A car should be test driven and inspected before purchase. This is doubly important for a used car, particularly if you’re buying privately. Here you can find out how to test drive a used car and what you need to check when buying a used car – from the car’s performance to documents to its history.
Tips when test driving a used car
Our top tips cover checking the car’s exterior and interior and testing the engine, steering, clutch, brakes and suspension.
If you discover any problems, you have two options.
You can either use them to drive down the asking price on the basis you’ll need to spend money fixing them, or you can simply walk away from the sale.
Exterior and interior
You might want to consider paying an independent vehicle inspector to check the car as well. This gives extra peace of mind and any problems they find might be useful bargaining tools for you.
The AA, the RAC and a number of other companies provide such services. However, there’s a limit to what they check and they can’t be held responsible if additional faults are found later.
- Check the seats and trim for signs of damage.
- Look for rust and any chips, scratches and dents to the bodywork.
- Check all electrics (lights, windows) are working and (if fitted) try the air-conditioning.
- Check all the panels fit perfectly. If they don’t, the car might have been in an accident.
- Don’t forget the windscreen – chips and cracks here could cost hundreds of pounds to repair.
- Excess wear on pedal rubbers, carpet and seats could be an indicator the car’s older than it seems.
- Check the tyres and spare wheel. The minimum legal tread depth should be 1.6mm across the width of the tyre. This can easily be done with a 20p coin – if the tyre tread hides the outer ring on the coin, your tyres ok. Find out more on TyreSafe’s website.
- If the tyres are worn more on one side than the other, the wheel alignment might need adjusting, or it could be something more serious.
- Look for excessive exhaust smoke and unusual noises. Check the car’s Vehicle Identification Number (VIN). Make sure that it hasn’t been tampered with and matches the number on the V5C registration certificate (log book).
Did you know?
You can find the car’s Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) at the bottom of the windscreen, under the bonnet and beneath the carpet on the driver’s side.
- Watch for excessive exhaust smoke and listen out for any unusual noises.
- Before starting the car, check underneath the engine oil cap for a thick white substance which could indicate a problem with the head gasket or engine damage.
- Pull out the engine oil dipstick, wipe it clean with a cloth, then re-insert it. Now pull it out again and check it’s at the maximum level and the oil itself is golden and clear. If not, the car is probably due a service – a possible bargaining point. However, if it’s a diesel, the oil can become dark soon after an oil change.
- Insist on starting the car from cold. If the bonnet’s warm, it’s already been started. Is the seller trying to hide an issue?
- Check for signs of excessive smoke when you start the car and when you’re driving. The engine should be quiet and pull smoothly.
- A little steam or white exhaust smoke when you start the car should be fine, especially on cold days, but excessive blue, black or white smoke might be danger signs.
- When accelerating, check in the rear view mirror for excessive smoke from the exhaust.
- Check the body near the exhaust – a dark oily layer, coupled with excessive exhaust smoke could be a sign the piston rings are worn out.
- Check the engine coolant and brake fluid levels, plus the battery (the terminals should be rust-free and clear of debris).
- After the test drive, check for leaks in the engine bay and underneath the car.
- Listen out for any squeals or judders when turning the steering wheel, though a little whining sound is normal on power steering.
- Make sure the car doesn’t pull to one side on a level stretch of road.
- Check the brakes stop the car in a straight line.
- Listen out for any vibrations or rubbing noises when braking.
- Try using the handbrake on a hill start – there should be no slippage.
Clutch and gears
If you’re thinking of buying a used car, find out what it would cost using our Car costs calculator.
- Make sure you try all the gears (including reverse) and there’s no ‘crunching’.
- Check the clutch biting point – if it’s near the top this might indicate that a new clutch is needed soon.
- With an automatic car, make sure the gear changes are smooth, immediate and almost silent. And check that if you put your foot down on the accelerator – for example when overtaking – the gear box is forced to change gear.
- Make sure the ride is smooth and the car soaks up bumps in the road – it shouldn’t judder or feel bouncy.
- Listen out for any unusual noises as you drive along.
Electric vehicles have less to check than petrol or diesel ones because their motors have much fewer parts.
