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What to look for in a car? Your used car buying guide

  • 21 Feb, 2020
What to look for in a car? Your used car buying guide

Purchasing a used car is an excellent option for many. You get to own a quality automobile for a smaller price tag. But finding a reliable pre-owned one can be challenging.

Well, actually, it need not be that way. If you are searching for a used car and want to get a quick rundown on the do’s and don’ts of the trade, you’ve come to the right place.

This used car buying guide will cover some of the essential aspects that you should look into before handing over your hard-earned cash.

Setting off on your car-buying journey

Whether you decide to purchase a used car from a registered dealer or a private seller, you need to look into a few essential things. Our used car buying guide lists common practices to ensure that you end up owning the best car for the best price.

The last thing you want is to invest in buying a lemon and spend hours at the mechanic trying to fix it up.

1. Identify the kind of vehicle you need

No guide in the world can tell you which car to buy. That you will have to decide on your own. Your choices will be influenced by your budget, personal tastes, family needs, lifestyle choices, job requirements, and whatnot.

Here are a few points to note down:

1) How much can you afford? This will clearly define what cars you can buy that are on the market.

2) Write down your likes, dislikes, wants, and needs. Aim at buying a vehicle that meets 80% of your needs.

3) Make a list of makes and models to narrow down the search.


1) If you are thinking of taking out a car loan, consider putting 10% down and paying it off in three years.

2) Keep your car payments within 20% of your take-home pay. Remember that used cars often need a little more TLC, and that can put a strain on a tight budget.

3) If you're thinking about purchasing a vehicle that is less than 5 years old, a certified pre-owned (CPO) is a better choice as it may be backed with a warranty from the carmaker.

2. Check all the documents

1) Look into the car’s history. Was it ever stolen, or does it have any outstanding dues?

2) The VIN (Vehicle Identification Number) is located at the base of the windscreen, under the bonnet, and under the carpet by the driver’s seat stamped into the framework. This number should be identical to the one present on the V5C registration document.

3) Have a look at the service history and previous MOT certificates.

4) Check the value of the car by comparing it to similar used ones for sale, either online or in a showroom.


1) If you buy a car that's under a logbook loan agreement or one that’s been reported stolen, it could really get you in a bind. To avoid such a situation, get all the information verified. Some companies charge a small fee to do a background check on the used car you are interested in buying.

2) The Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) started issuing red V5Cs in late 2010, so blue V5C documents are no longer in circulation.

3) Get a good look

Let’s break the car inspection into a few parts so that the crucial aspects are not overlooked. But make sure to carry out a thorough inspection, preferably during the day. Though you can examine the car yourself, consider taking it down to your mechanic for a second opinion. More importantly, don't rush the process.


Odour Check:

When you first open the door, focus on the smell. If you pick up a mouldy or musty whiff, there could be flood damage. To double-check, remove the floor mats and look for wet spots. Do the same with the trunk.


1) Inspect the upholstery and condition of all the seats. Consider sitting in all of them to see how hard or too soft they are.

2) There should be enough legroom and headroom.

3) Check whether the seat adjustments function, especially if they are the electric type.

4) As the driver, your seat must be the most comfortable. Make sure your neck and back are getting the best support.

5) It should be easy to get in and out of the car without needing to stoop or banging your head.

6) Seatbelts should have an adjustable anchor and must be adaptable for car seats for children.

Cabin Ergonomics:

The position of the steering wheel, instrument panel, radio and heater controls, headrests, mirrors, etc. must be suitable for your physique. You should be able to use various features without difficulty or taking your eyes off the road.

Dashboard Lights:

Before starting the car, turn the ignition to the accessory position. All the lights should be illuminated. Then start the vehicle. If any warning lights stay on, especially "check engine" and "ABS" lights, this could be an indication of more significant issues than a burned-out bulb.


Make sure all the controls operate properly, especially the air conditioner, heater, and audio system.

Lock and Windows:

1) Check to see if all the locks work. Moreover, they should all be the same. If anyone is different, it could mean that the car’s been broken into before.

2) Make sure all the windows and the sunroof function properly.

3) See how far the rear windows roll down. In some models, the windows are sealed in place or don’t go down all the way.


Physically assess the vehicle carefully from all around. Here are certain aspects to look at closely.


1) Tires can say a lot about the condition of a car and how well the owner maintains it.

2) The wheels should all be of the same make.

3) Scrutinize each tire. Check for cracks, bulges, or scuffing.

4) Make sure there is enough tread in the tires.

5) Uneven tire wear is a sign of poor wheel alignment or suspension issues.


1) Make sure all the lights work, even the high beam.

2) Check to see that the lights aren’t cracked or damaged.

Condition of the body:

1) Walk around the automobile, looking for scratches, dents, and rust.

2) The body panels and seams should line up evenly and have the same shade of paint.

3) Place a small magnet gently at various locations of the body. If it doesn’t stay in place, plastic body fillers may have been used to repair the body. And that means the vehicle has been in an accident.

4) Pull up carpets and trims to check for hidden welds or poor paintwork.

Under the Hood


Check the following vital fluids:

Oil: If the oil was recently changed, the colour should be amber. Otherwise, a black or dark brown colour is normal. If the oil appears grey, or foamy, or the dipstick has water droplets, this could be an indication of serious, costly problems such as a blown head gasket or a cracked engine block.

Transmission Fluid: Transmission fluid should be pink. A brown hue means that the transmission could be in trouble.

Brake and Power Steering Fluid: Make sure both are filled to the required level. Peek under the car to see if any oil is dripping.

Belts and Hoses: Check the belts and hoses for cracks or holes.

Radiator: The fluid in the radiator should be green or orange. If it’s milky or rusty, there might be radiator issues. A green or orange stain on the radiator may mean the presence of a leak. But if it’s foamy or has oil droplets, that could be a sign of a defective head gasket or a cracked block.

4. Time for a test drive

Even if everything looks okay, you need to take the car for a ride. You need to get the feel of the vehicle. So consider this as an essential part of the used car buying guide.

The best way to assess the car's condition is to drive it for almost half an hour at different driving speeds. Listen for any unusual noises or vibrations. Make sure to select a route that includes rough terrain, curves, and a stretch of highway.

Engine Noise

1) Listen for tapping or ticking sounds when starting the engine. A prolonged tapping could be due to the valves needing adjustment or a bad hydraulic lifter.

2) There should be no grinding or groaning sound when shifting gears. Grinding noises could mean a worn or broken engine or transmission mount. Moreover, the transmission of an automatic car should engage immediately.

Steering Vibration

The steering wheel shouldn’t shake or vibrate. If it does, it could mean an unbalanced tire or a loose steering rack. And if it shakes when braking, it may be due to a warped brake rotor or a sticking calliper.

The Brakes

1) There shouldn’t be any squealing sounds.

2) The car should always move in a straight line. If it pulls to either left or right, there could be issues with the brakes, suspension, or steering gear.

3) ABS should have a slight pulsating action, but those without the system should never have this action under any circumstances.

Final thoughts

Yes, there’s a lot to think about when auto cars UK, from which model and make is the most suitable for your lifestyle to keep within your budget to a careful inspection of the automobile. But your hard work is not quite finished.

Even though you negotiated the price and shook hands on it, you’ve got to complete all the legal paperwork. When you make the down payment and decide on the payment schedule, it’s time to transfer the ownership of the vehicle to your name. With nothing more to do, it’s time to drive away in your very own set of wheels.

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