What to Check When Buying a Car + Ultimate Guide for Non-Experts

What to check when buying a car from an individual seller or dealer? The experts and experienced buyers say buy the used cars with your head, not your heart! It's also an excellent strategy to walk away if you aren't convinced about anything. This article discusses tips and points of attention for buying used cars with your head to have a wise and satisfactory purchase after all. Let's get to the end.

Read in this article:

  • What to Check When Buying a Car

  • Used Car Checklist for Non-Experts

  • Engine

  • Gearbox and Clutch

  • Bodywork

  • Wheels and Tires

  • Car Interior

  • Test drive

  • Documents, What to Check When Buying a Car

  • Conclusion

What to Check When Buying a Car

The checklist of things you should be aware of when buying a used car isn't entirely impossible like it once was. Improved reliability, better manufacturing practices, and considerable improvements in records for insurance write-offs, outstanding finance, and MoT (Ministry of Transport) history mean you can get a good idea of a used car's past more efficiently than ever before.

Naturally, there are still risks, which applies whether you are buying from an individual seller or dealership, privately or from an approved primary dealer. Combining this used car checklist with a bit of common sense means you can purchase it with confidence.

Once your thought is in the right place for car shopping, it's time to get down to the nitty-gritty. This article about the used car buying checklist guarantees that the unmissable used car dealership is a genuine bargain, and you get what to check when buying a car from a dealership.

Used Car Checklist for Non-Experts

Only some of these points are show-stoppers for your purchase. You can use these problems to your advantage by haggling money off the car or make the seller fix it before the purchase.

If you're purchasing privately, you'll be responsible for identifying all problems. While the seller doesn't have to offer much information, it's up to you to ask the right questions. Buying from a dealer gives you specific legal rights, and the car must be fit for its given purpose.

The Engine

The engine is undoubtedly the heart of every vehicle. While they put up with a considerable amount of wear and tear, the components inside and the tight tolerances they operate under maintenance is crucial. These are some other things of what to check when buying a car in a dealership or auction:

  • Leaks: When buying a used car, check underneath for signs of an oil leak; if there's oil on the tarmac under the vehicle or lots of sludge under the car, it has or has had an oil leak. Coolant or antifreeze is usually green, pink, or yellow, while gearbox and power steering fluid is reddish-brown. Gearbox fluid is thick, while power steering fluid is thinner.

  • Oil: Checking the car oil is general maintenance, and you shouldn't forget it during the purchasing process. Ensure the car's dipstick reading is at the correct level, and the engine oil is not discolored or the wrong consistency. Look for dirt and grime covering any connectors because this could show a poorly serviced or maintained vehicle.

  • Head Gasket: The car head gasket is a thin part that sits between the upper and lower parts of the engine and prevents coolant or oil from entering the engine's cylinders.

  • Exhaust Smoke Colors: Switch on the engine and go to the back of the intended car. A little puff of smoke when starting the engine is not severe, but watch the exhaust for a few minutes as it's a red flag if it remains. Blue smoke in the car usually means the engine is burning oil. White smoke can be more challenging to identify as it's easily confused with steam. Finally, Black smoke is usually because the engine burns too much fuel. It's generally easier to rectify than curing the causes of white or blue smoke, but it can be down to several components, so it can be harder to pin down the reason.

The Gearbox and Clutch

Gearbox and clutch checks are not just about what you seem but more about what you feel. Manual and automatic gearboxes are available, but different types of automatic gearboxes can behave differently.

Whatever gearbox the car has, it should involve all gears quietly and smoothly. If it doesn't, there's a potential problem. In the manual cars, the clutch biting point, the point that you feel the car start to move when releasing the clutch pedal, should be the middle of the pedal's travel.

If you have to push your foot to the car floor, it means the clutch will need attention. It could be a simple adjustment or maybe an expensive replacement. You should be able to change gears quickly. Resistance or grinding noises also shows a problem.

Whichever type of automatic gearbox you're testing, ensure you engage all of the gears, ensure the kick-down works, and the function changes down gears when you press the accelerator pedal to the floor. If the intended car has a manual mode, operated either by steering wheel-mounted gearshift paddles or a manual operation on the gearstick, make sure it works correctly.

The Bodywork

Checking the bodywork is one of the most detailed visual inspections you can do while looking at a used car. Essentially, you're searching for signs of repainting or replacement panels that might suggest the model has been in an accident.

Car park dents and dings can be expected on doors, too, while a chipped front could indicate many heavy motorway miles. Look for panel gaps and the door seals for potential leaks, as well.

