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04 May 2022, 09:17

What to look for when buying a used car

While buying a used car is a fantastic alternative to splashing out on a new one, we’ve all heard horror stories of used cars needing thousands of pounds of work after purchasing.

The last thing you want after buying your car is to spend more money getting it up to the standard you thought you were paying for in the first place. To help prevent this scenario, we’ve put together a list of what to look for when buying a used car

Buying a used car: what checks should you make?

In this guide, we cover the below in more detail:

  •         MOT, service history and mileage
  •         Engine
  •         Gearbox, brakes and clutch
  •         Bodywork
  •         Wheels and tyres
  •         Interior

What to check on a used car during a test drive:

Most dealers will be happy to let you test drive a car before purchasing, and many buyers refuse to buy a car they haven’t test-driven. A test drive is a great opportunity to listen out for any unusual sounds or to identify any stiffness in the drive.

It’s a good idea to do the test drive before you check the engine so that you can see how it performs and whether any issues are visible after warming it up.  It’s also a good idea to see how you feel driving the car – is it what you expected or do you maybe want to try a larger or smaller vehicle?

The test drive gives you the opportunity to decide whether the car will suit your lifestyle or not.

Checking the MOT, service history and mileage of a used car

You can check the MOT history before you even step foot in the dealership on the website. A check will show you whether the car has failed an MOT in the past, when the next MOT is due, and other important information that might influence your decision to buy the car.

The service history, ideally, will be reflected in the car’s service book with a log from each garage that has carried out work on the car. Gaps in service history should be investigated. They are sometimes explained by a loss of documentation, and you can track down the information, but it won’t be easy.

Checking the MOT will also let you know how much mileage was on the odometer when tested. So when you go to the car dealer, make sure you verify this information, bearing in mind that if the MOT was done a while ago, the mileage could be higher when you check the car.

Used car engine check

Some of the most important things to look for when buying a used car are issues with the engine. It’s vital you’re aware of any issues with it before buying. So what should you check when looking at the engine of a used car?

Leaks: Leaks aren’t difficult to spot – you should be able to see if there is oil coming from the engine from places it shouldn’t pretty quickly. Other fluids can leak from an engine too – cooling fluid, gearbox and steering fluid, for example. Make sure you examine properly for any issues to avoid paying for expensive repairs down the line.

Smell: After your test drive, smell the engine to see if you smell burnt oil. This is a red flag that would need further investigation.

General appearance: Check that the engine is free from sludge or carbon deposits. If not, this could be a sign that the engine has not been properly maintained.  

Oil:  A key step in checking used cars before purchase is making sure the dipstick reading is at the correct level and the oil is the right colour and consistency. To do this, insert the dipstick into the tube and withdraw it looking closely at the tip. The level of oil should be between the two lines. The oil should look silky, and almost transparent.

Modifications: Some people choose to modify their engines for performance, and if done well, it will benefit the car. If not, it could lead to problems later on. It’s best to be aware of any modifications before handing over your cash. If you’re unsure whether any have been done, this is one of several good questions to ask the dealer.

Exhaust smoke: Exhaust smoke from the vehicle should come out light. Any strong colour could indicate issues with the engine that need attention.

Head gasket: You want to check that the head gasket is not leaking. This could indicate a blown gasket, a serious issue that could lead to a litany of problems including engine failure.

Gearbox, clutch and brakes

Whatever gearbox the car has, it should engage all gears smoothly and quietly. If it doesn’t, there’s a problem.

Check the biting point of the clutch if it’s a manual car. Is it around the middle of the pedal’s range? If not, there may be a problem.

For an automatic gearbox, make sure there is no major delay in engagement when shifting gears. This could indicate a major problem with the transmission.

Used car bodywork checks

One of the easiest things to look out for when checking a used car is the bodywork. In this check, you’re looking for any visible issues – scratches, dents, chips and anything out of the ordinary. Take your time with this, as you could miss a little detail if you don’t. Make sure you have a look underneath and inside the car.

Check any issues that were featured in the car advert to make sure they’re not worse in person. Check for rust – usually identified in its initial stages as bubbles under the paintwork.

Wheels and tyres

It’s important to check the wheels and tyres in a car you intend to buy as thoroughly as possible. This will help you avoid having to buy new tyres, which could prove costly. For tyres, make sure there are no cuts, splits or gouges.

Check the tread of the tyre as well to make sure it’s deep enough and consistent. On the wheels, look for any obvious signs of damage first – grazes are common and won’t pose a serious risk. Wheels that are distorted may need repairing or even replacing.


Check for wear and tear inside the car. If it’s old, it’s bound to show its age, but if it’s relatively new and advertised with low mileage, make sure this is reflected in the way it looks inside.

Take time to check the lights, windscreen wipers, radio and any other electronic features. It’s not the end of the world if something isn’t working, but if this is the case, you’ve got to factor this into your budget.

When you turn on the engine, make sure there are no warning lights on.

Look inside the boot and lift the carpet to check everything is in order and make sure there’s no liquid or traces of a leak.

So now you know what to look for when buying a used car, browse hundreds of fantastic used car deals at dealers across the UK now.

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