Don’t buy another car until you have read this!

Things To Check Before Buying a Second Hand Car


This guide is for buying a normal car. That is not classic car or an unusual car such as prestigious sports car; where the assessment criterion may be different. Modern cars are reliable compared to their forbears but they are physical thing and over time wear out.

Mechanical repairs can be expensive so it is sensible to appraise the car you are buying carefully. The adage there are many fish in the sea applies here. If you find a car that is not in reasonable condition or you have concerns about the vendor – be prepared to walk away.

Salesmen are very good at saying the offer will close imminently but you might find something similar or even better elsewhere. Although most sellers are genuine it must be remembered that there is a large amount of criminal activity in the selling of second hand cars.

Another consideration is that cars are complicated things that can go wrong and any seller may not willingly divulge a problem with a car. Although it is dearer to buy a car from a garage there is a higher level of legal protection. If there is a serious problem with a car you have legal redress with a garage but no comeback with a private seller.

The consumer Rights Act 2015 does give consumers significant rights that they did not have before and these are useful when buying complicated products like cars.
Establishing the True Legal Owner If you are enquiring from a small advert in the paper or an advert on the internet from say Autotrader when phoning the owner ask them if the car (without describing the car) and they say which one. They probably are a motor trader.

By law they must say that they are a dealer or commonly known as “trade”. So, if the advert id not mention that they were in the motor trade this is probably the proverbial dodgy dealer and you are best not taking this any further. You may even consider reporting them to trading standards.

If you are buying privately agree to meet at the seller’s home this enables you to verify that the is at the same address as in the vehicle registration document the V5C also known as the log book. The V5C is only the registered keeper which legally does not mean the owner. So, when you meet the vendor ask to see the registration document if this does not have the same address as you are visiting along with the same number plate and chassis number – walk away. It is a ploy for criminals selling a stolen car to ask to meet you in place away from their home.


Now you must establish who owns the car. If the vendor has shown you the V5C at their home ask them is there any outstanding finance. If the car is on Hire Purchase (HP) or Private Contract Purchase (PCP) the vendor does not own the vehicle even if they owe just one payment.


If the car was bought with a loan the vendor can still sell the car as they are the legal owner. Note that lease cars are never owned by the vendor unless there I a lease purchase agreement or they have bought the car from the lease company. It must be remembered that even comparatively old cars, say five years, can still be on finance.

You can check if a car has outstanding finance, has been written off or stolen. There are several companies that do this online HPI being the most famous. If you use the Autotrader website it does include this information on the car details. Sometimes they do not have all the information notably whether or not there is outstanding finance a key consideration. It is best to pay for an HPI check just before you buy your chosen car. This ensures that if Autotrader have made a mistake you are covered and also if you use HPI they will compensate you if they have made a mistake in their report
and you have lost out financially.

For older cars say around ten years old buying privately might make more sense as they will be significantly cheaper that buying from the motor trade. But I you are buying a newer car you may consider the security of the motor trade due to the larger amounts of money involved and greater legal protection.

There are two more documents to check. If the car is over three years old it must have a MOT. The full name for this is Ministry of Transport Test and this is essentially a mechanical check of the safety critical components of a car. If the car is quite old a careful owner would have kept all the MOTs that they have had carried out. MOTs now have the mileage recoded at the time and the past four years.


This allows you to check the current mileage to see that it is consistent with the MOT record. Remember cars with a lower mileage are more valuable and “clocking” that is fraudulently reducing the mileage of a car is unfortunately a fairly common deception.
In about the last five years manufacturers have stopped producing paper service books. In these books the service, mileage, dealer stamp and date were recorded. Nowadays dealers record this information electronically and will produce this if asked. Quite often the dealership will produce a record of the service even if they do not stamp the service book.

A complete collection of service reports and receipts of any additional maintenance work is a sign of a careful owner. A lack of any service and repair history could mean that the car has not been serviced or that it has been very unreliable and the owner is trying to hide this.
Now we have established that the car you are looking at is owned by the vendor you can now appraise the car.

