Advice when checking over a used car

Checking your used car is easier than you might think! It's important to take your time and be methodical. Take our advice guide with you when buying your next car.

Everyone has that thing they are focused on when they are buying a car. For some people that is the excitement surrounding the car itself, for some people it’s negotiating the best deal, for some, it’s making sure that they can comfortably manage the finance payments on a monthly basis. However, whatever your focus is – and all of the above are perfectly legitimate and understandable – you should make sure that you check the basics. Don’t be the one who buys a car with bald tyres because you were too busy checking the paintwork!

So to help you avoid being that person who falls into one of the potential traps, what follows is a summary of the things you should always check when buying a used car. If you take this list with you when viewing, you can never go far wrong. 

Recommended equipment: Tyre Tread Depth Gauge, Torch (a small one is fine), a smartphone with access to the internet, the device you would play music from in the car normally (although you can skip this if you prefer the radio), and a ‘glamorous’ assistant (partner, friend, parent – basically anyone who you can trust to support you in the endeavour – they don’t need to be a car expert though, don’t worry!)

First, inspect the stationary car on the forecourt. Don’t forget that with all the advice in this article, two sets of eyes are better than one; hence why you have bought along with your aforementioned ‘glamorous’ assistant.

Check Paintwork – ideally more than once in different lighting if this is an option. Use a torch (most smartphones have one installed if you don’t keep on in the car – always advisable anyway) to check more closely for scratches. Some people are more bothered about this than others. Problem areas to keep a close eye on are: Front bumper (stone chips galore), Sills and Boot Sill (this is where people like to rest things whilst loading them into the boot). 

Nissan X Trail orange front view

Check Alloys – This is for two purposes: first the obvious cosmetic element, as you need to be happy that the price you are paying reflects the condition of the alloys (considering that alloy wheel refurbs tend to cost in the region of £50+ per wheel). Secondly, you should always check for dents that could show signs of a weakened or failing wheel. If you see this you should request that this be sorted or replaced before purchasing. 

Check Tyres – Check the tread depth of all 4 tyres. If you are buying from a Dealership this should have already been done for you, but it never hurts to check does it? Remember that the law requires car tyres to have a minimum tread depth of 1.6mm in a continuous band around the central three-quarters of the tyre. However, even if the tyres are legal, consider how long it may be until they need changing. Also, check what brands the current tyres are. If they are no-name budgets, what might that say about the previous owner of the car? (My advice for tyres is always go for mid-range or higher, as budget tyres tend to be a false economy when it comes to longevity and even safety)! Finally, check for notches/ cuts/ageing rubber. A tyre with 6mm of tread left is worthless if it isn’t safe because the rubber has corroded over a long period of time! (Worth check rear tyres on front-wheel-drive cars as these wear considerably slower).

Scan the underside of the car – not for the faint-hearted I admit; you must be prepared to drop into press-up position to get a good view! However, this is often worthwhile because some cars fair better than others against constant wear from road salt and dirt. Specifically have a look at the exhaust system, to check for signs of unusually high levels of corrosion. While you’re checking out the outside of the car, turn on the ignition of the car and have your glamorous assistant (or the salesman if you left yours at home) sit in the car and press the brakes and work the indicators etc while you check all the bulbs are working.

Check for overall cleanliness and upkeep – as I alluded to earlier, some things may seem minor but are indicative of a systematic problem with a car. For example, a car’s previous owner could have taken very poor care of the vehicle; and you can start to see signs of this if you look closely. Further to the above checks; just looking in the engine bay at how dirty it is, making sure there is no corrosion, and checking the boot, below the boot floor, the grooves in the door sills and boot and bonnet mechanisms for dirt, mould or corrosion are all good places to start. 

Check the fluid levels – whilst you have the bonnet open, it’s always a good idea to either check (or cheekily ask the salesman to check) the level of the oil, washer fluid and coolant. Of course, this will not catch any issues (for example the oil could be old and need replacing and the average consumer would never know until a professional takes a look) but it will catch if a car is simply being sold without the basics being sorted for the new potential owner. No one wants to get their new purchase home and then have to go out and buy oil that afternoon because they didn’t check! Of course, if you are purchasing from a dealer they may do a “pre-collection service” where things like that are all sorted in the days before you actually pick up your new car. Just make sure you ask the question; then check at point of collection.

Vauxhall Adam engine

Check for equipment – Whilst you are in the boot, it’s always a good idea to check that your standard emergency equipment is there. It’s all usually located below the boot floor – although it can sometimes be hidden away in less obvious places, consult google or your salesman if you are unsure). Check for the presence of a spare wheel (or a puncture repair kit), a jack, a compressor and your locking wheel nut (usually in the glove box). It’s better to ensure all these things are present before purchase, as proving they weren’t there two weeks down the line in nigh-on impossible. 

Inspect the interior – this can be as simple as a quick glance in a newer car, but it’s always worth doing a full inspection of how well the interior has ‘held’ through its life. Important things to check are the seats for marks and stains, the seat bolsters (the bits that stick up or stick out) for excessive wear, the mats (and the carpets underneath those mats!) for burns, stains and marks – you may be able to get them swapped if they aren’t up to standard. Also, check for scratches on the door plastics (where peoples feet catch), and have a more general look at the interior trim to see if anything doesn’t look like it has been well looked after. Problems like these may not be within the dealer or sellers ability to fix, but they are a point for negotiation if you aren’t happy. 

This concludes the visual inspection of the vehicle. Obviously the car you may be looking at may have its own more specific requirements, or things you may know about its history may cause you to need to look more closely at certain aspects than others. This list is not extensive, but is intended to steer you in the right direction (no shame for the terrible car pun)! If you think I have missed something glaringly obvious then please let us know in the comments.

Next week; advice for the test drive!


About Carsnip
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About the Author
Sam Wardega is a freelance car journalist working on behalf of
A lifetime Petrolhead who started with Hot Wheels aged 2, and now just spends his life savings on owning his dream cars. As they say boys dont stop playing with toys; they just get bigger and more expensive!

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