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Car Clinic - Buying Your Car

How not to buy a wrong’un

Most everyone in the car selling business is no different from the rest of us: they just want to do honest work and go home afterwards to their loved ones.

But, whether you buy a vehicle direct from its owner or from a dealer, it pays to be on your guard.

Whatever you do, be kind to yourself. Car buying demands time and patience, so never go when you’re rushed or on a deadline. Save it for a bright, dry day and finish before darkness falls. Common sense, really, but all the better for saying it, just the same.

Take along a friend or relative to give a second opinion and act as a witness to what’s said during the sale negotiations.

Trust your instincts. Nice people sell nice cars: so if the vendor is grouchy and turns aggressive if you ask a searching question, walk away. Same’s true if they’re too pushy.


Paperwork is vital

Check the documents before you begin to look at the car. That way you’ll not find yourself liking a vehicle that hasn’t the correct paperwork. Look at the registration document (V5C), MoT papers (if the car is at least three years old), owner’s pack and service records.

If the owner hasn’t a full set, or says any are ‘in the post’, go find another car that’s got all its papers.

When looking at the car, ask the seller to park it somewhere flat and away from other vehicles. Look at the space it has just left: are there tell-tale stains from leaking oil or coolant?

Look,too, at the gaps between the doors, boot, bonnet and the body. They should be tight and even. If they are bigger around one door than the other, then the car has had accident repairs – and poor ones at that.

Tyres and fluids

Tyres, then fluids

Next, check the tyres. They should have at least 1.6mm of tread to be road-legal, but watch also for uneven wear, cracks or bulges. Patchy wear suggests that the car isn’t running straight.

Look under the bonnet and ensure that the oil, coolant and screenwash are nicely topped up. If you don’t know how to do this, take along a friend that does. Note however that the long life oil used in some modern engines looks black and dirty even when it is freshly changed.

Take along a torch and use it here to search for leaks from the engine or cooling system.

Inside the car, check that all the trim is complete. Look especially for missing small plastic bits that cover the seat frames and sills. If it is a hatchback – is the a parcel shelf/luggage cover present? Look, too, to see if the spare wheel (or tyre inflation kit, if fitted) is all there, along with the jack and tools for changing a wheel.

Look at the seats and the roof lining: are they clean and stain-free? If you’re buying from a dealer, chances are that he’ll have used a cleaning agent on any marks, so those still showing may be there for good.

Remember, too, that cigarette burns or worn patches can be tricky and expensive to repair to a good standard. If you like the car even so, use them as reason to bargain down the asking price.

Turn detective

Turn detective

Consider, too, whether the wear evident in the cabin tallies with the mileage. Unfortunately, illegal winding back of the mileage total is too common on used cars and you must turn detective to spot it. Look, too, at the condition of the rubber covers on the pedals but be aware also that worn ones can be easily and cheaply replaced.

Wear on the driver’s seat is a more reliable guide to high miles, however, as are tiny scratches around the outer handle on the driver’s door.

Check the ashtrays and cigarette lighter (if fitted) for signs of use – non-smokers’ cars are more saleable.

Feel the carpets in the footwells with the back of your hand for damp, which would suggest leaks from door seals, bonnet or the heater.

Ensure that the seats and steering column adjust correctly and that door mirrors operate. Turn on the ignition and try all the switches for windows, heating, what-have-you.

Warning signs

Warning signs

Watch the warning lights and ensure all come on with the ignition. Unscrupulous sellers may remove bulbs or even paint over lights rather than fix the faults they indicate. Watch particularly for the airbags warning, which should light for a few moments and then go out.

If air conditioning is fitted, check that it blows properly cold. And make sure that the heater works on all settings and that it will blow hot air on to the screen when you ask it to. Don’t forget the radio, CD player and iPod link-up.

If there is road tax, check that it belongs to the car it’s in.

We’ll deal with the test-drive in the next chapter of this guide. For now, make sure you are happy so far. If there are already too many niggles, the test-drive will prove a waste of time.

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