Dress reasonably smartly but bear in mind you will kneel around the car so your best clothes might be not the right choice here. Assessing the Bodywork First, we assess the bodywork. Always ask has this car been involved in an accident. It is quite common for careful drivers to have an accident whilst manoeuvring. Although these accidents can be expensive to repair professionally any repairs should not affect the integrity of the bodyshell.

If car has been involved in bad accident it must be repaired properly otherwise it could be unsafe. A car that has been involved in an accident and has been repaired properly would be difficult to spot to the uninitiated and in any case the repair would not affect the safety or quality of the car’s bodywork. The vendor must disclose any accident.

A big problem for car buyers is what is known as cut and shut. This when two cars are put together to make one car. Here two cars have been involved in an accident and both cannot be repaired. So, the criminals weld the two together. It is impossible for these cars to be welded together so that they are strong as the original car. This means that if this car had and accident it would fall to pieces and would not protect the occupant(s). There could be 30,000 of these cars on the road.

This can be difficult to spot for the ordinary buyer. To spot a cut and shut and other bodywork damage you appraise the car like this. Ask the vendor to move the car so that you can stand three hundred and seventy centimetres all around the car. Hence ensure that the car is not next to the wall or any other obstruction.


Always assess cars in good natural light. Rain on the car makes it look brighter than it really is and hides any imperfections. Stand at each corner of the car and look along the side panels, dents, ripples, unevenness and marks are easier to spot. The surfaces should be smooth with only light scratches or chips.

The panels should not show “orange peel” – a cratered effect like the surface of an orange. Nor should it look like a miniature crazy paving. Wheel arches and sills may have a fresh coat of paint which could mask a recent or not very well done paint job. Look under the window rubbers it may show fresh or flaking paint.

Compare panel by panel. Lighter colours and metallics are easier to notice the different shades. From a distance you can notice changes in the paint. If the car ha been resprayed you may see a slight difference in tone on the panel even if a rubbing compound has been used as it leaves a Are the gaps between the panels even top to bottom? Does the bonnet, door and tailgate (or boot) close properly.

Do the colours match closely? If these are apparent it is possible that the car has had an accident or is a cut and shut. VIN plates can be found at the front of the engine compartment, engine block and rear wheel well, inside the driver’s door and driver’s door post. If these do not match up the car is a cut and shut. When looking in the engine bay if there is a new radiator and other mechanical components this could indicate that the car has been involved in a major accident.

This could also indicate a cut and shut. Also cut and shut cars are sold much cheaper than similar cars – this should make you suspicious. A cut and shut car is a good example of the phrase “If something is too good to be true it probably is”.

The condition of the bodywork has to be considered with age of the car. Cars of three years and under should be perfect. The panels should be properly aligned and the there should be no blemishes on the paint. Tar spots – black spots around the sign of a pin head are acceptable unless there are a lot of them. These can be removed anyway. The interior should be good with no tears in fabric or stains on seats or headlining (the fabric on the inside of the car roof) for cars less than three years old.

Ideally older cars, over five years, should have good bodywork. But minor scuffs and scratches on the bumpers and lower parts of the car do happen and can be a negotiating point. Deep scratches and certainly scratches down to the bear metal as well as dents are not acceptable. In these cars the interior is or should be in reasonable condition provided that the seat covers are not scratched or that the seats or carpet does not have large stains.

Cars that smell of tobacco are best avoided as this is a bad smell and it is recommended that children should not be exposed to cigarette smoke in cars and may be associated with ill health in adults. Generally, car interiors start to deteriorate after 50,000 miles. The signs of wear are worn keys, tatty door pulls, perished pedal rubbers and indented gear knob. A give away that a car has been clocked is that he pedals are worn
but the car shows an indicated low mileage of around 20,000 or less.

Check all glass carefully. If there is a chip of 10 mm of more in the driver’s field of view in a
windscreen it is a MOT failure. Also, a 40 mm chip in the area swept by the wiper blades is an also a fail. As windscreens are bonded into window frame of the car and hence forms part of the structure – this makes large cracks anywhere in the windscreen unacceptable. All windows should allow a clear view. Note that privacy glass (very dark tined glass) is not legal for the front windows and windscreen. If the windscreen needs to be replaced get the vendor to do it as it is a costly repair.

