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What to look for when buying a used car

November 19, 2021 by

Buying a car can be an exciting thing, but also a little daunting. Though the used market has a lot of great cars at affordable prices, it can sometimes be tricky to filter the exceptional from the good, and the good from the bad.

Before committing to buying a used car, a little preparation can go a long way, and this handy checklist should help you find the perfect examples.

Read on to see what you should look out for when buying a used car.

  • Documents
  • MOT and service history
  • Mileage
  • Bodywork
  • Engine
  • Tyres and brakes
  • Interior
  • Advertised features
  • Modifications
  • Test drive


Before anything, the first thing you should ask for is to see a V5C. This shows that the seller is the registered keeper of the car and thus entitled to sell it and will make the whole process smoother down the line.

Though it’s still possible to buy a car without a V5C, you should approach it with caution.

It’s worth seeing if any original documentation that came with the car such as manuals or warranty handbooks that the car left the showroom with are still included too.

MOT and service history

You can take a look at a car’s MOT history yourself online on the government website. All you’ll need is the car’s registration.

Sometimes though, you may find buyers have kept physical records of MOTs — as well as receipts for any work taken out. Pay particular attention to those, as it can be a good sign of a very well-kept car.

What you can’t check online is a car’s service history. Most used cars should come with a service book though, showing when and where routine work has been carried out. Keep an eye out for car’s with main dealer history in particular, which will near guarantee manufacturer-approved parts have been used for services.


Mileage is often touted as the main thing to look at when buying a used car. The reality is though, high mileage isn’t necessarily a bad thing if a solid service history can back it up.

That said, always check the mileage of the car lines up to what’s advertised by the seller and that it lines up with the age and condition of the car.

It’s not unheard of for some used cars to be ‘clocked’ — meaning the mileage has been manually adjusted to be lower than its true value. This is rare, but something to be wary of if an advert looks too good to be true.


Give the bodywork of any car you’re looking at a once-over to make sure it matches the description from the seller.

Of course, when you’re buying a used car, you can’t always expect absolutely perfect paint and bodywork — all sorts of things like stone chips, minor scratches and little dings can happen. Keep this in mind when agreeing on a price, though.

It’s worth checking for potential rust spots as well, particularly on models on which it’s a known issue. If the seller has advertised this then expect it to be preset but, if not, either walk away or use it as a bargaining chip for a lower price.


Ideally, when buying a used car, you’ll have turned up to view it and the seller will have left it off for a while.

Why? Well, if there are any audible engine issues, they’ll likely be more noticeable when the engine is started cold. If it’s been running a while it’ll have warmed up, and would be more likely to be masking issues.

If the engine is warm when you turn up and you suspect unadvertised problems, it might be wise to reschedule if possible and ask the owner to cold start next time.

Either way, give the engine a good listen at idle. Keep an ear out for unusual screeching or any knocking sounds. This could be a sign of a larger problem.

Tyres and brakes

Before going to look at any used car, it’s worth buying a tyre tread depth gauge. You can get them for about £5, and are useful not just for testing tyres when buying a car but also during ownership.

Have a look at each tyre and see if they’re above the legal minimum at least, which is 1.6mm. If they’re below that you’ll need to replace them as soon as possible — perhaps an ideal opportunity to ask a garage to do it for no extra cost if buying a used car from them.

Give the brakes a look over too and, ideally (if safe to do so), a hard stopping test when test driving. If you hear any squeaking or rattling from them on the move, it could be a sign new pads or discs are needed as wel..


Have a quick look around the interior of the car and check the condition of any fabrics or leathers. The latter in particular can crease or sag on older cars, so this should’t be a surprise on higher mileage cars, but it’s worth checking for any rips or tears.

Give all of the buttons a press too and make sure they’re all working properly. Don’t be afraid to switch the engine on and give the car a few gentle revs to check the instrument cluster is functioning properly as well.

Advertised features

Try out the features on any used car you’re looking to buy. If any of the advertised features aren’t working, that’s a potential point to haggle with the seller and it’s better to find out now than after buying the car.

Assistance features like adaptive cruise control or a reversing camera should be tried out too, as these can be particularly expensive to have fixed if they stop working.


Always ask the seller if they’ve made any modifications to the car outside of its original spec.

You’ll need to declare these to the insurer, even if they’re not visible — like an upgrade air filter for the engine — or as basic as new alloy wheels.

Take it for a test drive

Lastly, you should always try to test drive any used car before buying it. Not only is this a way to check for any potential issues, but the last thing you want is to buy a car and then find out you don’t like how it drives.

Make sure you have the correct insurance for this though. Dealers tend to have insurance in place for test drives, though you should check anyway, while private sellers will almost always need you to have yourself covered.

Insurers that provide daily or even hourly coverage are becoming more common, and you may even be covered to drive other cars under any existing policy you may have.