The comprehensive guide to buying a used car

Buying a used car can seem like a daunting task, Comprehensive guide to buying a used carespecially if you aren’t particularly confident with cars. It isn’t as difficult as it seems though and, with the right preparation and knowing what to ask, there’s no reason why buying a used car shouldn’t be a breeze.

When you buy a used car, there are a few things you need to consider. There are common mistakes that a lot of people make, because they don’t ask the right questions or do the proper checks. Reading a used car guide can really help to make you feel more confident. Here’s what to look for when buying a used car.

Paperwork you need to check

Knowing what paperwork you need to check is extremely important. As well as the key documents, you should ask for any documents the dealer has regarding the car’s history.

Don’t just pick them up, have a good look through to see what’s been done. It might say, for example, that there’s been an accident and that the front bumper has been replaced. You can then check whether it has been properly repaired.

Here are the key things you need to check:

MOT – Ask for the vehicle’s MOT history and look through it properly. Check the history of all the repairs on the vehicle. Many people focus on what repairs have been made, which is important, but you should also be cautious of cars that haven’t had a lot of repairs.

If a car hasn’t had any work done, ask yourself why. Is it because the previous owner didn’t get things fixed? Just because there aren’t details of lots of repairs, it doesn’t necessarily mean a car has been well looked after.

Look out for advisories on MOT test certificates too. These are things that wouldn’t fail an MOT, but may need to be sorted sooner rather than later, which means you will have to fork out for the repairs.

Once you have bought your car, take it to an MOT station and ask them to look over it for you. Ask them to list any faults. You can then go back to the dealer or seller and ask them to correct them.

Service history – Used cars should have a full service history available for you to review. If a car isn’t serviced regularly, things are more likely to go wrong. If they don’t have the service history, be wary of buying the car.

V5C document – You should also be able to see the vehicle’s V5C document (or log book). This should contain all the key information about the car, such as its registration, how many owners it has had and what date it was registered.

Vehicle history check – You can do a free 26-point history check on AA Cars. This will tell you information about your car that’s crucial to know before you buy it, including whether the car has been written off and, if so, what category it is (which can seriously affect its value), if there’s outstanding finance on the car and if it has ever been reported as stolen. In some cases you can see the mileage and if there’s any outstanding finance on the vehicle. You can also get vehicle information from the DVLA website.

Warranty – When you buy a used car from a dealer there is often an option to buy a warranty. Some cars might also still have some of the manufacturer’s warranty left. You can also buy a warranty online.

The cover can change with the age and mileage of the car. Make sure it’s a total warranty, with everything included. Getting a decent warranty takes a lot of worry out of the equation, because you know you’ve got it covered if things go wrong.

The test drive

Taking a used car on a test drive is essential. It’s important so that you can be sure there aren’t any major problems with the car. For the test drive, get the dealer to drive it first of all and open all the windows so you can hear the engine. It’s difficult to pick up on things when you are concentrating on driving.

Listen for noises as they are driving, for example, during braking and gear changes. When it’s your turn to drive, try to focus on the practical features of the car and how it feels to drive. Check that the brakes and the steering are responsive and in full working order.

It’s easy to get carried away with the excitement of testing a car you are interested in buying. Take a friend with you for a second opinion; they can be critical and look at the car from an objective perspective.

Exterior car checks

You need make sure you check the exterior of the car for damage. Again, take somebody with you so that they can think logically and be critical. If you know anyone who has a good knowledge of cars, ask them to come along.

If the dealer doesn’t let you look at everything, e.g., underneath the car, then ask yourself why not. They should give you access to every bit of the car.

Here are some of the exterior checks you could carry out on a used car:

  • Check to see if anything has been done to the engine
  • Check for oil leaks by looking underneath the car to see if there are any oil stains
  • Check the exhaust and under the bonnet of the car and look for signs of rust and damage
  • Check the engine doesn’t have any corrosion or obvious leaks
  • Look at the bodywork for any ripples or colour differences. If parts of the car are a different colour and it has obviously been resprayed, the best thing to do is to find out why. If you can tell just by looking at it, it probably hasn’t been repainted that well. Look for any over spray on the rubbers around the window – this tends to show that the respray has been done poorly
  • One thing which always identifies damage or poorly-adjusted suspension is tyre wear. If there is uneven tyre wear it shows that the front suspension or tracking is, at best, poorly adjusted or, at worst, accident damaged. Check the tyres too for splits or bulges on the walls as the tracking might be out because the car hit a pothole – which could also have damaged the tyre
  • Look through every panel on the car for dents, bumps and scratches. You need to consider whether or not you are happy with a scratch or two and take potential repair costs into consideration
  • Every car has stone chips so don’t let that put you off, but ensure that they have been treated
  • Check under the returns of the wheel arches to see if they are clean. If they aren’t, they can give rise to dust. A lot of people don’t clean the underneath of their car properly – it’s another hint about the previous owner and how they have looked after the car
  • Check that all the tyres are of the same make, especially the front two and back two (the ones on the same axle). If they’re not, then demand that they are changed because this could cause handling differences

Interior car checks

The interior of a car is a sign of how the driver looks after the car. If it’s a bit tatty, that’s an indicator of the behaviour of the previous owner.

The car should have had a full interior valet and appear clean and well looked after. Check the seats for any marks, stains or tears. Also check all the compartments and interior features are working properly, such as the air conditioning and radio.

General tips

  • Look for a car on a sunny day. Don’t go when it’s wet because rain can cover up blemishes
  • If you are buying a car that’s 10 years old, you are still entitled to it being in good condition, as if it were five years old, apart from obvious wear and tear. Some older used cars can still be in excellent condition if they are taken care of
  • If you are buying from a dealer, take some time to look into their company history
  • If you want anything done to the car, send an email with a list of the things you found that were promised to be repaired
  • When you pick up the car, check to make sure everything else is the same as when you saw it the first time. Check that they have made any changes you requested
  • Remember that the car will look its best because the dealer will have valeted it to the extreme and you are unlikely to get it looking better than they have presented it. So, if you can’t live with it as it is now, then maybe it’s not the right car for you
  • Don’t feel pressured into buying the car by the dealer or seller. Give yourself time to seriously consider whether or not you should buy the car
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