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2nd September 2021

A guide to buying a used car: what to look out for

Buying a new car, whether brand new or used, is an exciting time. When it comes to used cars, however, there are certain things you inspect prior to purchase.

We take a look at the nine key things to look out for when buying a used car in our guide below:

Guide to buying used car

Buying a used car

1. Check the car’s MOT history and servicing records

If the car you’re looking at is more three years old, its entire MOT test history can be viewed online. Enter its registration number into the government’s MOT check website,  there you will be presented with details of each test. Pay attention to advisory notes as these highlight any issue that wasn’t great enough to cause an MOT failure, but which could eventually lead to one if left unchecked. These will become your problem once you’ve transferred ownership.

If there are lots of advisories, use the likelihood of impending maintenance work to negotiate a discount. And, if necessary, be prepared to walk away. You should also inspect the car’s service book for stamps and ask the owner if they’ve kept receipts of maintenance work they’ve claimed to have had done.  Some newer cars use an online service history, which can make it more difficult to check quickly. Try phoning the dealer that carried out the maintenance; it will have a full record of what work has been carried out.

2. Inspect the bodywork and chassis

The gaps between a car’s panels should be even and consistent. Misaligned panels can be a sign that the car has previously been in an accident.  Check that the paint matches on all panels (bright light helps here). It’s often difficult to exactly match the paint on repaired panels that have been resprayed, and a slight difference can suggest a previous owner has had a bump.

Inspect small scratches and dents carefully. A scratch that has gone through the lacquer and paintwork down to the metal is more likely to develop corrosion.

Has the car got the original numbers plates from when new? If not, it may have been involved in an accident? Try to view a car in the dry as the rain will make the paint look better than perhaps it is.

3. Are the wheels and tyres in good condition? 

Kerbed wheels are an inevitable fact of life, particularly for city drivers. If the damage is superficial and the rims themselves aren’t cracked or bent, then it needn’t be a reason to discount a car. The condition of the tyres is of more concern.  Tyres need to have a minimum of 1.6mm tread depth to be road legal. Factor this into your offer if they’re close to needing replacing.

The tyres should also be free from any cuts or bulges. If you notice either on the tyre’s sidewall, it’s likely the current owner has previously hit a kerb.

The tread on each tyre should also be evenly worn. Overinflated tyres tend to wear more in the middle, while uneven wear can indicate that the wheels or suspension are misaligned. This can reduce tyre performance and increase wear and fuel consumption. Remember BMW particularly tend to have ‘run-flat’ tyres which can be much more expensive to replace.

4. Check the oil level 

Make sure the car is cold and that it’s parked on level ground. Open the bonnet and check the level of oil in the engine using the dipstick.  A low oil level could be a sign of poor maintenance. Low engine oil accelerates wear, which could mean more problems as the car ages. Clean engine oil is a golden yellow colour, therefore if the oil on the dipstick is black rather than brown, it may not have been changed in quite some time.

Check the underside of the engine oil cap for any signs of ‘gunk’, which will have a mayonnaise-like appearance. This is a sign that engine coolant is mixing with the oil, pointing towards a failed head gasket, something you should walk away from.

5. Does the engine struggle to start? 

Common signs that there may be a battery problem include:

  • The engine struggles to start.
  • The starter motor doesn’t work as hard as usual.
  • The interior or exterior lights dim significantly during ignition.

You should also check the water temperature gauge to ensure the engine is cold when you’ve started it.

6. Exhaust emissions

 Check the colour of the exhaust emissions. The exhaust may emit fine white smoke on start up, this is water vapour from the exhaust pipe itself and is totally normal. Once warm, engine exhaust will typically be very fine, so thick smoke is a cause for concern. If you spot one of the below, think twice about proceeding with a purchase:

  • Black exhaust smoke is a sign that the engine is burning fuel inefficiently. This could be down to a fault in one of several components, such as fuel injectors, filters, sensors, or exhaust gas recirculation valves in diesel cars.
  • Blue smoke suggests the engine is burning oil, which is likely down to a failed seal or gasket allowing oil into the engine’s combustion chamber.

7. Is the mileage genuine?

The car’s mileage will always be higher than that recorded at its last MOT. If not, it suggests that it could have been illegally wound back.

8. Take the car for a thorough test drive

While you’re driving, think about the following:

  • Is it a bumpy ride? Regardless of how basic the car is, the suspension should absorb most bumps without creating a large jolt in the cabin. If this isn’t the case, or it’s making knocking or crunching noises as you drive, it could point to worn or broken suspension components.
  • Does the clutch slip? If you experience clutch slip or any juddering when moving off or accelerating, this is a sign the clutch is on the way out. Similarly, if the biting point is a long way up the pedal’s travel, the clutch may be due for replacement.
  • Does the car pull in one direction? When driving the car in a straight line on a flat and level road, when it’s safe to do so, lift your hands from the wheel slightly. If the car pulls in one direction, the wheel alignment might be off.
  • Do you hear a whining noise when you steer? Turn the steering wheel to full lock at slow speeds. A whining noise may point towards a power-steering pump that’s about to expire, or at least that it’s running low on fluid. The same could be true if the steering is particularly heavy or sluggish.
  • Does the engine make a knocking or tapping noise as you accelerate? This may suggest that the engine is wearing prematurely. If the noise is excessive, it could be a sign of a ‘blowing’ exhaust, which is a result of corrosion causing small holes in the pipe.
  • Do the brakes wobble or pulsate through the steering or pedal? This is a sign one of more of the brake discs could be warped and will need replacing.
  • Is the handbrake stable? Make sure the handbrake holds the car on a hill properly. If the car is fitted with an electronic handbrake, make sure it engages and disengages smoothly.

9. Consider getting an inspection check

For a small fee, companies such as HPI will provide a report into a vehicle’s background. This will include details of any outstanding finance and will also tell you if it’s previously been stolen or written off, things that should certainly be ringing alarm bells if they haven’t been declared.

If you’re happy with your inspection of a car and wish to proceed with your purchase, get in touch with Specialist Motor Finance today for more information on our hire purchase solutions.