You’ll still need to check the exterior and interior, steering, brakes, and that any gears (if it has any) are functioning correctly.
You should also check the battery life, if possible. The batteries in an electric vehicle are expensive to replace. Check if your electric car has a battery warranty, typically these can be five to eight years for a new car. Some may have a lease on the battery.
You can also check what the original advertised range was and compare that to how long it lasts now. How well it has been looked after could affect this.
What to check when buying a used car
At the viewing, keep safe by following our tips below and also remember to check the car’s essential paperwork is in order.
Personal safety tips when buying privately
The V5C registration certificate only shows the registered keeper of the vehicle – not the legal owner, which might be a finance or leasing company. Make sure you also ask for the make and model, tax details and MOT test number. Then use the DVLA online vehicle enquiry service to check the details the seller gives you with the DVLA’s records. Before buying a car, you must satisfy yourself that the seller either owns it or is entitled to sell it.
- Before test driving a car, check with your insurance company you’re covered to drive another car. If you’re not, arrange temporary cover.
- Take proof of your insurance with you when going to view the car.
- Consider taking a friend with you, and if possible view the car in daylight.
- Check the seller’s name and address on the internet if possible.
- Arrange to view the car at the seller’s home or business address. Check the address is the same as the one on the V5C registration certificate. If the seller isn’t the registered keeper, walk away. They probably aren’t legally entitled to sell the vehicle. Make sure you ask to take the car for a test drive with the seller. If you suspect the seller isn’t insured, ask to see proof of their insurance.
- If you decide to go ahead and buy the car, arrange to meet in person for the payment and handover.
- If the price of the car seems too good to be true, it probably is!
Checking essential paperwork
Did you know?
If you buy a car with outstanding finance, it can be repossessed because technically a loan or finance company still own all or part of it.
Always make sure all the paperwork is in order before buying a used car.
The car should come with various documents holding vital information on its maintenance history and previous owners.
If the seller can’t show you all of the documents below, walk away.
If they can, check the documents are all genuine.
V5C registration certificate (logbook): This tells you the basics about the car’s history such as who it is currently registered to and how many owners it has had.
If you buy the car, the seller completes and sends the V5C to the DVLA.
This is done by completing the new keeper details (section 6) and signing section 8.
They must give you the ‘new keeper supplement’ from the original V5C, but you’ll receive a new one in your name in two to four weeks.
Car history check: According to vehicle checkers HPI, one in three cars has a hidden history.
You can get vehicle information from DVLA for free on the GOV.UK website.
You can find out various things about the vehicle, including:
- engine size
- SORN status
- CO2 emissions
- year of manufacture
- when the MOT expires
- current vehicle tax rate
- the date it was first registered
- when its current tax expires.
They will search a range of databases held by the police, the DVLA, insurance companies and finance houses to see if:
- it’s been stolen
- the mileage is incorrect
- it’s been involved in a serious accident
- the car has any outstanding loans against it
You then get a report of their findings.
MOT certificate: Cars more than three years old must have an annual MOT to make sure they meet road safety and environmental standards.
Without this, they can’t be insured so can’t be driven legally on the road.
The longer the period before the next MOT is due, the better.
If possible check the old MOT certificates as well – they show the car’s yearly mileage and give an indication of its quality of life.
The mileage shown should match the mileage displayed on the odometer.
Make sure the certificates show the same chassis number and vehicle registration as the car itself.
If you’re able to get access to the following you can do a free MOT check on the GOV.UK website.
You’ll need the vehicle registration mark and either:
- the MOT test number (you can get this from the VT20 test certificate or the VT30 refusal certificate)
- the document reference number from the V5C registration certificate (logbook) if you don’t have the MOT test number.
The DVLA (Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency) and police now use an electronic register to check people have paid their car tax.
Now when you buy a vehicle, the car tax will no longer be transferred with the vehicle.
So you must tax it before you can use it.
Finally, if you buy the car make sure the seller writes a receipt for you.
This should include the make, model, engine size, registration and chassis number, plus your address, the seller’s address and the amount paid.
It should then be signed and dated by both of you.
Your next step
This article is provided by the Money Advice Service.