What to look for when viewing a car

So you’ve found the car, now it’s time to take a look. But what should every buyer look for when viewing a vehicle? Worry not, here’s my helpful guide.


Under the bonnet

It’s best to inspect under the bonnet when everything is cool, so before starting the car you should check the following.1



Find the dipstick and check the oil level. You may need to wipe the dipstick with some tissue to get a clear reading. It should be between the min and max lines notched onto the stick. The oil itself should be gold to bronze and transparent like treacle. Black oil is due a change and milky white oil is contaminated with water. Water contamination could point to a head gasket failure or a car that has been stood for some time.




Do not open if the car is hot. The header tank in the car should give an indication of levels. Anti-freeze in the coolant can come in a variety of colours, typically pink but the water itself should be clear and not a rusty red or brown. As with the oil, milky looking coolant could suggest a head gasket failure. Tiny bits of copper dust suggest a coolant leak repair.



Brake Fluid

Inspect the levels but avoid touching the fluid itself. Brake fluid shouldn’t need topping up unless there is a leak which could require a new caliper, brake cylinder, or lines.


Modern cars usually have plastic covering many of the components and ancillaries, preventing inspection. However if you can see them, check drive belts for wear and tear. Also look for any evidence of oil and water leaks around the engine bay.



Outside the car


Tyres – Including the spare

Look for uneven wear, especially on the front tyres which could suggest poor alignment, incorrect inflation, or worse a suspension issue. Look for the wear indicators in the tread pattern, making sure each tyre is above the minimum legal tread depth of 1.6mm. If you research the tyre price for the vehicle before viewing, you can factor this into the price you offer.



If the car has alloys you may also make a cursory inspection of the brake discs. Carefully run your finger to the disc edge. If there’s an excessive lip the discs are due a change. Depending on the car you may also be able to see the depth of the brake pads in the caliper with a torch.




Have your friend watch and confirm each light works including reverse. While a bulb replacement is usually cheap, it’s best to check they function before driving.



Open every door from inside and out, check the handles work and the key opens both doors and the boot.

Look down the lines of the car and the roof. Inconsistent gaps between body panels and doors or creases in the roof suggest an accident. Also look for variations in colour on the paintwork.

Underneath the car look for any excessive signs of rust especially under the door sills.




After starting the car check the exhaust while your friend opens the throttle a few times.

  • Whitish grey smoke could indicate water getting in the combustion chamber.
  • Bluish black smoke on a petrol car could indicate a worn engine burning oil.
  • Black sooty smoke on a diesel could indicate failure of the particulate filter or over fueling.
  • A sulfur smell like rotten eggs from the exhaust indicates an issue with unburnt fuel getting into the catalytic converter.

All cars get condensation in their exhaust when they cool down, they also burn extra fuel on start up. Check the exhaust again when the car is up to temperature and be concerned if one of the above issues persists.


Inside the car



Check that both seats tilt and slide if it’s a two door. Check they adjust correctly, especially for your height.


In the boot lift up the carpet. Any creases in the floor could suggest a rear end collision. Also look for rust in the wheel well if it’s located here.

Switches and dashboard

Test the electrical switches for components like the radio and heated seats. Switch the ignition through its starting positions to check for any warning lights or messages. Some cars will only highlight minor issues during start up.

Make sure the mileage matches the advert and paperwork.



Heater and Air-Conditioning

Test if the heater and demister work. Check the air-conditioning blows cold. If it doesn’t, factor the cost of re-gassing into the price.



Logbook, Service History and MOTs

Check the paper work. Look for any long gaps in the servicing or MOT renewal dates.

Look for timing belt and clutch changes. A timing belt change is essential at the recommended intervals and can be quite expensive depending on the vehicle.2 If a high mileage car is on its original clutch, even if it feels ok on the test drive you should factor this into your price.

I discussed how to use the logbook in a previous article.



The Test Drive

Depending on your insurance and the seller, you should always try to test drive a car or at the very least ask the seller to take you out and put the car through its paces. I will cover the test drive in my next article.

After the car has been moved, inspect the ground for any stains on the drive or street which could suggest an oil or coolant leak.