What to look out for when buying a used car

Purchasing a used car is an excellent way to save money while still obtaining a reliable means of transportation. However, it's critical to understand that purchasing a used car can be more complicated than buying a new one.

You should thoroughly inspect the vehicle before making a purchase to ensure that it is safe and mechanically sound. Here are some essential things to look for when purchasing a used car.

Visual Inspection

The first thing you should do when inspecting a used car is to take a look at its exterior.

When purchasing a used car, completing a visual inspection is essential to ensure that the vehicle is in good condition. Here are some things to look for during the visual inspection:

  • Check the body for any signs of damage, rust, or mismatched paint. These can indicate previous repairs, and you'll want to know the extent of the damage.
  • Inspect the windscreen for any cracks or chips. These can be hazardous and may require replacement.
  • Check the headlights to ensure that they are not broken or cloudy. Replacing headlights can be costly.
  • Look at the wheels and tyres for any signs of damage. Ensure that the tyres have a legal amount of tread and are inflated correctly.
  • Check the condition of the mirrors, indicators, and lights to ensure that they are all in good working order.

Completing a visual inspection before purchasing a used car can help you identify any problems that may exist. It's always better to be safe than sorry and take the time to thoroughly inspect the vehicle before making a purchase.

Interior Inspection

Along with a visual inspection, an interior inspection is also crucial when buying a used car. Here are some things to look for during the interior inspection:

  • Check the seats for any damage, such as tears, stains or signs of wear. Reupholstering seats can be expensive, so it's best to ensure they're in good condition.
  • Look at the condition of the carpets and mats. Are they clean and free from damage?
  • Check the dashboard and instrument cluster for any warning lights or malfunctions. These can indicate bigger problems with the car.
  • Inspect the air conditioning and heating systems to ensure they're working correctly.
  • Check that all windows, mirrors and sunroofs are functioning correctly.
  • Inspect the condition of the steering wheel, gear shift and pedals for signs of wear and tear.

Listen for Sounds

One of the essential things to listen for when purchasing a used car is any unusual sounds. When buying a used car, listening for unusual sounds can help you identify any potential problems. Here are some sounds to listen for:

  • Start the car and listen for any unusual noises, such as knocking or tapping sounds, which can indicate engine problems.
  • Listen for any whining or grinding sounds when driving, which can indicate problems with the transmission.
  • Check for any clicking or grinding sounds when turning, which can indicate issues with the suspension or steering.
  • Listen for any unusual sounds coming from the exhaust, which can indicate problems with the exhaust system.
  • Pay attention to any rattling or clunking sounds coming from the car, which can indicate loose or worn parts.
  • Listen for any squealing or grinding sounds when applying the brakes, which can indicate worn brake pads or other brake issues.

By listening for unusual sounds, you can identify any potential problems with the car's engine, transmission, suspension, steering, exhaust, or brakes. If you notice any concerning sounds, it's best to have a mechanic inspect the car before making a purchase.

Check Tyres

Inspect the tyres carefully when inspecting a used car. Checking the tyres is an important part of the used car inspection process. Here's how to check the tyres:

  • Check the condition of the tyres, including any visible signs of wear or damage. Look for any cuts, bulges, or cracks on the sidewall of the tyre.
  • Check the tread depth of the tyres using a tread depth gauge. The legal minimum tread depth is 1.6mm, but it's recommended to have at least 3mm of tread for optimum grip.
  • Check the tyre pressure using a tyre pressure gauge. The correct tyre pressure can be found in the car's manual or on the inside of the driver's door.
  • Check that the tyres are the same brand, model and size across all four wheels.
  • Look for any signs of uneven wear on the tyres. Uneven wear can indicate problems with the alignment or suspension of the car.
  • Check the spare tyre, if there is one, to ensure it's in good condition and has enough tread.

By checking the condition, tread depth, pressure, and wear of the tyres, you can ensure they're safe and legal for driving on the road. If you notice any issues with the tyres, factor in the cost of replacing them when making an offer for the car.

Look Under the Bonnet

Take a look under the bonnet to inspect the engine and other components. Inspecting under the bonnet is an essential part of the used car inspection process. Here are some things to look for:

  • Check the engine oil level and condition. The oil level should be between the minimum and maximum marks on the dipstick, and the oil should be clear and not too dark or dirty.
  • Inspect the engine coolant level and colour. The coolant level should be between the minimum and maximum marks on the reservoir, and the coolant should be bright and clear, without any oily residue.
  • Look for any signs of leaks, such as oil or coolant leaking from the engine. Leaks can indicate bigger problems with the car.
  • Inspect the battery for any signs of damage or corrosion on the terminals.
  • Check the brake fluid level and condition. The brake fluid should be clear and not too dark or dirty.
  • Look for any signs of wear or damage on the belts and hoses.
  • Inspect the air filter for any signs of dirt or damage. A dirty air filter can affect the car's performance.

