What To Check When Buying a Used Car

I know there are some of you out there asking what type of things to check and look out for when buying a used car. First off, be aware that each make and model of car will have a certain set of criteria that should be checked, kind of like common faults for that model. For example, just like how certain models of the Volvo S40 can have the common problem of a failed VVT Pulley.

Where as, that's not going to be an issue or common fault with a Nissan Micra. Best thing to do is if your going down to view a car check that specific make, model and year of car online. So for example type in on Google search: Toyota Yaris 2001 common faults and you should be able to sift through the results and find the things most to look out for when buying that specific used car make, model and year. Check for recalls also. And do a Government Vehicle Enquiry (Free) to make sure all the details are correct for the car your considering viewing / buying.

Now with that out of the way here is a quick, general list of things to check when buying a used car. It's by no means a full list or procedure, but for buying a first car, or just buying a cheap car priced between £500 - £800 it should hopefully hold you in good stead. I bought a Nissan Micra 1.0L with a family member recently and these are the basic checks that I went through when viewing and test driving the car. When viewing and driving this car it was clear that it was in absolutely perfect condition, so there were a few checks that I seen as unnecessary due to the car.being in such an unused condition for it's age.

Take someone with you. A second opinion and someone to spot things you could potentially miss is very important. Taking someone with you is also beneficial when performing some of the checks talked about below. Makes them much easier as I'm sure you'll agree.


First off, a HPI check. Whilst a car such as the silver Micra we bought, which is 14 years old might not have any outstanding finance owed, any older used car can still have been stolen, be a CAT C, or CAT D etc, so it's best to get a HPI check and have peace of mind.

Paperwork: Is everything in order like the seller stated in the ad and phone call. Look through everything in detail whether that be before you inspect / test drive the car or after. Make sure everything the seller stated like MOT, service history, repair bills, V5 log book are all accounted for.

Check the basics: Check the radio works, the heaters (Air conditioning if the car has it), all lights front and back (Full beam + brake lights when the brake is applied), indicators, wipers, window cleaner spray, seat belts, seat adjustments, boot lock, door locks (Key and central locking), mirrors, spare wheel + jack in the boot and window winders if car has them.

Look under the foot well mats for rust. If the windows are electric turn the key and check they go up and down correctly. I made this mistake once myself. Didn't check the windows and while driving the car home thought I'd put the drivers side electric window down and it literally just fell into the door at an angle. It wasn't on it's track at all. Needless to say this cost me money to repair.

Look for any obvious damage on the outside of the car. Check the joins, spacing of the panels and bumpers. If they don't look right this can indicate the car may have been involved in an accident that hasn't been declared and could have been fixed cheaply. Hidden chassis damage or a weakness that's been created by a crash could be hiding out of view. Before you pop the bonnet (Hood) check both of the front spacings of the bonnet, differences between the widths can, although not always, be an indicator of an undeclared fix that may not have been fixed to a decent, or even road worthy standard.

Pop the bonnet (Hood). Don't start the car. Visually inspect the engine for any leaks. The engine should be dry. Is there coolant or oil on the engine. If so, walk away as this could be a number of different problems from minor to major and will most probably cost you money at some point. Not worth the hassle. Check all the fluid levels, especially the engine oil and engine coolant.

The engine oil should be at either max or slightly lower than max on the oil level stick. The oil should also be nice and clear in colour. If the oil is very low, really black in colour, or has bits in and looks dirty walk away. The same goes for the coolant, if it's very low or non existent walk away. Again, this can mean a number of various problems or just indicate a poorly maintained car that's not worth the hassle.

Get down on the floor and look underneath the front of the car at the engine. Are there any visible leaks / wet patches underneath. If so where is the leak coming from. Touch the leaking liquid with a finger..Is it oil, coolant, or something else like water. Has it been raining. if it has and the liquid look to be water there's nothing to worry about.

If you see a small black metal box while looking under the engine that looks to have a very light smearing of oil on, that is the gearbox oil and a light smearing (dependent on car model) is considered OK. If it's leaking oil walk away. Look at the floor where the car has been parked. Are there any fresh liquid marks on the floor directly below where the car engine has been located. If so investigate further. Other than that check for excessive rust and DIY fixes. Push down on the front of the car bonnet (Hood) and listen for any strange noises from the suspension. Is the car even (level) when looking at the car from a distance at the front.

If all seems well close the bonnet (Hood) and go to the side of the car, get down on the floor again and look under the car. Look for obvious damage, excessive rust, broken welding and seals, and DIY fixes. Is everything sealed, tidy, and secure . Check the exhaust for rust and holes, including the joints. Give the exhaust a pull with your hand, is it solid and secure.

