The Car Loan Warehouse | What to Look for When Buying a Used Car

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What to Look for When Buying a Used Car

  • The Car Loan Warehouse | What to Look for When Buying a Used Car
  • The Car Loan Warehouse | What to Look for When Buying a Used Car
  • The Car Loan Warehouse | What to Look for When Buying a Used Car
  • The Car Loan Warehouse | What to Look for When Buying a Used Car

Used Car Checklist

Buying a pre-owned car is a great way to snag a bargain, however, there are some key used car checks you should carry out before you proceed with your purchase.

The friendly and knowledgeable team at The Car Loan Warehouse are experts when it comes to used car finance. Whether you’ve spotted your dream used car or you’re on the hunt for a good deal, we can help! Give us a call on 0800 066 2888 and our team will gladly answer your questions. If you’re ready to buy or just want a quote, apply today or try our car finance calculator for an instant estimate.

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Buying a used car: checklist

Buying a used car can be a minefield if you don’t know what you’re looking for – and getting it wrong can leave you seriously out of pocket. However, armed with our checklist, you’ll know what to look for when buying a used car – and whether you’re buying from a private seller or a dealer, the following advice is still equally important:

  • Potential issues may be easier to rectify if you buy from a dealer, however, sadly some dealers are more helpful than others – so, for the best chance of trouble free motoring, check everything carefully before parting with your hard earned cash
  • If you have a mechanically minded friend or someone who is car savvy, take them along for a viewing and take advantage of their knowledge. If not, then consider employing the services of a qualified vehicle inspector like the RAC or AA. They will inspect the car and the paperwork thoroughly so you’ll know exactly what you’re getting into
  • Do remember it’s a used car that you’re buying so the inspector is likely to come up with some minor faults, but you may be able to use their report to haggle a more reasonable price
  • If you’re going to inspect the vehicle yourself, firstly make sure that you view it in natural light and ensure that the vehicle is clean and dry so that you can see it properly. If it’s dark or raining then there’s every chance that you will miss something important
  • Don’t be pressured into buying a car in a hurry with threats of other willing buyers coming later, as from experience, you’ll probably live to regret it. If the seller is genuine, they won’t mind you taking your time to check the vehicle and the paperwork properly

Exterior inspection | Engine Bay | Interior Inspection | Paperwork inspection | Test drive

What to look for during an exterior inspection of a car

used car checks

  • Start with the paintwork and carefully inspect each panel on the car for a consistent colour and finish. Previous paint repairs might just mean a minor knock in a car park but it could be evidence of a major motorway smash
  • Check inside the door shuts and under rubber seals for signs of overspray or masking up which could show a rough edge where the painter has sprayed up to. You may also spot small bits of dust or dirt in the paint or drips in the paint where a cheap re-spay has been carried out
  • Check the number plates as the name of the supplier will be on the bottom of them. If the front and back plates have different supplier’s name on them it may mean one was replaced because of an accident. Sometimes you will even spot a car bodyshop’s name on them!
  • Look at the gaps between the body panels. e.g. where the bonnet meets the front wings. If the gap is bigger on one side or the gap varies along a joint then there is a chance the car has been crashed and repaired badly
  • Bubbles in the paint indicate that rust is coming through from below the surface. This may be caused by a previous poor repair job or could be common in that model – specifically in areas where water collects around wheel arches, at the bottom of windows or underneath batteries
  • Take a torch with you so that you can inspect the brake discs and brake pads. The pads should have at least 2mm of thickness left on them to be safe and the discs should not appear lipped, pitted or have rust coloured bands around them indicating uneven wear
  • Push down gently on each corner of the car to test the suspension. It should return slowly to its previous height but if it bounces first it may mean possible problems
  • Check all of the tyres – including the spare – with a tyre depth gauge (available from any good motor spares supplier). The legal minimum tread is 1.6mm but thicker would be safer, especially in the winter. Also look out for cracking in the rubber which indicates very old tyres or cuts and splits in the side walls, as any of these problems could cause a blowout while driving and possibly lead to an accident. Check for uneven tyre wear which could point to under or over inflation or it could mean that the tracking alignment needs adjusting. Finally, look out for bulges, bald spots or wires poking out which all mean the tyres are dangerous and illegal
  • Locate the Vehicle Identification Number for signs of tampering and make sure it matches up with the VIN number on the V5 Logbook and your HPI report if you have one. The VIN plate is a metal plate which will be present in at least two or three places. It is often located at the bottom of the windscreen, under the bonnet and under a flap in the carpet in the driver’s foot well. Look for signs that rivets have been removed from the VIN plate or the metal surrounding the plate has been cut or painted.  Any of these signs may mean that the car has been stolen and “cloned” for another legitimate vehicle
  • If the vehicle has a convertible roof then test it works and check for any rips or tears in the fabric. The rear window may be glass or plastic. The plastic ones can become brittle and crack with age or may become discoloured and hard to see through

