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Car checks are essential when buying a used car to be sure you don't get stuck with a lemon. Buying a used car privately is very rewarding as you get more car for your money but always check before you buy.

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Used Car Checks


Even if a car looks shiny & new there are fundamental car checks you should carry out when buying a car. You don't need to be an expert simply use your eyes, ears and common sense all which can help determine if a vehicle is honest & in good working order.

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If you need technical assistance or mechanical help with any car checks, have a look at our mechanical help pages for fault diagnosis or our past mechanical Questions & Answer pages

We also have mechanics available to help with any mechanical problem.

Check Before You Buy
Checking before we buy is a good habit even with the smallest purchase. You wouldn't buy an orange from a supermarket without squeezing it first so it makes sense when spending thousands to carry out as many checks as you can when buying a car. Of course when it comes to buying a car having a qualified inspector check the vehicle over is a good idea but this may not be within your budget. With some common sense and technical assistance from us carrying out the following checks will give you plenty of information to help with your decision.

If you do find any faults on a potential purchase and you feel confident enough to make the repairs yourself you could get the car for a good price. Second hand car spares are very cheap on and for your convenience we have a list of direct links to appropriate spare parts on our Spares For Repairs page.

External body work checks.

  • Make sure the car is parked on level ground and stand back taking a good look checking from all angles for anything that jumps out at you. Crouch down and check for any fluid leaks on the ground under the vehicle.

  • Still crouching look along the lines of the bodywork and faces of the panels, they should be smooth and continuous.

  • Check for uneven colour in the paint work, any panels which look brighter and richer in colour is a sign of recent painting. If you do find brighter panels take a closer look at the area for overspray under the wheel arches or any surrounding area. Tap the panel lightly with your knuckle and listen. If you get a change in tone it's likely filler has been used.

  • Check whilst crouching to see if the car is sat level from all sides. The gaps between the wheel arch and the tyres should be even. Uneven gaps can be an indication of an axle problem or suspension failure.

  • Looking a little closer check the gaps where panels meet for example the bonnet and the wings or where the doors meet the sills and door pillars. The gaps should be even along the full length. If the gaps vary along the length it shows poor repair work as been carried out at some stage.

Under the bonnet checks.

  • Open the bonnet and check if the engine is warm. Ideally the engine should be cold as a cold engine is more likely to show any faults upon starting. If an engine has been running before you arrived it could hide problems such as head gasket failure which can be checked from a cold start. Its a good idea when buying a used car to ask the seller when arranging a viewing to leave the car stood for a couple of hours before you arrive.

  • Take off the radiator cap being extremely cautious if the engine is warm. Turn it slowly allowing the pressure to release. If the cap is to hot to hold don't open it. An engine running correctly should not over heat to the point of boiling if the cap is too hot to remove you need to walk away there and then.

  • With the radiator cap off check the colour of the water. It should be clean and clear. Water which is milky in colour has mixed with oil, an indication of head gasket failure. Any internal rusting of the engine will also show in the water. Rusty coloured water is a result of using untreated water in the cooling system as opposed to antifreeze/summer coolant/water mixture. An obvious sign of poor maintenance.

  • Check for any excess oil in the engine bay or with an older car an overly clean engine. Anyone going to the trouble of steam cleaning an engine bay is likely to be hiding an oil leak of some kind. Remember if in doubt walk away. Buying a car should be something to enjoy and you don't want it spoilt by unscrupulous sellers.

  • Replace the radiator cap but leave the bonnet up and ask the seller to start the car for you whilst you stand at the front side to listen for any knocking, banging or chugging and check for excess black or white smoke from the exhaust. (If the car is a diesel you will always get more noise when it starts and more smoke but the noise should stop after a few seconds as should the smoke). A badly worn engine will produce excess smoke and white steam will come from water within the cylinders usually due to head gasket failure. All very expensive to resolve so make sure not to over look this check..

  • Check under the bonnet again for any fumes. Remove the oil filler cap and hold your hand above the entry point to see if you can feel any air pressure like you would feel from an exhaust. An engine breathing from the oil filler is a sign of wear and shouldn't be present on a lower mileage vehicle. This could be an indication of a high mileage engine replacement.

Test Drive Checks

  • The test drive will need your full concentration so don't feel uncomfortable about keeping quiet. You are there to buy a car not to make a new friend. Its always a good idea where possible to get out of a built up area during your test drive to allow greater concentration on the task in hand and carry out your checks without any risk to you or other's safety.

  • Setting off check for judder or vibrations through the steering wheel. This is a symptom of a worn clutch and could be close to failing. Another symptom of a worn clutch will show itself when accelerating especially on an incline. If the engine revs increase but the speed remains relatively unchanged the clutch has had its day.

  • Find a straight piece of road and accelerate hard. Check your rear view mirror for excessive smoke. A diesel could push out black smoke under hard acceleration but not to the point where your rear view is blocked. Any car smoking to this extent is best left alone. There will be others.

  • Try some hard braking and check for vibrations or the car veering to one side. Vibrations can be caused by uneven wear on disks or pads which will all need replacing and veering can be caused by potentially dangerous suspension failure.

  • When driving in a straight line the steering wheel should only need the lightest of touches to remain on course. If the vehicle is trying to drift off to the side and needs constant pressure to keep on the road there could be a problem with the suspension and is unsafe. Get back carefully and walk away.

  • Always keep your ears open for any unusual noises. Check for noises such as knocking, banging or metal on metal sounds coming from the engine and suspension. Anything untoward will be quite obvious and always be a result of a car in need of attention and money.

Repeat checks before making your offer

  • With a successful and satisfactory test drive in your wake there are a couple of repeat checks that need to be made before you think about buying the car. Pop the hood again and carefully squeeze the pipes going into the radiator from the engine. You should be able to compress them. If they are hard the water pressure is excessive and again can be a result of head gasket failure.

  • Carefully check again the water in the radiator for discolouration. The seller may have drained out the old water and replaced it before you arrived and it wont have had chance to tell the truth.

  • Look for any signs of oil or other fluid leaks in the engine bay and again under the car on the ground. If any leaks had been cleaned up before you arrived they are sure to show themselves now.

  • Now its time to talk money. You can find more details about negotiating the price of a car here
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