Our handy guide should take the sting out of buying a used car. And we’ve produced a checklist to print out and take with you.

BUYING A USED CAR isn’t fraught with the sorts of dangers it used to be. Vehicles produced in the last 10 years are, generally-speaking, more reliable than ever before; from rust-proofing to improved safety features, stronger materials used in construction, and improved equipment levels mean that vehicles last longer. And they not only last longer, but they last better for longer. And, government legislation and record keeping makes it harder for dodgy cars to make it to market.

That said, there are still horror stories of used car stinkers being purchased, but by being prepared and understanding exactly what you’re buying into and that you’ve been through it with a fine-toothed comb will put you in a much better position when buying a second-hand car. And that’s whether you’re buying it from a dealer through an approved used program, from a private seller, or an independent dealership. We’ve designed a one-page used car buying checklist that you can take with you when inspecting any used car to help make sure you’ve literally ticked every box.

Remember that when you’re buying a car, especially a used one, you should buy with your head and not your heart (that applies to any sort of vehicle purchase, really). That means knowing your budget and sticking to it, being realistic about the car you’re looking at and anything that might be wrong with it.

And, don’t for an instant think that if you don’t buy this used car right now then you’ll miss out, because there are millions of used cars sold in this country every year. So, take your time and make sure the car you’re buying fits your budget and your requirements. And be prepared to walk away.

What car to buy? We won’t delve too deeply into this and will take it as a given that if you’re planning on driving off-road then you’re considering second-hand off-roaders and not sportscars. The below advice relates to the car you’re looking at, and the specific things you should be looking at once you’ve decided what type of vehicle you want to buy.

It’s worth remembering that if you spot one thing wrong with the car you’re considering buying, like damaged wheels, tyres in poor condition, or the interior looking scrappy, then there’s a fair chance that something else will likely have been neglected, something that you can’t see, like the vehicle’s mechanicals. So, consider some of the issues outlined in the rest of the article as warning signs, if you like.

Check the body

This is likely to be the first thing you’ll need to check out and it’s also the easiest. Most of the time. What you’ll be looking for as you wander around the vehicle are for any wrinkles in the paintwork, dings and dents, chips across the front of the bonnet (suggesting heavy highway or country road work).

young man with glasses inspecting a luxury car before a second hand trade

Look along the car from the front to the back, checking that the door creases and edges line up. Open all the doors and look at the seals, make sure they’re not cracked or missing. Raise the boot and take a good look around, lifting the carpet to check the spare tyre and wheel-changing kit is there (and take a good sniff in here too as water leaks into the boot will make it smell musty), and look under the bonnet and check the seals, but we’ll detail what you should be looking for a little later in the article. If you can fold the rear seats down from the boot, meaning if there’s a lever to do so, then check it works while you’re here.

Look under the wheel arches and at the base of the front and rear windscreen. You’re looking for a build-up of crud, most likely to be leaves, as left to decay in these places can cause rust to occur.

While you’re checking the body, look at the tyres. You can use a 20-cent coin to check the tread depth; turn the Queen upside down and if the tread reaches her crown then you at least know there’s enough tread on the tyres (you want at least 1.6mm). Ask about the age of the tyres and if the owner of the vehicle has a receipt for them… tyres aren’t like wine; they get worse with age. Old tyres on the car could be a good negotiating chip, as tyres cost money; you could settle on a rough replacement figure and have that dropped off the asking price.

young man with glasses inspecting a luxury car before a second hand trade

Look for consistent wear across the face of the tyre too; if there’s excessive wear on one side or the other then it’s likely because the wheels are out of alignment. And if the tyres look particularly worn in the middle, then they’ve probably been run consistently underinflated.

The wheels themselves will likely have a few minor marks and grazes on them, but bigger dings and dents (you’ll know them when you see them and they’ll usually be on the outside edge of the wheel) could be evidence of running into the gutter rather than just skimming it because you’ve parked too close.

