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What to look for when buying a used car

When the time comes to buy a new (to you) car, there are some things you should always be on the lookout for, so you don’t end up buying something that won’t serve you well over its lifetime.

What we will cover in this article:

When you visit a dealership or meet a private seller to test drive the car, you need to go armed with some questions so you can gather all the information you need, straight from the horse’s mouth.

Often, when you buy from a main dealer, they will offer some sort of warranty that protects you for the first 12 months or so, which offers more peace of mind when choosing your next car. 

Not all dealerships will offer this, so once the keys are exchanged, you only have a short window of time before you can return the car.

You are still covered by the Consumer Rights Act 2015, which expects that any vehicle, particularly if sold online, is not misdescribed, the vehicle is fit for purpose and the quality of the car is satisfactory. If these conditions are not met, you, as a consumer, have the right to return the vehicle.


You may already have this information from the car advert, but it’s still a worthwhile exercise, more for peace of mind, to check the mileage for yourself when you take a test drive. The mileage can be found clearly on the digital cockpit, usually in a digital format.

The mileage of a car can have a huge impact when it comes to actually selling the car. If you purchase a car that already has a high mileage, by the time you come to part exchange your car, you will find the valuation will largely be down to certain factors, including mileage.

If you have a high mileage, you can expect a lower offer than you would with lower mileage.

There’s a way to predict the mileage you are likely to add during the time you own the car. You can check your previous MOT certificates and compare the difference in mileage, or you can head online and find the same data.

Use this information to calculate how many miles you are likely to rack up, based on how long you expect to keep the car for.

Age of the Car

Something else that is likely to be listed in the original advert is the age of the car. It’s often one of the factors that helps you narrow down your original search. The age of the car is what it is. There’s no way for the dealership or private seller to hide this information as you can be guided by the registration plate to the age of the car (unless there’s a private plate on when you test drive).

Since the early 2000’s, car registration numbers have been categorised by two digits which correspond to the date the car was registered. This started at 51 for the year 2001 and in present day, we are heading into 71, which will be for the second half of 2021.

For the first half of the year, the numbers usually correspond to the year, so for 2021, it would have 21 in the digits.

Condition of the Car

The condition of the car can tell a lot about what might be going on under the bonnet. For example, does the car look like it has had replacement parts (bonnet, bumper etc) that means it could have been in an accident previously.

If the exterior of the car looks to be in bad condition, it’s likely that the engine components aren’t much better, so even if you aren’t too concerned about the aesthetics, it’s important to know the condition of the engine.

What to check for:

Paintwork – You can check the paintwork visually, just by having a good look around. There’s a few considerations here though, for example, if it has been raining, it can be more difficult to see any scratches or marks, so you might need to take a closer look. When the sun is shining, it will usually reflect any scratches, no matter how fine.

Panels – You will want to check the quality of the panels, including bumpers and wheel arches. If there is any damage to these, they can affect the way the car drives and also become expensive in the long run. Damaged panels are prone to rust and additional damage, so take a good look at these.

Brakes – Having a set of brakes that work to optimum performance is incredibly important as it’s a safety feature of the car rather than just aesthetics. During your test drive, perform an emergency brake where appropriate and test them properly during your drive. If they feel spongy or don’t engage as you would expect, there may be issues with the brakes or brake pads.

Listen to the engine – it’s quite easy to feel when components of the car aren’t working as they should be, but if any of the engine components aren’t in good condition, you will normally hear strange noises, so turn off any music and listen to the engine.

Under the bonnet – You can see visually whether there are any issues under the bonnet, including whether there appears to be any damage to any of the components and whether there are any leaks occurring.

Alternatively, you can run a vehicle history check to see whether the car has any outstanding finance, has been written off or is marked as stolen.

Service history

The service history of a vehicle can tell you a lot about how the car has been looked after, rather than just taking the word of the seller. The service book will list every service the car has had, including a date stamp from an authorised technician.

What happens during a service

When you take your car in for a service, it undergoes a number of checks and enhancements that help keep the vehicle running at optimum performance.

Some of the components of a service:

Interim service – recommended every 6,000 miles

  • Replacement oil filter
  • Replace oil
  • Check timing belt
  • Top up coolant
  • Top up clutch fluid
  • Check brake pads
  • Check brake calipers
  • Visual hydraulics check
  • Top up bake fluid
  • Check tyre tread/depth
  • Adjust tyre pressure
  • Top up washer bottle

Full service – recommended every 12,000 miles

Includes everything in an Interim service plus…

  • Check of radiator condition
  • Check coolant seals
  • Check electric cooling fan
  • Check tension belt
  • Replace air filter
  • Check fuel lines
  • Top up gear box fluid
  • Brake fluid boil test
  • Grease steering and suspension]
  • Lubricate battery terminals
  • Top up battery

Major service – recommended every 24,000 miles

Includes everything in Interim and Full services plus…

  • Check fuel cap seal
  • Replace brake fluid
  • Test alternator
  • Replace cabin filter

We hope this article helps when the time comes to start looking for your next used car and what you should be looking for.

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