Assessing the Mechanical Condition Now we will assess the mechanical aspects. Whilst looking at the car, which should be on a level surface. Ensure that the car is level and is not leaning to one side. If this is the case the suspension or bodywork could be damaged. If you are really concerned about the safety do not drive the car and walk away. On the test drive if the car pulls to one side then the car should be assessed by a mechanic to establish the cause. The vendor should resolve this before any sale and in any case if
the car does pull to one side it is a good excuse not to buy the car.

Look at the tyres. Are the sidewalls free from cracks or chips? Use a tyre tread gauge to see how much tread there is on tyre. Tyres start with 8 mm of tread and the legal limit is 1.8 mm but it us best to replace tyres at 2 mm. Check that the tread patter has worn evenly the tread gauge establishes this. If the wear is uneven the tracking or geometry is out. Worn tyres are a negotiation point a complete set of tyres can easily cost £500. But uneven wear would best be assessed by an engineer’s report or to look at another car. Also look at the wheels to see if they are buckled, which difficult to see unless it is bad. Alloy wheels scratch easily.

This happens and on an older car this may be a negotiating point but on a car of three years or less the vendor should have sorted this. But badly chipped wheels are an indication of a careless driver or a car that has been used as driving instructor car. If this is the case consider if you really want this car.

Now it is time to open the bonnet. Take a sheet of kitchen towel with you and it is a good idea to wear latex type glove to protect your hands. Check the dipstick level, if the oil is dirty a service is due. Note diesel engine oil is dirtier than petrol engine oil. The vendor should know when the car was last serviced.

Modern cars can have a two year service interval so budget for a service if the car has not been serviced in the past year. Servicing can vary with use and if a car is used mainly for short journeys, they will be subject to the annual 10,000 mile a year service interval which has been the norm for the past forty years.

Next check the brake fluid level to it should be between the maximum and minimum marks. It is very unusual for the brake fluid to drop below the minimum mark. If the level is below the minimum mark there is strong possibility of a brake problem so walk away.
Then check the coolant to ensure that the coolant level is between the minimum and maximum marks. If the coolant is absent this suggest a coolant system leak; this could be in the radiator, an expensive component. If this is the case again walk away.

Then check the washer reservoir. Many modern cars do not have a visible reservoir so to check this you have to operate the windscreen washer to check the system is working. Whilst the bonnet is open look at the radiator and other hoses. In cars over five years these can perish. If the hoses are perished or the clips are not tight this is a negotiating position.
Modern batteries are sealed for life.

Some batteries have a small light on them. The battery will have a note to say what colour the light should be if the battery is in good condition. Whilst the bonnet is open look at all the components. If the car is less than a year old, they should be reasonable clean. If the car is over five years old and has many new looking components check the maintenance record.
A lot of replaced components could indicate an unreliable car unless it is quite old say ten years wear out as part of things. Close the bonnet and then check the dampers, colloquially known as shock absorbers. Push down heavily on each corner of the car. The car should bounce once and return to the rest position without any groaning noise.

If they do not return to rest in one go walk away as this is an expensive repair and indicates that the owner has not maintained the car properly. Remember you can only drive the car if it is roadworthy. Problems with the suspension including dampers should be repaired as soon as the fault has been discovered. Responsible owners do not leave suspension problems.

The Test Drive
Now it is time for the interesting bit; the test drive. You must assess the condition of the car you intend to buy and test drive should reveal any serious defects and confirm that you actually like the car. If you are buying from a garage you are insured by the garage. If you are buying from a private vendor you have to arrange insurance. This can be achieved in one of three ways.

The vendor can put you their insurance. You must check the insurance documentation before you drive the car. You can buy temporary one day cover for the car. Some insurance companies allow on fully comprehensive insurance for you to drive a car that you do not own. The problem is that this is third party cover.

