What to check when buying your first used car

Buying a used car for the first time can be a bit of a gamble, especially if you’re considering a private purchase. If you’re not careful, you can end up being sold a dud that will cost you a fortune to keep on the road, or – worse still – you could be driving a dangerous vehicle.

You get a little more protection if you are buying your used car from a dealer, but it’s still a good idea to view your first car with someone who has a little more experience in buying and selling cars.

This guide will itemise the documentation you need to check and the things you need to look out for to ensure the used car you buy is reliable, safe, and legal.

1. Check the vehicle documentation

Check the V5C registration document, the MOT and the vehicle identification number (VIN).

The V5C registration document

The seller should be in possession of the vehicle’s V5C. You’ll need it to tax the car if you decide to buy it.

The V5C should bear the seller’s name and have a watermark. Check there are no spelling mistakes and that the VIN, engine number, colour and number plate on the car match the details recorded on the V5C.

The MOT documentation

If the car is more than three years old, check that it has a current MOT and that the details recorded on it match the details of the used car you are inspecting. You can use the government website to check the MOT history of a vehicle for peace of mind.

Check the car’s service record to ensure the cam belt has been replaced according to the manufacturer’s recommendation if the car is old enough or it’s done enough miles.

The VIN plate

Lastly, check the VIN plate, which is the identifying code used for each specific car. You’ll find it stamped into the chassis, usually in the engine bay or beneath the plastic trim around the driver or passenger door opening.

Car manufacturers often repeat the VIN in other areas, such as on a sticker on the windscreen or etched onto windows or headlamps. Check them for tampering.

buying a used car

2. Check the vehicle mileage

The mileage of a used car can be one of the major influences on the asking price. Generally, the lower the mileage the higher the price, so you will need to check the mileage has been recorded accurately and the vehicle hasn’t been “clocked”, i.e. had it’s mileage wound back.

Work on the average that most cars will do between 7,000 and 8,000 miles a year. Does the mileage of the vehicle you are inspecting match the car’s age, appearance and general wear and tear?

Check for signs that the instruments have been tampered with, and that the mileage recorded on service records and MOTs matches that displayed on the milometer in the car. In general, the mileage shown on service records should increase steadily year on year.

3. Check for undisclosed damage

It’s important to know if the used car you are thinking of buying has been involved in an accident and, if it has, that repairs have been made to the highest standard.

A car that has been in a crash may look sound because of the cosmetic work done on it, but it may be hiding all sorts of dangerous issues.

  • As a result, it’s important to check the car thoroughly for any undisclosed damage. Simple checks you can perform include:
  • Looking for excessive gaps between panels or mismatched colours, which could be a sign of accident damage repair.
  • Checking the paint finish is consistent and that there is no paint on handles, window seals or plastic mouldings.
  • Checking for post production welding under the bonnet or in the boot.

4. Perform general safety checks

Now check the tyres, seat belts, lights and windscreen wipers and washers.

The tyres should be in good condition with no gouges, scuffs, bulges or excessive wear. Tyres with less than 3mm of tread will soon need replacing. Check the spare too.

All the seat belts should work and should be free of any damage that could impair them.

Make sure all the lights and windscreen wipers and washers work. If light bulbs are gone, wiper blades are worn or the washer reservoir is out of fluid, it might indicate the car has been poorly maintained.

It’s a good idea to check beneath the car for leakage of water, oil or other lubricants.

5. Check beneath the bonnet

You don’t have to be a trained mechanic to develop an eye for what to look out for beneath the bonnet of a used car.

Make sure you inspect the oil tank as sludge on the filler cap could indicate a poor service history. If the oil level is too low, this may indicate a leak or that the car has been neglected.

You should also be concerned if the oil level is too high, as it could indicate poor servicing or that it has been over-filled because of a leak. You might want to check the oil level before and after you go for a test drive to see if the oil drains too quickly, which could be a sign of a leak.

6. Take a test drive

Now, at last, if you are still interested in buying the car, you can take it for a test drive. Here are a few things to look out for:

  • All the dashboard warning lights should come on when you turn on the ignition and then go out once the engine is running.
  • Check that the brakes are working effectively. There’s something wrong if the car veers to one side or there is a rumbling noise when you apply the brake.
  • Check the handbrake will hold the car on an incline.
  • Check the steering for “wheel wobble”, vibration or any drifting to one side.
  • Listen out for any unusual noises or grinding.

Read our blog for more tips on taking a used car for a test drive. And if you’ll be driving by yourself, read our tips for driving alone for the first time.

buying a used car

Getting insurance for your new car

Whether you’re still learning or you’re a newly qualified driver, Adrian Flux has a range of insurance policies to suit your very individual needs. Learner driver insurance can cost from as little as 65p per day.

And if you’ve recently passed your test, Adrian Flux is the go-to specialist when it comes to value-for-money new driver insurance, whether you are buying a used car or a brand new one straight out of the showroom.

Call  0808 506 5009 for a swift no obligation quote – 79.5% of all customers receiving an online quote in July 2020 could have obtained a cheaper quote over the phone, based on the information they provided.

Read our blog to learn about the cheapest cars for 17-year-olds to insure.