used car buyer's guide your key checklist

many prospective buyers are unwilling to take the risk of buying used. afraid of being landed with a 'lemon' they routinely let bargains pass them by, feeling that there must be something wrong with the car to justify its low price. it doesn't have to be this way. just be aware of a few simple steps and you can remove a large proportion of the risk from buying used

Ten Points To Consider

Is It Legitimate?

Check the V5 vehicle registration document, the service history, and any old MoT certificates and receipts. Does the car seem well looked-after? If you're buying anything other than a banger, an HPI inspection may well be worthwhile. This will tell you if it's a UK car, whether it's stolen, if finance is outstanding on it ever been an insurance total loss. The other documents will give you an idea of who's owned it and how it's been cared for. Also look for the car's VIN plate to see that it corresponds to the registration document and to check that it hasn't been removed or tampered with.

Has It Been Crashed?

The golden rule here is to view the car in daylight, and avoid the rain, which can hide a multitude of horrors. Check under carpets for signs of welding, and take a good look at the shutlines around the bonnet and boot for evidence of misalignment. Many vendors won't be too enamoured if you bring a magnet to check for signs of body filler, but the old adage regarding amateur paint spraying "if you see overspray - walk away" still holds true. Suspension damage is often highlighted by irregularly worn tyres.

Has It Been Clocked?

Again, check the old MoT certificates and registration document. Do the seats, steering wheel, pedal rubbers and gearknob correspond to the car's stated mileage. Naturally, some trim finishes are more durable than others, but if it doesn't ring true, investigate further or look elsewhere. Do the figures on the odometer line up, and is there evidence of greasy fingerprints and scratching on either the odometer itself or on the inside of the fascia Perspex?

Has It Been Neglected?

Look at the condition of the tyres. Are they worn irregularly/bald? Are the oil, coolant and brake fluids topped up? If it's a performance car, a diligent owner should have receipts for synthetic oil - a sure sign that the car's been treated to heaps of TLC. Beware of older prestige cars that private owners may have had the money to buy but not run.

Prioritise The Faults

Some faults with the car may be relatively minor yet still be immediately apparent. These are a godsend to the canny buyer - easy to point out yet cheap to fix. Others may be more complicated. Electric sunroofs and air conditioning systems can be costly to repair should they malfunction.

Check The Service Schedules

Many sellers will offload a car just as it either goes out of warranty or is approaching a major servicing interval. A favourite with the sly seller is the cam belt change, often a fairly major piece of work. Rather than complete the work and sell shortly afterwards, it makes financial sense to offload that burden onto the unsuspecting buyer. Which leads onto the next point.

Do Your Homework

Don't buy on impulse. Arm yourself with as much information as possible on the model in question. You should know what the 'book' value of the car in question is, and then take into account mileage and condition. Don't be impressed by frivolous optional extras or dubious aftermarket accessories which may harm the subsequent resale value. If you can appear knowledgeable and confident, the seller will be far less prepared to make extravagant claims.

Drive The Car

If the buyer fudges on a test drive, say thanks but no thanks. Make sure either their or your insurance provision covers you and be aware that it still may only be for third party risks. Start the car from cold and look for excess blue smoke, odd sounds, flaky electrics and tired suspension. If you've had the opportunity to drive more than one example of the particular model, you'll be in a far better position to judge the relative integrity of the car. If you're not mechanically minded, take somebody who is.

Safeguard Yourself When Paying For The Car

Make sure you get a written confirmation - in effect a bill of sale which covers the date, the seller's name and address, the amount you paid for the car and a note on the vehicle's general condition. Try to avoid paying in cash. The transaction is virtually impossible to trace should the seller and vehicle vanish after you've paid up, and if the seller does insist on cash, ask yourself why. Better to cover yourself by buying with a cheque or bank draft.


The most important point, too often neglected when the prospect of bargain is looming large. Never travel alone with large quantities of cash. Women should never travel unaccompanied to a private sale. Don't get underneath a car supported by jacks or axle stands. Finally, a test drive should be an opportunity to gauge the general condition of the car. Be careful if you're driving an unfamiliar car on unfamiliar roads, and don't let the seller attempt to demonstrate the outer limits of the car's handling envelope!