While you’re checking out the body, get the lights turned on and check that all the bulbs are working; check the indicators and the brake lights too. If a bulb is blown then there’ll usually be a warning light indicating so, but it won’t explain which one isn’t working.

The inside of the car

While you’re going with your visual inspection of the car and before you get it out onto the road, look around the interior. Depending on the age of the car, you’ll want to look for signs of excessive wear and tear. Have a look at the foot-well carpets and if there’s a mat lift it up and look at the condition of the carpet under the pedals. Look at the seatbelts and make sure they’re not frayed or damaged and that they all work as they should.

Check the seats levers and knobs work as they should, that the air-con and infotainment system fires up, and that the mirrors adjust without any clicking in the mechanism.

Check the engine

You don’t need to be a mechanic to get a feel for whether the engine in the car you’re looking to buy is any good. There are a lot of ‘surface’ issues that will hint at problems, like leaks and the colour of the oils and fluids in the thing. As well as the colour of the smoke it belches, or doesn’t, preferably.

Unless the engine has been detailed, and that’s a possibility with someone trying to put their car’s best tyre forward, you should be able to see, if there is one, an oil leak either on the ground underneath the car, or sludge on the underneath of the engine. But, engine oil isn’t the only stuff that can leak out of the car, there’s also power steering fluid and coolant. If it’s hot and the air-con has been running, it’s common for the car to leak a bit of water, so don’t be alarmed if you get out and see a puddle appear under the car.

young man with glasses inspecting a luxury car before a second hand trade

No, it’s the oily stuff you want to look out for and if you do spy any then you can either walk away, as oil leaks are symptomatic of something serious and we’d suggest walking away. Trying to negotiate the seller has the issue fixed or that you have the vehicle inspected by a workshop to get an idea of the issue and cost to fix it are possibilities, but you’re probably better off just walking away.

On modern engines, there are usually bright yellow lids indicating where fluids go; these are a good place to give you an indication about the health of the engine. Starting with the dipstick, you’ll want to remove it and check that the oil is reading at the correct level and that it’s looking clean and brown rather than black (which would indicate the oil is old).

It’s possible to check the health of the head gasket by removing the oil cap from the top of the engine (make sure the engine is cool before you do this) and then look inside. You might need a torch. If the oil looks creamy then quietly replace the lid and run as fast as you can away from the thing… creamy looking oil in the engine is a tell-tale sign the head gasket has failed.

Standing around at the back of the car get someone to start it up and look at the smoke coming out of the tail pipe; a small puff of smoke is normal, but a sustained billow of blue smoke indicates there’s oil getting into the cylinders; black smoke suggests the engine is using too much fuel; and white smoke could suggest head gasket failure. Walk away.

Going for a drive

Once you’ve had a good look around the car and made a note of any issues you’ve found, then ask to take the car for a test drive. What you’ll be testing on the drive is, how the car feels, how the gearbox behaves and whether you like driving the thing.

If the car you’re testing has an automatic then make sure it moves through the gears smoothly and that the kickdown function works; kickdown is activated when you press the throttle right to the floor. If there are paddle shifters then flick the gearbox into Manual mode and try them out.

If you’re testing a manual car, then it’s the clutch you’ll be getting a feel for and, specifically, the biting point; this is the moment when as you release the clutch pedal the car starts to move ahead. This point is usually around the middle of the pedal’s travel.

Try the vehicle at a range of speeds, if possible, and make sure your test drive route involves turns to the left and right. And try using reverse gear and the brakes too. If there are any odd vibrations or noises then there could be something major wrong with the car and you’ll need a mechanic to check it over before proceeding with the purchase. Or, just walk away… you don’t want to be lumbered with someone else’s problem; there really are plenty more fish in the sea.

To help when buying a used car, we’ve come up with a checklist you can download and print out to take along and make sure you record the key details and any issues you might have found.


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