Tips on buying a used car - the used car checklist

Tips on buying a used car - the used car checklist

Buying a used car is becoming more commonplace in the UK, and although it can save you a bob or two compared with buying a brand new vehicle, you also need to know about the risks involved too – and more importantly, how to minimise them!

Buying privately vs buying from a used dealer

There are pros and cons to both buying private and from a used dealer. But you’ll need to consider all of them when buying a used car.

The main differences

The best part about buying privately is that the car is likely to be cheaper, and you’ll only have a little paperwork to do! Make sure that the previous owner is able to sort out the V5C (logbook) and send everything off properly so you are the new registered keeper. (This is really easy to do, the form will say what you need to do or you can do it online!)

Buying from a dealer is usually more comforting if you’re worried about getting “ripped off”. You have more protection and confidence from a dealer as there is somewhere to complain to should things go wrong, and there are legal securities too.

Also, if buying from a dealer, the history is more likely to have been checked. But these perks all come at a price – which is why you are likely to pay a higher price on the forecourt.


Ensure the car comes with:

  • V5C (logbook)

If you are buying from a private seller, check to see if their name matches that on the registration document. If they don’t match, it may be worth asking why they are selling it on behalf of someone else.

Most cars have their service history and MOT history available online, but if the car has paper copies, make sure you have them too.

You can also check the VIN number – make sure this matches the V5C document, the number on the engine, and that the VIN number hasn’t been tampered with on the car.

Checking car details with the DVLA

You can check any car’s details with the DVLA. All you need to do is ask the seller for:

  • The number plate (registration number)
  • MOT test number
  • Mileage
  • Make and model

And then click on the link to do your check online.

It’s also a good idea to make sure the make and model and number plate match!

MOT history

You can check the MOT history online, so there won’t be any nasty surprises. The best part about this is, you don’t need the MOT certificates to see when the MOT runs out, which might bring unexpected costs. You can also see how well the car has been treated - have all of the advisories taken care of before the next MOT?

The good thing about the MOT being online, is that you can check to see if there are possible mileage discrepancies without having to pay for a vehicle history check (see below for more info.)

Vehicle history check

If you want to be extra cautious, especially if buying privately, then you can get a private history check, but these can cost up to £20. This will show you a variety of things which can give you peace of mind such as:

  • Whether the car has been reported stolen
  • Any outstanding finance on it
  • Whether it has been written off
  • If it has been scrapped
  • Any plate changes it has had
  • The number of previous owners
  • The recorded mileage
  • Any paintwork colour changes
  • Whether it is imported or exported
  • Whether it is at risk of third-party trace
  • Any mileage discrepancies

What gets covered depends on which vehicle history check you use. So make sure you check that you have all the information you want covered before you pay.

Things to check on the vehicle


Does the mileage look right? Given the car’s age and what it looks like? Does it follow on when you compare it with the MOT history?

Warning lights

Make sure you get in the car and take it for a drive before you buy. At registered dealers, these will have tax plates so you can take it for a proper test drive on the road legally. Keep an eye on the dashboard as you do this and make sure there are no warning lights on, and no warning lights appear during the drive.

Overall condition

Does the car look like it has been used and abused? If it looks that way, it probably has! Obviously you need to factor in the mileage and how old the vehicle is, but it’s good to go with your gut on this one.


Have a look and see if there are any chips in the windscreen. This could lead to an MOT failure, and a crack too.

Check for repairs

Take some time looking over the body work. Can you see any dents or scratches? Sometimes if they’re only minor it could be wear and tear, but you need to keep a watchful eye on any panel gaps.

If there are any gaps – even subtle ones – between the panels of your car, it could indicate a bad repair job after a crash.

Look at the engine

And this doesn’t just mean under the bonnet – especially if you’re not the most mechanically minded. But what you can do is look under the car and check for leaks. If you see any wet spots on the ground, perhaps move the car and see if they have definitely come from the engine. If there are oil or water leaks, they will need to be fixed ASAP if you were to buy it.

And the fluid levels

We all know we have to top up a car’s fluid levels now and then. But if they are severely low or empty, it could indicate that the previous owner had not looked after the car. Or the fluid levels haven’t been taken care of properly throughout its ownership.

Electrics and gadgets

When you get inside, check all the electrics and all the gadgets are working, and we’re not just talking about the complex stuff. Ensure you check the radio and air con as well as the windows and headlights – these are the things you rely on the most and you need to ensure they are working and aren’t going to cost you a bill at the garage!


See how much tread is left on the tyres. You won’t want to have to replace them after forking out for the car itself. Also make sure you check for any bulges or cuts that could be dangerous and also an MOT failure. Another thing to perhaps check out is the inflation of the tyres. If they are a little saggy it could suggest that the car has been run on improperly inflated tyres.


It's always worth checking the boot to see if it will be suitable for your needs. Another thing to have a look for in the boot is a spare wheel. This is something a lot of people miss when looking at a used car. If it has a spare wheel, is it in good condition? Plus, you need to ensure you have the locking wheel nuts and the jack so you can replace the wheel at the side of the road should you get a puncture.

Things to consider

Even after a history check and a thorough inspection by yourself, you can never definitively know the car’s full history. It’s worth asking the previous owner or dealership about anything in its history, and if you’re not mechanically savvy, consider taking a friend who knows a little more about cars along to help you pick the right car.

Please be aware that any information in this article shouldn’t be regarded as legal advice, but solely as general information. We cannot ensure that all the information which is listed here is complete, factual, accurate, and there may be also some errors – we are not liable for any of this. You mustn’t use the information here as legal advice, and please seek help from a professional if necessary.

Previous Article

The facts about hogging the middle lane

Next Article

Should i buy a petrol car in 2019