Buying a used car – checking the condition

oldbangerBuying a used car can be a very daunting task because there are so many to choose from. You have to consider the colour, the engine, the price of road tax, the fuel consumption, and much more!

However, one of the most important considerations is the condition of the car. But what do you need to check and look out for? Well, we’re here to make that a lot easier by providing you with our simple guide on checking the condition of a used car.

Let’s start with…

The paintwork

Always ask the owner if they are aware of any previous damage to the paintwork, or if there is any rust.

To begin with ask the owner if they are aware of any previous damage to the paintwork, or if there is any rust. There are two reasons why you should ask this question. Firstly, you want the owner to point out any issues to save you some time; however it’s still important to check the entire car in case they miss anything. Secondly, you are checking to see how honest the owner is and if they are willing to fully admit any problems.

If the owner states there are no problems with the paintwork and it’s in perfect condition, but after making an inspection you come across some easily noticeable defects to the paintwork, then this could be a clear sign that the owner is trying to pull the wool over your eyes.

If the owner is not willing to admit to obvious paintwork issues, then how much more are then not willing to share? Most car owners will always try to talk down problems with a car because they are trying to sell it, but if someone is clearly trying to hide some obvious problems then this might be the time to decline and walk away.

So what should I look out for?

Look for obvious signs of rust, irregular lumps or waviness in the paintwork.
Look for obvious signs of rust, irregular lumps or waviness in the paintwork.

You need to check for obvious signs of rust which can occur on very old cars. If the car is fairly new, then you need to mainly focus your attention on the paintwork itself and if there is anything glaringly wrong.

For example, have a look down the side of the car at the panels to see if you can see irregular lumps or waviness to the paint. This is usually a good indication that something has been patched as the paintwork isn’t as smooth as it would be when it came straight out of the factory.

Are there any scratches? You will often find scratches and small dents on the doors, usually when the car has been damaged in a car park. It’s quite common for other people to open their door onto another car when they park so close to each other, so you often see small dents in the doors. Again, look down the side of the car so you can clearly see any small dents.

Scratches often occur on the driver’s side door due to the driver opening the car with the key in their hand. So look out for scratches around the handle, as well as on all of the doors.

Finally, have a look at the panels to see if any of them appear to be a slightly different colour to the rest. If there has been some damage to the car and it has had a re-spray, then you will often find that it doesn’t completely match the original paintwork.

Check the inside

Check the interior of the car for rips or tears.
Check the interior of the car for rips or tears.

Have a good look inside the car to check there are no rips or tears. Especially if the car has leather interior, as this can be extremely expensive to repair. Don’t forget to also check the boot for the same thing, and you can also have a sneaky peak underneath at the same time to see if there is a spare tyre. It’s also worth pointing out that you should check the roof of the interior, as this is something that most people fail to check, and usually only focus on the seats.

For older cars you must also check underneath the floor mats to make sure there aren’t any holes in the carpet being hidden. It might be the last place you’d think of looking, but just as important as the seats.

You should also check the air conditioning and the stereo to make sure everything is working, and any other electrics that come with the car. Like electric and/or heated seats. Again, consider asking the owner if they are aware of any faults, to see how honest they are being.

Does the previous owner have a dog, and do you notice any odd smells? You might come across a few hairs if they haven’t cleaned it very well inside, so it’s important to check whether or not the car has a musty smell that could be difficult to get rid of. The car should have a nice clean fragrant smell if it’s had a good proper valet, so be wary of any odours that you might never be able to get rid of.

Check the engine

Check the car engine for obvious signs of rust or dirt.

You don’t have to be a mechanic to spot any obvious signs of rust and dirt. If the car is fairly new, then it should be clean and in good condition. If however the car is very old, then you may be expecting some dirt and a little rust, but it’s important to check all the same.

To be completely sure that the engine is as it should be our advice would be to bring along a mechanic so they can give it a good look. It could be that the owner hasn’t looked after the car very well and could be pushing it too its limits, so it’s important you look out for any signs of misuse to the engine.

Test drive the car

Drive the car yourself on a test run, so that you can put it through its paces.

Put the car through its paces and take it out for a drive. Some of the things to look out for when driving the car are:-

  • The brakes – do they work well, or do you have to put your foot close to the floor to get any reaction?
  • Look out for any vibration in the brake pedal, or for any strange squealing noises. This could mean that the brakes need new pads.
  • Check the tracking to make sure the car keeps in a straight line.
  • Do a 90 degree turn and check for any clunking noises or odd sounds.
  • Check for any warning lights that may come on.
  • Check all of the lights and indicators to make sure everything is working.
  • Check windscreen wipers and the washers.

Tyre tread

You don’t have to be an expert to spot if the tyres look old and worn. Have a good look around all of them to make sure the grip looks good. You could also ask the owner when they last had a tyre replaced and if they have a receipt for it.

If any of the tyres need replacing shortly after you buy the car, then this is another expense to add onto the car amongst anything else you may have come across.

Check service history, MOT and any other repairs

Check all of the paperwork is in order, and reflects what the owner has told you.

The owner should have all of the relevant paperwork associated with the cars condition, and any repairs that may have been carried out. For example, if the car was advertised as having 8 months MOT and a full service history, then you must ask to see this so you can double check everything is correct.

It’s also important to do your research into a specific make and model of car that you are looking for, in case there are any reports of common faults that need to be looked at. Checking the internet is the best place to start, and try to read as many forums as you can to see how many other people are experiencing the same problems.

If you do find that there is a common problem with the car, then it’s important to check with the owner to see if they have had it repaired or any parts replaced to prevent the issue from happening. If they have, then ask for the receipts so they can prove everything has been resolved.


Don’t be afraid to ask more questions and if in doubt, remember there are plenty more cars out there!

If you still have your doubts after you have performed all of these checks then don’t hesitate to ask the owner more questions. Buying a car is the second most expensive purchase in your life, so you must take your time and don’t be pressurised into a decision.

Unless you are looking to buy a unique sports or luxury car, then you should find there are plenty more out there for you to consider. So if you have any doubts about the condition of the car, then make sure you look at quite a few so you can compare them.

Don’t settle for second best, and keep looking until you find one in great condition!

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