That is if you have an accident it will pay for the damage done to property that is not part of the car you are driving. That is another vehicle or gate post that you may have it but not the damage done to the car you are test driving. You would have to pay to damage to this car. Hence the vendor might not be keen for you to drive their car in the latter case.

It is best for the vendor to explain the controls of the car for you especially if you are not familiar with the car. Adjust the seat and steering wheel so that you are comfortable. The engine should start promptly. If the starter motor turns very slowly the battery is probably flat. If the vendor explains that the car has not been used for some time this could explain the lack of readiness to start.
Modern batteries can deteriorate if they have not been used for more than two weeks. If the car has been in “storage” for a month or more be careful as cars a designed to be driven regularly. If they are left standing for some time components can seize and tyres can develop flat spots for example.
Really if a car has not been used for months outside in all weathers, it could prove troublesome so think carefully if you want to buy it. Again, this could be a negotiating position but again you could decide to walk away.

The accelerator should respond progressively to your inputs. There should be no strange noises coming from the engine when you accelerate. Diesel engines are loader than petrol engine and some modern diesel engines are known to be noisy even when new.
The brake pedal should not be spongey, the brakes should be progressive in action and the car should not pull to one side when you brake.

The clutch should not shudder or stall when moving off; although when you drive a different car or the first time it can take a short time to adjust to the clutch. If there are any knocks when engaging the clutch this an indication of wear. To check the clutch at 30 MPH, depress the clutch, rev and reengage, there should be a jolt before taking up drive rather than failing to connect and their being a loss of engine revolutions.

Most cars have smooth clutches. Some manufacturers can be different. The clutch might be sharp at the top end of the biting point. If you can live with this that is fine – it is possible that the clutch is out of alinement though. Some clutches have an indistinct biting point from new so again you have to live with this. Bad driving such as slipping the clutch can wear out clutches very quickly. A clutch should last around 75,000 miles and automatic gearboxes may need attention at this sort of mileage.

Most manual gearboxes have a clearly defined gate which are straight forward to use. There are some gearboxes that are like porridge to use. They are quite unusual and again if you have to decide if you can live with this. The gear should engage smoothly without excessive noise, an if you deaccelerate in any gear and gear lever jumps into neutral indicates a worn gearbox.

Automatic gearboxes should change smoothly. Some automatic can be slightly hesitant if you want tom move away quickly. There is a type of gear box, which is not common, called an automated manual gearbox. None of these designs produce a smooth gear change and are best avoided. If either a manual gearbox or automatic gearbox makes excessive whining or other noise there could be a fault. Price It is now possible to ensure that you do not over pay for a car.

There are many places on the web including What Car and Parkers Guide which allow a limited amount of free searches to establish a price for your intended car. The prices include private sale, independent garage or main dealer. If you are looking to buy a car it is a good idea to buy a copy of Parkers Guide. This give the value of every model of car manufactured over the past five years. You could easily spend this on the internet for just undertaking a couple of searches. Also, you can take the guide when you are buying
the car to show the seller why you think the car you are looking at is worth what you think it is.
Parkers guide also contains the insurance groups of the cars – insurance is a large cost. Insurers tend to prefer cars below 1.5 litres and cars of group ten and below are cheaper to insure. Autotrader and other car selling sites often state whether or not the car is overvalued. It should be remembered though like houses there is no exact price for a car. For example, the condition of the car can be better or worse than the same car made in that year, the mileage could be much higher or lower.
The car might have a large amount of options which could increase the value especially for a prestige car.
Summary
Before committing to buying a car ensure you are negotiating with the legal owner. Also, by
conducting some basic mechanical checks and driving the car so that you are happy with the overall condition of the car. Using a guide or the internet you can establish a realistic price for the car that you are going to buy.

Written and produced by Mervyn Jones of Mervyn’s Driving School. For friendly, helpful and
professional driving tuition please contact me 07710 590470 or mervyn@mervynsdrivingschool.com.
alternatively, please see my website mervynsdrivingschool.com