll find four quality tyres in great condition with even wear and with plenty of tread left. Worst-case scenario is a car with mismatched, cheap and balding tyres.

Service history – Try and look for a car with full service history, specialist stamps can be just as good as a car that is looked after by a dealer. Walk away from cars with a patchy history unless they’re priced accordingly, run away from cars with no service history – unless you’re good with spanners

Mileage – If a car’s condition doesn’t match its history then walk away. Excessive wear to seat bolsters, steering wheels and gear knobs are not normally found on low mileage cars.

Cambelt advice – If the car has a cambelt and it is either overdue or doesn’t have any paperwork to confirm it was changed it is VITAL that you get this work completed as soon as possible. It’s a fairly expensive job, so if this is the case then be sure to pay considerably below the asking price for the car.

Spare keys / radio codes – Try and make sure you have at least one spare key. Often included in vehicle handbooks, getting the radio code from the previous owner can save you a headache in future.

The test drive

Ford capri gear knob and clock
During the test drive, ensure the gearbox easily selects every gear

Prior to the test drive it’s a good idea to familarise yourself with the car’s interior, try out any electronics that you can. Pay particular attention to air conditioning systems/heater controls, the radio, and any fancy (and expensive) electronic options such as folding mirrors, electronic windows and seats e.t.c

Does it smell damp inside? If so, look at the roof, if there’s mould then the car will definitely have a leak. Chances are this will be time-consuming and frustrating to fix, and may have introduced electrical problems to the vehicle.

It’s important that you drive the car yourself. During the test drive look out for any unusual noises from the engine, suspension or brakes. If the car uses a manual transmission ensure that it selects all gears correctly. Test the clutch by popping the car into a tall gear and sinking your foot on the throttle, a clutch on its way out will slip and cause the engine to rev and not transmit its power correctly in this scenario. If this happens it’ll also make a very obvious smell.

Make sure all dials and gauges are working correctly and the car gets up to correct operating temperature and stays there.

Some further advice

Bring a friend: a second set of eyes can prove invaluable in this situation

Try and keep your cool: This one’s easier said than done. Basically, the more emotional you get about the purchase, the more you’ll end up missing.

Don’t buy the first example you see: unless you’re really, really confident…

The most important of all: trust your instincts, because if something seems dodgy or too good to be true then it probably will be.

Good luck!


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