Check as much of the given car as you can underneath, outside, and inside. Repairs aren't necessarily a bad thing. They can even help to build an image of the car's history.

Look for all kinds of rust on all metal body panels. Rust will start by bubbling under the paint, but you leave it unchecked, it can force the color off and eventually rust through, so it's worth getting it fixed. Untreated scratches and stone chips can trigger rust.

Pay attention to the car's wheel arches, especially the edges of the lips inside the wheel arches, like water, salt, grit, and road grime can all conspire to cause rust. And also, check the car's sills, the panels that run under both sides' doors.

It would help if you also check evidence of crash damage, and more importantly, evidence of shoddy repairs. During daylight, check the body panels are of a uniform color and check for evidence of overspray on glass, plastic trims, and rubber seals.

Look at the gaps between each panel. The thickness of the hole should be uniform all around the car. If not, then the chances are that it's had a replacement panel or even had a big shunt to knock the entire chassis out of alignment.

The Wheels and Tires

This further external check is essential to ensure any used buy already has a decent set of tires. If it doesn't, negotiate more, because the new rubber can be expensive.

Check all wheels, plus the spare one, looking for signs of damage. Grazes from curbstones are common and aren't usually a serious problem, but wheels bent or have large dents in the rims will need replacing or repairing.

Check all of the tires too. They shouldn't have any cuts, splits, gouges, or bulges; if you see one, they'll need replacing. The intended tread should be at least 1.6mm deep around the tire. Uneven tire wear, where one side of the tire is more worn than the other, can indicate low wheel or suspension alignment. That could happen because of an accident or only hitting a pothole at speed but will need fixing.

Tires that are worn excessively around the middle or both edges point to consistent under or over-inflation and need replacing.

The Car Interior

The condition of the interior can help to indicate whether the mileage is genuine. A car with 20K miles on the clock should have an interior that's almost like new; if it's tired and worn, especially the seat bases, steering wheel, and side bolsters, it's a red flag.

Check for tears or rips in the upholstery, holes drilled in the dashboard, and a sagging roof lining. The vehicle of a smoker might be prone to burns in the seats. If you're satisfied with the condition, that's fine, but if you're not, bargain some of the prices to pay for repairs.

What's more crucial is to check all the equipment works, from the lights to the ventilation system, to all-electric features such as the windows, sunroof, radio and central locking. Budget for repairs if you spot anything. These are some other things of what to check when buying a car from a stranger:

  • Boot: As you can see, in the luggage area, if the car got a full-size spare wheel, space-saver, or a can of foam. Ensure the boot carpet is dry in case of any leaks, and do the same for footwell carpets both back and front. It's also good to look at the rear seat folding mechanism works properly and gives you the space you require in the car.

  • Mileage and Warning Lights: Seat on the driver's side and turn on the car ignition. It will allow you to check for any warning lights, plus confirm that the car's mileage is as advertised. Beware of potential 'clocked' motors, excessive wear on the pedals, seats, and gearstick inconsistent with the car odometer reading are all signs of the claimed mileage having been tampered with it.

  • Electronics: Cars are increasingly loaded with new technology, and this can quite easily go wrong. Lights are the most important electronic device on any car, so make sure they're working correctly. Fogged lenses or maybe uneven beams should all be warnings, while a dim beam will mean you should change bulbs soon. Also, check that the radio, infotainment system, windows, climate control, central locking, and any other gadgets work as advertised.

The Test Drive

With the visual checks done, the next essential step in finding what to check when buying a car is to take a test drive. Many buyers don't consider this option, but it is a must-to-do. Any good dealer will be pleased to accompany you on a drive. Try the vehicle at various speeds, and listen out for the engine noise and any irritating rattles during the ride. Make sure the brakes and clutch are nicely responsive and in full working order.

The Documents, What to Check When Buying a Car

The holy grail of car purchases is a folder crammed with receipts for work carried out. It enables you to check the car's past for the work carried out and parts fitted. Plus, it allows you to compare the mileage against what's displayed on the dashboard. A car service book is a valuable document too.

Pay attention to the past MoT (Ministry of Transport) certificates. The mileage should increase by a similar amount during each year. If the mileage suddenly decreases, the given car could have been clocked, the illegal practice of rolling back the milometer to make the car appear less used than it is.

Once you've done all this, it's an excellent idea to have a vehicle history check carried out. It says you if the car has been written off, is subject to outstanding finance, or recorded as stolen.


What to check when buying a car from an individual seller or dealer? This article is the ultimate checklist for you to make sure everything is in place. From the engine to the documentation, there are many things you should check before making the purchase. Read this article thoroughly and have a satisfactory purchase.

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