When you have decided to view a car for sale, there are some very important things you should look for.  Inside and out, you want to make sure the car is sound and worth what you are prepared to pay for it. Although it’s rare you’ll find a used car that’s in showroom condition, you can still make sure you get reliable and well looked after wheels if you know what to look for. Our step by step guide shows you exactly how to check a used or nearly new car before you buy it.  

Checking the car’s exterior

Try to view on a dry day and in a good light. Rain can hide a multitude of dents and scratches. Firstly walk around the car and look at the overall condition.  You want to be looking for any accident damage, any obvious repairs and dents and scratches. If you do notice things, don’t mention these faults until it comes to the negotiation.  It can help to take a notepad with you to note any issues you might want to mention later.

An important feature to check is the hood line. Make sure the hood closes evenly and fully without any gaps on the sides. Test all doors and the boot to see if they seal properly with no obvious gaps.  Obvious gaps can indicate it was in a collision.  Check all door and window seals for damage and make sure they are watertight, aren’t deteriorated and seal correctly. If the vehicle has a sunroof check it’s watertight and working properly.

Look along the car’s body lines and contours to make sure everything matches up. Check that all the panels match in texture and colour. Run your hand over as much of the paintwork as possible – it’s a good idea to feel for any scratches, blemishes or colour differences; these could indicate it has been resprayed. Check for any obvious welds or alterations on the car body. 

Inspect the headlights to see if they have the OEM logos. This shows they are original parts and not replacements. Make sure the lights line up with the body of the car with no obvious issues.  Make sure all lights – including indicators – are working correctly. Turn the windscreen wipers on and honk the horn.

If possible look underneath the car. Look at the frame rails and engine covers for evidence of damage. Also, check the exhaust and fittings for rust or damage.

Inspecting a used car interior

When it comes to the interior you want to make sure everything is functioning properly. Make sure the windows and doors open and close smoothly, and the same with the sunroof or soft top if applicable. Turn on the internal lights and make sure all the dashboard lights come on when you turn over the engine and no warning lights remain lit up.  Check buttons and indicators work. Look under the seats, check to make sure they can be adjusted easily too. Turn the radio on to make sure it works, but turn it off before you fire up the engine.

Turn on the heating and air-conditioning so you know it works (if applicable).  Run your hand over the upholstery to make sure it’s clean, free of rips and generally in good condition.

It seems simple and common sense but with the excitement of a car purchase, it can be easy to overlook some important features. 

What to look for when checking tyres and wheels on a used car

Tyres shouldn’t be bald and should all have a similar level of wear. Differences in wear on a tyre could be a sign of tracking or balance problems with the car. Check the thread depth and also for small cracks or nails. Tread depth is easily measured with a 20p coin. Place the coin in one of the tyres grooves. If the edge of the coin with TWENTY PENCE written on it disappears, you’ve got enough tread. Make sure you do this for three different points on each tyre. The walls of tyres should also be checked for faults like bubbling, tears or other damage.

Tyres over ten years old will definitely need replacing. The code on a tyre indicates its age.   Ask the seller when the tyres were last replaced. Also, make sure the wheels haven’t cracked and are in good condition for the age of the car. Locking wheel nuts should be with the car and should fit the wheels correctly. 

View the mileage

Always check the odometer reading matches the condition and age of the car!  If the car looks very old but has very few miles the odometer could have been tampered with. Service history should also match the mileage.

Mechanical Inspection

There are a few basic things to inspect in the engine, so make sure you lift the hood.  Look at the engine and see how clean it looks. This indicates how well the car has been looked after – a little oil is OK, cobwebs aren’t. Pull out the dipstick to check the engine oil level and quality. Normal oil is clear honey coloured, anything darker or containing sediment could mean it’s old and the car has been neglected.

Remove the oil cap and look at it to see how clean the oil is, and if it contains any sludge. Poor oil quality can be a clue to engine damage. Do the same with the transmission oil. Lastly, look at the battery and the terminals for any corrosion.  

Turn the engine on and rev the engine whilst idling. Better yet, take the car on a test drive to listen for strange noises and misfires. Also, ensure that there are no strange smells coming from the engine – particularly burning smells.

Depending on your level of car knowledge you might not be confident with a mechanical inspection.  If you know a mechanic or someone who is knowledgeable about cars, take them with you so they can give you some guidance.  Alternatively, the RAC and AA offer mechanical inspections for members at a small fee. 

VIN and Paperwork

Have a look at the VIN number on the windscreen and in the engine compartment to make sure they match the VIN number on the vehicle documentation. The VIN panel on the engine sill should have no sign of alterations or traces of welding.

Ask to see all the relevant paperwork for the car:

  • Their bill of sale from when they bought it (this is probably the MOST IMPORTANT thing to check because it is the only way of proving they legally own the car).
  • V5C/Logbook
  • Service and MOT records
  • Any repair receipts
  • Any applicable warranty

And finally…

Taking the time to thoroughly check a used car before you buy will save you from ending up with a lemon. Don’t let the seller rattle you or distract you with banter. If you have any questions about the vehicle you’re viewing, ask. It’s much better to take your time to check everything over before you enter into any negotiations. Once you know what’s being offered, it’s time to get ready for the haggle or walk away if it doesn’t meet your standards or the description.

Download our FREE Used Car Checklist.

Join our community to download our Used Car Checklist with everything there is to know about buying a used car.