 How to inspect a car engine bay

used car check

  • Open the bonnet and have a good look around for any signs of oil or water leaks, as well as underneath on the bottom of the engine and sump. If it looks too clean it could mean that someone is hiding something or that they have had it well valeted
  • Take out the engine oil dipstick, give it a wipe and recheck the oil level with it. The level should be around the maximum level ideally should be a golden colour. If the oil is black or has bits in it then it will need changing soon and might mean that the car has not been well loved. (check the service history for the date of the last service)
  • Remove the screw cap from the top of the engine and check the underside of the cap and inside of the filler neck. Look for a creamy residue which indicates water mixed with the oil and may indicate that the head gasket has gone or more serious engine damage
  • Also check the coolant level when the engine is cold. (Normally a large round bottle attached to the radiator) If the level is below the minimum it could indicate that there is a leak somewhere or worse
  • It is also worth checking the fluid levels in the battery and making sure the connectors are free of rust

What to look for inside the vehicle

what to look for when buying a used car

  • Check the mileage on the speedo against the mileage in the advert and the service history
  • The general wear and tear in the vehicle should be consistent with the age and mileage of the vehicle.  High mileage cars which have been clocked will often show their true mileage by the condition of the seats or the steering wheel, gear knob and pedal rubbers may be very worn or shiny
  • As mentioned before check the VIN plates for signs of tampering or replacement
  • Check that everything works including all the electric windows, mirrors, heater, fan, heated rear screen, 12v socket, sunroof, radio cd, sat nav and air conditioning
  • Inspect the steering column and ignition barrel for damage which could indicate the car has been stolen and recovered at some point
  • Check that the jack, spare wheel, wheel brace and locking wheel nuts are present. You don’t want to get a puncture and find that you can’t get the wheel off!

How to test drive a used car


  • Check there is a spare key. Might sound obvious but these are not cheap and it is best to find out before you agree a price
  • Start the engine from cold and listen for any unusual noises from under the bonnet. It will get quieter as it gets warmer especially if it’s a diesel
  • Look for any orange or red warning lights on the dash board which may indicate any immediate problems
  • Before taking the car onto the road check that you insured and that there is sufficient fuel in it. Make sure that the seat position is correct for you and that the mirrors are in position
  • The car should accelerate smoothly without hesitation and there should be no vibrations or rattles Look out for smoke when you do accelerate and although diesels will show the occasional puff when you push the car hard, this should not happen constantly
  • When it is safe to do so test the brakes work ok and that the car doesn’t pull to one side
  • If it is a manual gearbox make sure that all gears can be selected and there is no horrible noise between gears. Consider the biting point of the clutch when you depress the pedal to change gear. If this point is near the top it may indicate the clutch will need changing soon. To test if the clutch is slipping put the car in top gear as you are driving along and accelerate to see if the engine revs without the speed of the car increasing
  • If it is an automatic gearbox then give the car a good run to get the gearbox temperature up and make sure that you get up to motorway speed if possible to make sure that all the gears are available
  • If it is a 4WD vehicle do check that the four wheel drive system works in high and low ratio and 2WD mode if there is one
  • Check the handbrake doesn’t pull up too far as this indicates it needs adjusting and possibly repairing

Check the paperwork carefully

things to check when buying a used car

  • If buying from a private seller do check that the address that you visit to inspect the car is the same as the one listed on the V5 logbook. This is to check that the person selling you the car is the genuine owner of the vehicle , has legal title to it and is not a dodgy car dealer pretending to be a private seller in order to avoid their legal responsibilities and the tax man. If the seller comes up with a shaggy dog story as to why their name and address are not on the V5 logbook you should be very careful and possibly look for another car
  • If buying from a car dealer it is worth doing some basic checks to make sure that they are reputable. Start with searching the dealers name on a search engine like Google and look for negative feedback from previous customers. Ask what mechanical checks will be done on the car before you collect it and insist on a new MOT if it runs out in the next six months. The dealer has legal responsibilities for at least six months so make sure he understands this and see if he gives you any insurance backed policy to cover both you and him in the event of a mechanical failure
  • Carefully check the V5 Logbook where you will find the registration number, VIN number, number of previous owners and the colour which are all worth checking against the car
  • Inspect the service history and old MOTs to see how well it has been looked after and check the dates and recorded mileages of the services and MOTs to help verify the mileage. If unsure then phone the servicing dealer whose stamp will be in the book to verify the information
  • Inspect the V5 logbook carefully. It has a watermark and you can check the DVLA website for help making sure that it is not a forgery. You can also look up old MOT information regarding failures or advisories and why not contact the last owner of the vehicle if you can track them down to check the vehicle’s past

There are a number of questions to ask when buying a used car and this list of tips isn’t definitive. As we suggested at the beginning, it’s best to get some help if you are unsure of what to look for – after all you wouldn’t buy a house without getting a structural survey, so why risk your money on a car you know nothing about?

Finally, try not to get emotionally attached to a vehicle when carrying out used car checks. If something doesn’t feel right then trust your gut instincts and walk away. Remember, if something seems too good to be true then it probably is.

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