Guide on what to look for when you buy a second hand car, with advice and tips provided by CompuCars

If you are unsure about items below or would like a second opinion, consider membership of an organisation such as the RAC who offer members full vehicle inspection reports.

When to view....
  • Try to view cars when they are dry and in natural good light.
Where to view....
  • Always try to inspect the vehicle at the sellers address.
Questions To Ask....
  • Is the mileage displayed correct (if it is getting this is writing)
  • Is the vehicle subject to finance (i.e. does a finance company have legal ownership due to a Hire Purchase loan agreement). Always check the car on HPI for finance, if it is stolen, or has been a write off. The seller may have proof of purchase showing payment was made by them in cash which will help to reassure you - but the only way to check is to carry out a check through HPI.
  • Has the vehicle ever been subject to a total loss claim (written off by an insurance company) or involved in a major accident. If you would like reassurance carry out a check through HPI.
  • If the vehicle has covered more that 40-50,000 miles ask if the cambelt has been replaced (not all vehicles have rubber cambelts, but those that do require period replacement to avoid costly repairs when they break).
  • If there any warranty available (even a vehicle offered for private sale may have some warranty remaining either from when it was new or when bought second hand from a dealer. Most warranties are transferable when buying privately but check for transfer terms and that the warranty requirements have been met e.g. services carried out on time, and that the mileage has not exceeded the maximum allowable). You can always purchase a warranty on a used car (even if brought privately) through Warranty Direct.
  • What method of payment would the seller be looking for - finance (at a dealership) or bankers draft should be considered preferable to cash which is not easily accountable or traceable.
Documents to check....
  • V55 (vehicle registration document)
    • If private sale the sellers name and address would normally be the same as that shown on the V55 unless you are buying from a trader / dealer. If the name shown is not the same, ensure you are happy with the identity of the seller and their legal ownership and right to sell the vehicle.
    • The VIN (Vehicle Identification Number) is the same as shown on the vehicle. The VIN is normally embossed on the bulkhead behind the engine and also on a small silver plate, also normally in the engine bay area. Check both for signs of tampering. VIN plates should not normally be loose, and you would expect the area not to look cleaner than the rest of the engine area. Often the area would have a light protective coating applied when new, look for signs this has been removed around the area where the VIN is embossed. It is possible to fill and emboss a modified VIN.
    • If you can see the serial number of the engine (position varies but will be on the main engine block and should not have been removed) check that it is ties up with the V55.
    • The number plates fitted to the vehicle show the same registration mark that is recorded on the V55. If the vehicle is currently undergoing a cherished (private number) transfer the seller should have paperwork relating to this.
  • If the vehicle is over 3 years old, check the M.O.T.
    • The mileage recorded on current and previous should be as expected and tie up with any other documents showing dates and mileages e.g. service invoices.
    • The registration / VIN shownon the certificate is correct.
  • Service and other maintenance records
    • If invoices are available check dates and mileages are as you would expect.
    • The name on the invoice would normally be that of the vehicle owner at the time so check this is who you would expect.
    • Look for comments / notes on invoices indicating problems the owner has reported or items the dealer is recommending receive attention.
Before driving check....
  • Under the bonnet
    • Fluid levels and colour
      • Engine oil is within the levels indicated on the dipstick.
      • Brake fluid is clear and above the minimum level.
      • Coolant should not be milky.
      • Automatic vehicles may have an additional dipstick for the transmission fluid.
    • Signs of oil or other fluid leaks.
    • Colour of all painted areas is as you would expect and that there are no signs of small amounts of spray paint on engine or other items where you would not normally expect to see it.
    • The front cross member and radiator look to be straight and do not show signs of having been twisted in an impact. 
  • Outside the vehicle
    • Walk around the vehicle, at a distance of about 9 feet.
      • Gaps between doors, wings, bonnet etc should look even.
      • Colour of panels match, and that there is not a gradual change in colour of the car across the length of a panel.
      • While still at a good distance, look across the panels (e.g. bonnet, roof) and down the side to view doors and the sills below looking for larger more gradual dents which are often easy to miss when you stand closer.
    • Walk around the vehicle again, but much closer.
      • Look for signs of small amounts of spray paint on door rubbers, suspension, wheel arch liners which may indicate repairs.
      • Check for scratches or other damage. Again look across the panels and down the sides of the vehicle for smaller less noticeable dents.
      • Look for rust or other early signs of corrosion especially along the edges of panels and the bottom of doors.
      • Paintwork should not show signs of flaking, a problem which will normally become worse across the affected panel or area repaired.
      • Tyres should show even wear have more than the legal minimum of 1.6mm tread, and be free from bulges or cuts.
      • Wheel rims should feel smooth and be free from dents and chunks missing.
      • All external lights should be free from cracks. Rock the car slightly looking for signs of water movement inside the lamp units which is often hard to see when it is not moving.
      • If the vehicle has a manual radio aerial, ensure it rises and closes - which will not be possible if it has been damaged.
      • Inspect all glass for scratches and chips.
      • All doors should open and close without catching on other panels, and those fitted with external locks should operate correctly (normally with a single key). If remote locking is available check all doors lock when it is operated.
