What to look for when buying a used car

What to look for when buying a used car

A bargain can be had when buying a used car privately but it is ‘buyer beware’ when it comes to checking you have an honest motor. Dealer forecourts will typically hold good quality cars and that assurance comes at a premium. The only way to be sure you are getting good value for money is to learn when a car has been well looked after and when it has seen better days.


It is essential that a car’s claimed mileage is an honest reading.

  • Does the appearance of the car seem consistent with its claimed mileage?
  • The vehicle’s current MOT certificate will show the last recorded mileage. The figure shown on the odometer should not be under this figure but could be slightly over.
  • Be wary of signs that the dashboard has been removed or replaced.



It is easiest to spot accident damage from outside the vehicle. View the car outside during daylight hours, as many faults can be hidden in the poor lighting of a garage.

  • Are there any wide gaps between the panels?
  • View the paintwork from different angles. Is the finish even, or does it show signs of layers, cracks or large blemishes?
  • Look under the bonnet, under carpets and other parts of the metalwork that are covered. The paint in these areas should be the same colour as the rest of the car.
  • Any paint residue on plastic parts: headlamps, door handles and door trims, is a sign of a poor-quality respray.

Before the test drive:

  • Turn the ignition key. All the vehicle warning lights should come on, then disappear. If any lights stay on, this indicates a problem with the car.
  • Check that all tyres, including the spare, have adequate tread. Tread wear indicators on each tyre should not be level with the tyre tread.
  • Check the oil level by removing the dipstick. Too little could mean a neglected car. Too much could mean the car uses oil quickly and must be topped up too often.
  • Ask the owner to operate all the vehicle’s lights and view them from outside the vehicle. If any lights do not work, ask if the owner has the correct spare bulbs.
  • Are the exhaust emissions visibly smoky, or any other colour than grey?
  • Check the ground under the car. Any visible stains could indicate leakages from the engine, fuel tank, screen wash or oil seals.


During the test drive:

  • Test the brakes at a slow speed first, then test the brakes under normal driving speeds. Brakes should be even and not cause the car to pull to one side.
  • There should not be excessive brake noise.
  • Lightly turn the steering wheel in each direction when stationary to check for excessive ‘play’ in the rack. When driving, the steering should not pull to either side.
  • At a standstill the handbrake should be easy to operate.
  • Listen for abnormal engine noise. This will require driving with the radio off.
  • Operate the clutch and be aware of noise or a high biting point, either could mean that repairs to the clutch are needed.
  • Turn the air conditioning/heating on and go for a long enough drive to feel them warm or cool the cabin.

Electronics and controls

Electronics can be tricky on older cars. Operate them all to assess their working order. If you find a small fault that you can live with, or can fix, ask the seller for a discount.

  • Do all the locks work? This includes central locking. A reassuring ‘click’ of the doors is not a certainty. Check every door to see if it is locked. Test the key fob too, if the car has remote locking.
  • Test all electronic and manually operated windows, sunroofs and mirrors.
  • Does the radio/CD/mp3/inbuilt sat-nav work?
  • Do all the dashboard lights illuminate, and do the clocks, rev counter and temperature gauge work?



Finally, ask to see the log book, V5C registration document and MOT certificates and any service invoices. A reliable owner will often present these items without being asked.

  • Does the V5C have a watermark, or any spelling mistakes?
  • Does the engine number and paint colour match with the V5C?
  • Is the VIN (vehicle identification number) matching on all documents?
  • A current MOT certificate is needed for a car over 3 years old. To check a vehicle’s MOT history online, all you need is a registration number and the vehicle make.  
  • Does the registration on the car match across all documents?

This guide should help you to land a smart and reliable set of new wheels. Like any second-hand market, the used car industry holds many gems that can be found everywhere. The way to get a bargain is to look for honest sellers, with honest cars who are open about the car’s history and know the vehicle well. If buying from a dealer, look for guarantees and a dealer who is patient with your questions about the vehicle.

Wyatt Auto Services are a family-run local business in Barnsley, serving the Barnsley and South Yorkshire areas. We pride ourselves on friendly, expert advice and competitive pricing. For all your car repair, MOT and servicing needs, don’t hesitate to get in touch today with one of our team.

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