By inspecting under the bonnet, you can identify any potential issues with the car's engine and other systems. If you're not confident in inspecting the engine yourself, it's best to have a mechanic take a look before making a purchase.


When buying a used car, it's essential to check the paperwork to ensure that everything is in order. Here are some documents you should look at:

  • V5C registration certificate - This is the most important document as it shows who the registered keeper of the vehicle is. Check that the details on the V5C match the seller's details and that the registration number matches the number plate on the car.
  • MOT certificate - Check that the MOT certificate is valid and that there are no advisories or failures listed on the certificate.
  • Service history - Ideally, the car should have a full service history, detailing all repairs, services, and maintenance work carried out on the vehicle. This shows that the car has been well looked after and maintained.
  • Receipts - Ask the seller for receipts of any repairs, services or maintenance work carried out on the vehicle, including any modifications.
  • Insurance documents - Ask the seller for proof of insurance to ensure that the car is currently insured.
  • Logbook - This contains details of previous owners, any outstanding finance on the vehicle, and any previous accidents or damage to the car.

By checking the paperwork, you can ensure that the car has been well maintained, is legally owned by the seller, and that there are no outstanding finance or insurance issues. If the seller is unable or unwilling to provide any of the documents listed above, it may be best to walk away from the purchase.

Service History

Checking the service history is an essential part of buying a used car. Here's how to check the service history:

  • Ask the seller for the service history documents - The service history documents should contain details of all the repairs and maintenance carried out on the car. Check the service book, receipts and invoices, and any other documents that the seller may have.
  • Check the service intervals - Look at the dates of the services to ensure that they were carried out regularly, according to the manufacturer's recommended service intervals. Ideally, there should be a service carried out every 12 months or every 10,000 miles, whichever comes first.
  • Check the work carried out - Look at the details of the work carried out during each service. Check that all the necessary components were checked and replaced, such as oil filters, air filters, and brake pads. Also, check that any repairs were carried out to a high standard.
  • Check for gaps in the service history - If there are gaps in the service history, ask the seller why they exist. It could be that the car was not regularly serviced or that the previous owner carried out the services themselves.
  • Verify the authenticity of the service history - Look for any signs that the service history may have been falsified or tampered with. Check that the service stamps are genuine and that they correspond with the dates and mileage recorded in the service book.

By checking the service history, you can get an idea of how well the car has been maintained and whether there are any potential issues with the car. If you have any doubts about the service history or its authenticity, it's best to get an independent inspection carried out by a qualified mechanic.

Purchasing a used car can be a great way to save money, but it is essential to thoroughly inspect the vehicle before making a purchase.

Look for signs of damage or wear, listen for any unusual sounds, and inspect the paperwork and service history to ensure that the car is mechanically sound and safe to drive.

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Struan Motors Limited is an appointed representative of Ingeni Services Group Limited, Unit 11, Atlas Works, Foundry Lane, Earls Colne, Colchester CO6 2TE which is authorised and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority. Ingeni Services group Limited’s FCA Number is 747381. Ingeni Services Group Limited permitted business is arranging general insurance contracts. Struan Motors Limited is also authorised and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority (Ref No 671281) for consumer credit purposes. We are a broker for finance and not a lender. Please be aware that lenders (for example Northridge Finance, Peugeot Financial Services, Mazda Financial Services and others) typically pay us a commission for introducing you to them. Commission may be calculated based on either a fixed amount relating to the vehicle you are financing, a percentage of the amount you borrow, or a combination of both. Different lenders typically pay different commissions for such introductions. Lenders may also make other types of payment to Struans for introducing you to them. Any such amounts will not affect the amounts you pay to the Lender under your finance agreement, all of which are set by the lender. Customers can ask to know the level of commision that will ideally be paid.  We are committed to better supporting, and taking into account the needs of customers who make us aware that they are vulnerable (as per Financial Conduct Authority's definition).


Please note we do not operate an organised distance selling scheme as defined by The Consumer Contracts (Cancellation, Information and Additional Charges) Regulations 2013. Therefore, even if you choose to not view your vehicle at our premises prior to purchase, you will not be entitled to cancel your order under any 14 day cancellation period. All other statutory rights remain unaffected.   

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