      • All external lights operate correctly including high/low beam, reverse, driving / front fog lights and rear fog light(s), indicators and hazards.
    • That the vehicle is not too large for your garage / parking area.
  • Inside the vehicle
    • Look for tears, cigarette burns and stains on all interior trim, including seats, door trim and dashboard.
    • There should be no signs of the odometer (mileage) area of the dash board having been removed. Look closely at the retaining screws for signs of silver where paint has been removed from them when they were being undone. Look very closely at the mileage displayed. Parts of the white digits of manual odometers should not have been coloured with a black pen! Digital odometers should display the numbers evenly and not have slightly dimmer elements of a number (where the computer has been tampered with to force a segment to illuminate or fade so as to make a number appear to be a lower than it really is e.g. fading two segments of the "8" digit will make it appear to be a "2"
    • Lift floor mats to view floor carpets. Small fragments of glass in the carpet may be a sign of break in or accident.
    • Don't forget to look up! Check the roof lining for tears and marks which are often hard to remove.
    • Check the operation of accessories e.g. stereo, air conditioning, central locking, electric windows, sunroof (manual windows / sunroof should be opened and closed), fan, wipers and washers, horn, interior lights etc.
    • The windscreen should be free from stone chips and scratches, especially in the drivers line of sight. Although you have checked this externally the procedure should be repeated from inside.
    • Lift boot carpet
      • Check for spare wheel, jack and wheel brace. Ensure the spare tyre is in good order.
      • There should be no signs of ripples in the metal indicating that it has been compressed in an impact. If the spare wheel is inside the boot, check the gap around the tyre is even and has not been compressed into an oval shape.
      • Glass fragments may be a sign of accident damage.
    • Ensure that rear seats fold or remove as you expect.
    • If you happen to notice any maintenance / repair invoices relating the to vehicle in the glove box, door pockets or under the seats - Check hem!
    • Check you and all other drivers of the vehicle fit comfortably into the driving seat.
  • Check you are comprehensively insured before taking the vehicle out onto the road. Most insurance policies only offer third party cover when driving a car that does not belong to you. What would you do if you damage the sellers car - and don't want to buy it!
Test drive the vehicle....
  • Remember to drive with the radio switched off!
    • Warning lights should not illuminate.
    • Brake moderately from about 50mph checking car slows as you would expect and without vibration of brake pedal or steering wheel and any other unexpected effects such as loud grating noises.
    • Listen for a droning noise which varies with vehicle but not engine speed.
    • Cars with power steering: As you turn the wheel slowly, check that there is not a feeling of the effort required quickly and repeatedly becoming slightly easier then harder.
    • The steering wheel should not start to shake at speed.
    • The vehicle should drive in a straight line without constant correction (allow for the camber of most roads falling off to the left).
    • Manual gearbox
      • The gear change should be smooth and go into each gear without difficulty.
      • When accelerating then decelerating with the accelerator pedal, the gearbox should not pop out of gear.
      • Check that when under load e.g. accelerating hard or driving up a steep hill, the engine speed does not rise faster than you would expect for the speed you are travelling.
    • Automatic gearbox
      • The gears should change when you expect, without pausing or changing unexpectedly.
      • When driving about 30 mph, depress the accelerator suddenly (speed limits permitting) to ensure the gearbox 'kicks down' to a lower gear.
      • The engine speed should increase in line with the vehicle speed.
    • After driving, when the car is warm and still running
      • Check for any unusual smoke or smells
      • The engine bay area should look as it did before, with no new fluid leaks.
      • The exhaust gasses should not be excessive in amount or a strong blue / grey in colour.
Complete Purchase....
  • Ensure that the seller agrees, in writing, to all sale conditions.
    • Items to be repaired / replaced / added.
    • If your purchase is 'subject to' a condition being met e.g. satisfactory independent inspection.
    • Any warranty details.
    • Collection date.
    • Deposit paid.
    • Balance due and payment method. Always make bankers drafts payable to the seller and NOT a third party.
  • Arrange your motor insurance cover for the agreed delivery date. 
Take Delivery....
  • Things to remember to take with you.
    • If taking finance from a dealer
      • To take you driving licence and any other proof of identity requested.
      • Proof of comprehensive insurance.
    • If part exchanging your old car
      • V55 (registration document)
      • All vehicle keys, including alarm, locking wheel nut key, remote locking keys, stereo security code key.
      • M.O.T. if your vehicle requires one.
      • Service / maintenance records, service book.
      • Remove all your personal belongings.
    • The balance due.
  • Check the vehicle
    • Condition internally and externally is as before.
    • Items such as spare wheel, jack and wheel brace, stereo and other removable items are still in the car.
    • Road fund licence (tax disc) is valid and displayed.
  • Obtain all paperwork you have previously viewed
    • Service / maintenance receipts and service book.
    • Your portion of the V55 (registration document)
    • M.O.T. if applicable.
    • Stereo security code (if applicable)
    • Warranty book
  • Obtain all keys including spares, alarm keys, remote locking controls, locking wheel nut key etc
  • Obtain a receipt for all payments you have made.