Car Buyer's Guide - Inspections & Checks
The most critical stage of buying a used car is undoubtedly the point where you start to go and take a look at vehicles in person.
After hours of research and trawling through countless adverts, you've whittled down your choice and you're ready to take your interest to the next stage.
The temptation here, however, is to just turn up, have a quick glance and hand over your money to the seller. After all, it's taken a while to get to this point and now you're just looking forward to owning a car.
However, you really need to make sure you're as thorough as possible so that you know you have made the right choice and are not going to be left with any nasty surprises once you get your new car back on your own drive. It’s your hard earned cash & a pretty picture on the internet only tells part of the story.
Here are some of the main things to look out for when you go for that all-important inspection...
- Paintwork – Check for colour match & finish. Many cars have had cosmetic repairs, but its important that a good quality job has been done. Also check for bubbling, this can be an early sign of rust starting to come through the paintwork.
- Bodywork - Look out for different colours, unusually large gaps or angles not matching up. This could suggest previous accident repair work & any concerns would need further investigation.
- Glass – Obviously cracked glass is an issue, but also look for scratches in side glass. If there is damage & it can’t be repaired then replacement glass can be very expensive.
- Wheels – Check for rim damage. This can be superficial, but more substantial damage needs further investigation by a professional, as the wheel may need replacing. Also look for pitted alloy wheels, this is where corrosive materials have broken through the lacquer. The only solution here is to have the wheels repainted.
- Lights & Trim – Check for damage. Small trims parts may look like nothing, but if they can’t be repaired then replacement items can be very expensive. Also most light units today are sealed, so any damage will require a complete new unit.
- Tread – The legal minimum is 1.6mm. Take a tread guage & ensure they’re safe & legal. Also look for signs of damage in the wall or uneven wear on the treads. When you drive the car see whether the steering wheel vibrates or pulls under braking. These could all be signs that their tracking or balance haven’t been checked recently.
- Spare - First of all, check that there is one, then ensure that it's in a good condition. Some modern cars now have inflation systems instead, so ensure you know what your chosen car has & that its complete. A new tyre compressor (where fitted) can be very expensive to purchase.
- Oil - Examine the engine oil level using the dipstick. It’s important that it’s not down near the base line, as this could suggest that the car hasn’t been maintained properly or serviced recently.
- Exhaust - Look out for excessive emissions from the exhaust once the engine is running, as well as blue smoke, which results from oil burning.
- Noises - Does the engine sound unusual when you start it up? Is there a noise when you use the clutch? Also are there any unusual squeaks or rattles when you take it for a spin.
Make sure you take the car out for a test drive, and when you do, look out for:
- Steering & Gears – Check the steering thoroughly, does it feel right? Also put the steering on ‘full lock’, that is to turn it fully both ways, do you get any worrying noises? Also try all the gears, both up & down, to ensure it changes correctly.
- Safety and security - What safety and security features are included with the car? It’s important to check that things like airbags, seat belt tensioners and traction control systems (where fitted) work correctly & no warning lights are present
- Acceleration and braking - Make sure you're happy with the car's acceleration and that it meets your needs. In addition, test the braking and ensure it feels smooth and controlled
- Handling - How does the car feel? Are you comfortable with the way it drives? Some people like a car that feels very taut & ‘connected’ to the road, whilst others favour more comfort. Does this one suit you?
- Comfort - How do you feel in the car? Would you feel comfortable driving it for long periods of time?
- Accessories and equipment - Does it have all the mod cons you desire? And more importantly do they all work correctly?
- Space - Is there enough space for the car to fulfil its purpose once you've bought it? Check the amount of legroom for the driver and passengers, as well as the size of the boot.
Once you’re happy with the way it looks & drives it time to finish off with the paperwork;
- V5C document - This shows the registered keeper of the car and is required for road tax. If the seller doesn't have it with the car, find out why - this may be suspicious
- VIN plate - Not a document as such, but the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) plate identifies the car. Has it been tampered with? Does it match with the details in the V5C document?
- Service history - This shows the maintenance of work that has been done on the car. Look also for invoices or mechanics notes for recurring faults
- MOT certificate - If the car is over three years old, check the documentation for each service and make sure the recorded mileage looks consistent with what is being advertised
- Consistency - Is the mileage the same as is being advertised? Is it consistent with the age and appearance of the car?
- Recorded mileage - Take a look at the mileage recorded in the service history and MOT documents to make extra sure.
You can also check out Holt's infographic on how to buy a used car, which includes a lot of the information discussed in this article.