What are the bumpers like, do they have a few scrapes..If so, what colour is the paint underneath. Does it match the car colour, if not ask the seller why. If it's a generic gray colour that's OK. Make sure you don't mistake the car colour that the car your viewing might have had a scrape with (There could be paint left from the other car) for the colour of the paint work underneath. Give it a little scratch to make sure.

Have a look at the tyres, how much tread do they have..Is the wear even across the tyre. If not do the tyres look deflated. If they are not deflated to the point of causing uneven wear it could be that the wheel alignments are out of balance. Or, depending on how many wheel treads are worn unevenly, it could mean various things, one being that the car could have been involved in an accident. Check the brake disk levels, and also look to see if they have worn down evenly. Not really a deal breaker but could cost you money at some point in the future (MOT renewal).

Now go and open the car and turn the steering wheel all the way to the left, get out the car and inspect the inside of the wheel joint. Can you see any obvious damage, Is everything joined securely, any liquid anywhere..If everything looks fine do the same inspection for the right hand side.

Now it's time to start the car. Turn the car on. One of the most important things to do here is to listen for any strange noises that occur when the car starts and is ticking over. Did the car start first time from cold. Have all the warning / management lights gone off now that the car has started. Were there any strange noises when the car was going through the key turn and ignite (Engine starting) process? Now that the car is running does it sound nice and quiet. Without putting your foot on the accelerator, Is it sitting calmly when you listen to the revs and look at the rev needle. Is the car sitting in low idle (Usually at around 1 on the rev counter) where it should be.

Please note: The idle will be slightly higher than 1 when the car has been started from cold but should soon drop down to 1 or slightly under. Let the car sit running for a while without engaging anything and just listen. Is there any weird loud or underlying noises. Is the car shaking, is the gearbox shaking or is everything nice and calm. Rev the car hard and get someone to observe the smoke that comes out of the exhaust pipe. The smoke should be clear (Grey), not dark and murky.

Once the car has sat for a few minutes check that the idle has dropped. If everything seems good, while in neutral put your foot down on the clutch. Any strange noises when the clutch is engaged? Now try the accelerator, give the car a rev, does it sound clear and responsive?

Now for the important part, the test drive. Firstly, put the car in 1st gear and apply some light acceleration (Gas), pull up on the clutch to get the bite, but keep the handbrake up. Does the handbrake appear strong enough to keep the car from pulling off? If so take up the handbrake and go for a drive. Remember to turn the radio off and don't talk too much to the seller. Just listen to the car and feel the cars responses while you drive. Go through the gears and get the car up to the speed limit.

Does the car get up to speed OK. How smooth are the gear changes. Is the response time when changing gear, releasing the clutch, and adding some acceleration on point, or does the clutch feel like it's slipping? How are the brakes, do they feel spongy and take a while to respond or are they sensitive, smooth, and quick to engage. Make sure to take the car around both right and left hand turns.

Listen for knocks coming from the front end of the car as you turn the wheel to take the corners and then straighten up. Go over some bumps, such as speed bumps, and listen for noises / clunky sounds from the suspension and the front of the car as you do so. Do a full turning circle in both directions and listen for knocks when turning the steering wheel. If you hear something strange when checking anything open the window if you think it will help you listen out for the noise better.

Remember: A noise / problem might be heard better when outside the car rather than inside with the windows up. While driving on a straight road at a reasonable speed slightly and safely decrease your grip of the steering wheel in order to find out whether the car pulls / drifts to the right or left. When it's safe to do so get the car up to at least 60mph, going through all the gears. Is it smooth and quiet, does it pull well.

If it's got one, what's the temperature gauge looking like, is it within the middle somewhere. After a decent drive on the faster roads take it to a residential street. Go round more corners and over some bumps if possible, listen to the car for bumps, knocks, and any other strange noises. Check reverse gear. Does the gearbox easily select reverse.

Go through the gears again, are any gear selections stiff even though the car is warm. Do full turning circles each way in reverse. Do an emergency stop on a quiet road. Now that the car has been running a while pull over somewhere and open the bonnet while the car is still running. Does the engine sound OK. Ticking over nicely.. Inspect the engine bay, is it still dry? No oil / coolant, or any other liquid visible on or around the engine? Look underneath the whole car and do the same checks.

Close the bonnet and let the car remain running. Sit in the car or stand close by in order to listen out for if / when the fan comes on when the car starts to overheat. This should be automatic and you should be able to hear the fan once it starts running. Turn the car completely off, wait a few seconds and then start it back up again. Listen to the car on start up and idle.

Do all the engine management, warning, and airbag lights go out a few seconds after starting the car. Rev the car a little, does everything sound good with no strange noises. Go through the gears while sitting stationary, does each one, including reverse, engage smoothly. And that's about it. Depending on the results of the tests / checks it's make your mind up time on whether you want to buy the car or not. All my checks received full marks and the Nissan Micra was bought.


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