Second hand not second rate: How to assess a used car

From what’s under the oil cap to the SD card on the satnav, what do you need to look for when buying a used car?

By Steve Smethurst

Aviva Claims Manager Martin Smith knows a good car when he sees one. "When I buy a car, I want to run it for 15 years," he says. "I bought my previous car when it was three years old and it had 30,000 on the clock. I traded it in last year when it reached 165,000 miles."

Martin’s advice begins with the extra precautions people should take when buying from a private seller. "Don’t be tempted to meet people away from their own addresses," he warns, "because if they’re only contactable via mobile and you meet them in a pub car park, if anything happens then how can you trace them again? 

"There will be a document trail and a history of documents: the log book (V5), the MOT if the vehicle is over three years old and, hopefully, some service histories. These should have addresses and dates, so check that they all tie-in. Is the address on the V5 an address where they say they are and where they purport to be?

"It might sound like common sense but if you’ve seen something that perhaps you’ve already fallen in love with, there’s a temptation to rush in to a transaction without always thinking through whether everything is legitimate."

What to check on a used car

Martin is obviously confident when it comes to buying a used car – but for the rest of us it’s sensible to have our potential new car independently inspected by organisations like the AA 1 or take a knowledgeable friend along. But even if you choose not to do this, there are many checks you can undertake to ensure you’re not buying a dud.  

  • First, is it daylight? Try to avoid seeing cars in the dark and/or bad weather as it’s easy to miss things
  • Check the bodywork for dents and scratches
  • Do all the lights work?
  • Is there evidence of panels being different colours, or gapping between them?
  • Are there chips in the glasswork?
  • How deep is the tyre tread? Insert a 20p piece and make sure the edge is covered
  • Is there a spare tyre – and what condition is it in?
  • How many keys does the car come with? If there aren’t two, can you get a second?
  • Try the radio. If it’s got Bluetooth make sure it’s compatible with your phone, particularly if it’s an older car
  • Look for active safety features like autonomous emergency braking (AEB), ISOfix child-seat latches, blind-spot monitoring systems and adaptive cruise control (ACC)
  • If the car has a Satnav make sure it works. As many are powered by an SD card, check that it’s there
  • Does the air-con work effectively?
  • Lift the bonnet and remove the oil cap and check for any ‘white mayonnaise’ that suggests oil and water are mixing
  • Lift the carpet in the boot and have a good look under the car, as that can give an indication of accident repairs
  • Does the wear in the car match the miles on the clock?
  • For specific checks on electric and hybrid vehicles, read our article here .

On the test drive

Ideally it’s better to see a car when the engine is cold, so when you start it up you can listen for any adverse rattles in the engine and also blue smoke from the exhaust when you first start it up and accelerate. "That’s a tell-tale that the piston heads or the oil filters are starting to go," says Martin. 

Obviously, a lot is going to depend on the age of the vehicle and the market you’re buying it in, but you should be assessing the clutch and the suspension as you drive. "As a minimum," he advises, "make sure that all controls and functions operate as they should, there are no warning lights on the dashboard and no peculiar noises or vibrations or rattles. Also, if you take your hands off the steering wheel, make sure the vehicle doesn’t veer. And, when you brake firmly, the vehicle stops in a straight line," he says.

Carl Kendall, regional leader for Car Store, a UK dealership that sells 3,500 used cars a month, adds that "although it may sound obvious, turn the car left and right on numerous occasions so you can hear if there’s any knocking noise from the wheels, anything untoward from the engine. 

"We always encourage customers to test the brakes on test drives so that they get used to them very quickly. And some customers like to take cars on a motorway test drive because it’s the type of driving they do."

If nothing else, any defects you find give you an opportunity to negotiate on price. "You’re going into a transaction from a position of understanding and knowledge," says Martin. "But if the price looks too good to be true, walk away. If it looks too good to be true, then the chances are there’s something wrong with it. There’s a difference between a bargain and ‘that really is unbelievable’. I would caution against going for the unbelievable."

Documents and payment

The final stage in car buying is sorting out the paperwork. If you’re hoping to be able to drive away a car on the day, it’s best to go armed with all the relevant documentation. 

You will require proof of insurance and many car dealerships offer a drive-away ‘five-day’ insurance policy. Alternatively, it’s likely you can get cover through a phone call to your current insurer. Bear in mind that every car in the UK is allocated an insurance group to help insurers work out the cost of cover, running from 1 (cheapest premiums) to 50 (most expensive). You can check your vehicle here 2.

You will also need to tax your new vehicle – note that tax doesn’t transfer with cars like it used to – and, if there’s a part-exchange involved, the buyer will need the log book (V5C). 

"The yellow slip on the V5 on the right-hand page inside is the important one," says Carl. "It’s the previous keeper’s responsibility to notify the DVLA. Typically, what we’ll do is we’ll sit with the customer and we will write it and potentially stamp it to say that the car’s been left with us as a motor trader on that particular day, but then we’ll give the yellow slip to the customer to post themselves. It is legally their responsibility."

Then, of course, you will need to pay for the vehicle – if you’re arranging this in instalments, it’s always advisable to take along some photo ID from your current address and some utility bills. 

Owen Kennedy, lead officer for the motor trade at the Chartered Trading Standards Institute, offers this final piece of advice: "It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of buying a car and forget the basics. Check all the paperwork diligently and use the DVLA or other online services before viewing the vehicle. 

"You should also consider whether it’s worth having the vehicle inspected by an independent engineer or garage. Most car sales do go through without a hitch, but you should always remain vigilant".