What to look for when buying a used car

Car Salesman

So, you’ve decided to buy a used car rather than a new one. There can be many potential benefits including lower upfront costs and no waiting times. But you’ll need to keep some things in mind before you commit.

In this guide, we’ve outlined our top tips for buying a used car, including a helpful checklist to help you know what to look out for when looking for your next vehicle.


Where to buy a used car

Before we move onto our used car checklist, here’s a reminder that you need to think about where you’re buying your car, not just which one you’re buying. Where you buy your car from might even impact things like your consumer rights.

There are two main methods for buying a used car — private and dealership. And there are pros and cons to both.



Buying a car from a dealership can be considered a good option, especially if you know little about cars. Staff will be on hand to help with any questions during the buying process, and used car dealerships usually rigorously test their vehicles.

And as the Consumer Rights Act covers your purchase, you have more comfort knowing you’re covered if something goes wrong with your car soon after buying. Plus, some dealerships can sometimes offer extended warranties.

The downside is that used cars sold at a dealership can be more expensive than ones sold privatelyi.



Buying a car from a private seller could save you money compared to buying from a dealerii.

However, when buying a car privately, you must remember the phrase ‘buyer beware’ because the Consumer Rights Act does not protect private car purchases. You should bear in mind that you have fewer consumer rights when it comes to private sellersiii.

It’s important that you take the time to check the vehicle and make sure everything is working as it should. If you’re confident with cars and willing to take the risk, you’re likely to be able to buy a used car for less than you would at a dealership.


Buying a used car checklist

Once you’ve started shopping for a new motor, you’ll need to know what to check when buying a used car. Our handy list makes it simple.

Although some things are more critical when purchasing a car from a private seller, you should still make checks when buying a used car from a dealership. If you’d like to find out more about what to look out for when shopping for a car, read our top tips here.

Being armed with as much information as possible is always important when making a large purchase.

So here is our list of things to do before you drive away in your new set of wheels:


Carry out a history check

You can get free history checks on any vehicle from GOV.UK. You only need the vehicle’s registration number (number plate). With this, you’ll be able to find out all the information the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) holds about the vehicle.

This includes:

  • current vehicle tax rate and date of expiry
  • SORN (Statutory Off Road Notification) status
  • date of MOT certificate expiry
  • date of first registration
  • last log book (V5C) issue date
  • year of manufacture
  • type approval category
  • weight
  • engine size
  • fuel type
  • CO2 emissions (including real driving emissions level and European status)
  • export status

You can also write to the DVLA if you want to identify the current or previous registered keeper of a vehicle.

Alternatively, you could use a private service such as Check Car Details. Services like this offer the same DVLA information for free and more in-depth information for a small fee, such as the car’s MOT test history. This premium service comes at a cost but might be worth considering if you’re buying privately and would like more information before you purchase.


Check the vehicle mileage

A car’s mileage can reveal information that may not be evident when looking at its visual condition.

The average motorist in the United Kingdom drove up to 10,000 miles per year in 2017 - 2018, according to research published by Statista. So make sure this tallies up with the car’s age.

If a car has done over 100,000 miles in less than 3 years, for example, this could be a red flag — especially if the price is just as high as similar lower mileage cars.

Within a detailed history check, you’ll be able to see the mileage when the car had its last MOT. So again, check this against the current mileage and make sure nothing looks suspicious.

It’s not just high mileage you should look out for, though. People can reset mileage counters to look falsely low, so make sure you’re getting an accurate picture when buying.


Make sure the car has all of its documents

Most importantly, you have to check that the car has its vehicle registration document, also known as a log book (V5C).

You’ll need to ensure that the V5C matches up with the vehicle information the seller has provided. And if you’re buying privately, make sure you’re purchasing the car from its legal owner, too. If you’re concerned about any documents you’ve seen, the DVLA will be able to confirm who the registered keeper is.



​Get the seller’s details

You may need to prove who you purchased your car from, so remember to get the contact details of the person you are buying from.

This is especially important when buying privately but even if you’re buying from a dealer, make sure you take note of the dealership’s trading name and location. It’s even a good idea to record the name of the sales representative you saw so that you know who to speak to if there’s a problem.


Visual inspection

It can be easy to miss damage in photographs, so make sure you look at a car closely in person before you hand over any cash.

Take care to check for any scratches or visible damage that may not have shown in the images.

Be sure also to inspect tyres thoroughly to make sure they are not worn.

If you do spot a problem, this doesn’t necessarily mean you shouldn’t buy the car. For example, if the car just needs a new set of tyres you can factor the cost in to your purchase. If the vehicle is otherwise great value, you may still want to consider buying and making the necessary upgrades before you get on the road. You might even be able to barter a discount for any issues you spot.


Look under the bonnet — with the help of a petrolhead

Checking under the bonnet is similar to inspecting the outside, but you’ll need some car knowledge to do this properly.

If you don’t know about cars and their inner workings, ask someone to look over the vehicle for you. You could pay a professional to do this, but this will eat into your budget, which is why you may prefer to buy from a dealership that tests and inspects its cars.


Compare prices against similar vehicles

It’s always worth checking the cost of the vehicle against other similar cars to ensure you are getting a good deal. Do this research in advance online before you make an offer.

Approaching a private seller or a dealership with this information might even help you negotiate the price down.


Find out the car’s efficiency and how much is fuel going to cost

Even if a car seems a great value initially, you want to consider the long term cost of running it.

An older car with a big engine is most likely to cost more to run than a newer model with a more efficient engine.

You can get an estimate of the ongoing costs by using a car fuel cost calculator.

If you regularly drive lots of miles, such as long commutes, it will be worth looking into a car that offers more miles per gallon. Newer, more efficient cars are also better for the environment.


Get a car insurance quote

You don’t have to own a car to find out how much insurance would cost.

You can get a hypothetical insurance quote before purchasing a car to determine whether it’s going to be expensive to run.

This is extra important if you’re looking to get a car for your child or if you’re a new driver.



Take it for a test drive

You can get as much information about a car as you like, but nobody can tell you if you’ll enjoy driving it. That’s why taking the car for a test drive is essential.

Again, you may feel more comfortable doing this with a dealership car as they will have insurance in place and assist with test drives regularly.

With covid restrictions in place, make sure you and the seller are comfortable and take the necessary precautions.


Financing a used car

Once you’ve found the used car that is right for you, it’s time to make that purchase.

Buying a car can be a large expense so it’s important to take your time to consider your purchase.

If you can’t afford your ideal used car straight away, you may decide to save a little longer or look at other financing options, such as a car loan.

For more information on ways to finance  a second-hand vehicle, visit our ultimate guide to financing a used car.