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10 key checks to make when viewing a used car

You’ve got to have your wits about you when buying a used car, because it’s so easy to get your fingers burned. But it’s a lot easier than you might think to weed out the dross, by making a few straightforward checks. If you want to make sure you buy a peach rather than a lemon, follow these simple steps.

The owner

How many times have you heard the line ‘would you buy a second-hand car from this man’ as a jokey line? But many a true word is spoken in jest, which is why before you even look at the car, weigh up its owner. Are they shifty or evasive? Have they tried to meet ‘on neutral ground’ rather than at their home? Does their home look like scrapyard? If so, don’t assume they’re more precious with their car than their accommodation. You want to buy from someone who is fastidious – about everything.

The history

There are lots of things you can’t tell from looking at the owner, car or paperwork. Like if the car has been reported stolen or recorded as a write-off. Or if there’s outstanding finance on it. That’s why investing in an HPI Check is so important; in less than a minute you can discover if that potential purchase has something in its history that the vendor would prefer you not to know about.

* Also read our blogs on how to tell if a car is stolen and how to guard against buying a car with finance on it.

The V5C

Also known as a registration document, a car’s V5C records a car’s history with the DVLA, and it’s illegal to sell a car without one; it’s easy enough to get a replacement if necessary. The V5C includes details of the car’s current and previous registered keepers, when it was first registered plus details such as the colour, engine capacity, CO2 emissions and bodystyle. Some V5Cs contain errors but assume the information is correct and compare what’s on it with what’s in front of you. Do the keeper’s details match along with those for the car? If any are different, be suspicious.

* Check out our blog on common V5C scams 

The numbers

Also on the V5C are the chassis and engine numbers. Again, check that what’s on the form matches the numbers on the car. The chassis number is normally 17 digits long and there’s usually a plate at the base of the windscreen on the passenger side. Some older cars will have the chassis number on a plate on the slam panel (what the bonnet latches onto) or stamped into the floorpan between the driver’s door and seat. The engine number is usually stamped into the engine; it should be obvious if you look for it. You can then validate these numbers using the HPI Check.

The service history

Nobody wants to buy a neglected car, so buy one with a service history. It doesn’t have to be maintained by a franchised dealer – just someone who knows what they’re doing. You’re looking for evidence of money having been spent regularly on things like oil changes, maybe a replacement cam belt, replacement brake parts – the things that will help prevent the car breaking down. Beware of service books that aren’t for the car you’re buying though; if in doubt, check with the garage that’s supposed to have done the maintenance, to see if the book is legitimate.

*There’s more in our blog on the importance of a service history

The odometer

A car’s odometer tells you how many miles it’s done. Ever since the first odometers arrived it’s been possible to tamper with them to clock them, or reduce the mileage they show. This adds value to a car as it looks as though it’s done fewer miles than it really has – and the digital odometers fitted to many new cars make clocking easier than ever. To guard against clocking check a car’s service history and MoTs to see if the mileage goes up steadily – an HPI check also includes a mileage log which will help reveal the truth.

* For the full story read our blog on clocking 

The bodywork

If a car has been crashed then badly repaired, it should be obvious. Look down the body for rippling, see how tight and even the panel gaps are and look for overspray on the window rubbers along with mismatched paint colours. If a car has been crashed then expertly repaired that’s a different matter, because if the work has been done properly there’s not necessarily anything to worry about.

The interior

If the carpets are tatty or the trim is a bit scruffy it doesn’t affect the car’s roadworthiness – but it does give a good indication of how well the car has been looked after. Ingrained dirt, torn seat fabric or broken pieces of trim suggest the car has led a hard life. Also check that everything functions properly by activating all of the switches and make sure the seat adjustment mechanisms work.

The test drive

You might not feel equipped to check if a car is mechanically fit, but a test drive will be very revealing. If the engine smokes a lot, the brakes judder or the steering feels really sloppy it’ll be immediately obvious that something is wrong. Similarly, if the engine misfires, the instruments behave erratically, the engine overheats or the clutch slips you’ll soon know about it. Also listen for untoward noises such as clonks and bangs, rumbling or whining – even if you don’t know what’s causing them, by hearing them you know that something isn’t right.

* For the full picture, read our blog on how to test drive a used car

The professional inspection

Doing the things above will help you weed out a clunker without spending any money – your own instincts are more valuable than you might think. But if you’re really worried that you might be landed with a liability you can always take the professional route and pay for a professional inspection. This will be more thorough than anything you can do, and insurance means you should be protected in the event of problems.

* We’ve written a whole blog on how professional car inspections work

Richard Dredge

October 2016