How to test drive and check a used car before committing to buying – top 6 tips

Price is a starting point, but to help you narrow down your choices further, you need to focus on the following three factors: 

When it comes to buying used cars, knowledge is power. The more information you have, the better a deal you’ll get. And ultimately, buying a second-hand car comes down to simple economics. You want to buy it for the lowest possible price and the seller wants to sell it for the highest possible price, but it’s never that simple is it? As well as the price itself, it’s crucial that you also know what to check when buying a used car.

When the seller didn’t volunteer much information about the used car that you’re trying to buy then it’s your turn to ask many right questions and come to a conclusion about it. Used approved schemes have many advantages like full-service history, undergo a comprehensive mechanical check, and depending on the scheme may even come with an extra warranty and breakdown cover.

1. Checking the bonnet and engine

The engine is the heart of the car, and while they put up with a huge amount of wear and tear, the number of components inside and the tight tolerances they operate under means of maintenance is essential. One of the easiest things to spot is leaks. Many different fluids run in, around and under the engine, and a well-maintained used car shouldn’t spring a leak. When you view a used car, check underneath for signs of an oil leak. If there’s oil on the tarmac under the used car, or lots of sludge under the used car it has or has had, an oil leak. The sludge under the engine is caused by road dirt sticking to the oily underside of the engine. 

Open the bonnet and check all around the engine for other leaks. Oil leaks are usually brown or if the engine oil is old, black, but other fluids are prone to seeping out. Coolant is usually green, pink or yellow while gearbox and power steering fluid is reddish-brown. Gearbox fluid is quite thick, while power steering fluid is thinner. If you see any of this leaking, you have a few options. You can ask for money off the price to get it fixed yourself, or you can insist the seller fixes it as part of the deal. Or you can walk away and seek out another used car. Either way, it’s worth getting it seen by an expert so you know the exact problem, and what it’ll cost to fix. 

Check the engine whether it is cool and remove the oil cap from the top of the engine. If you see white, or light brown sludge, you’re probably looking at the result of a blown head gasket. At that point, it’s probably worth walking away from the deal, as it’s hard to know what other damage the problem has caused. Switch on the used car and walk back to check the smoke. The little puff of smoke while starting the engine is quite common but check for a few more minutes as it may indicate some sign if there is any problem that needs to be fixed. Blue smoke means the engine is burning oil. That means somehow oil is getting into the cylinders. It could indicate a blown head gasket or problems with the internal engine seals. Either way, the bills could be significant.

Excessive white smoke can also point to a head gasket failure, but this time it’ll be coolant entering the cylinders and being burned with fuel. Black smoke is usually caused by the engine burning too much fuel. It’s usually easier to rectify than curing the causes of white or blue smoke, but can be down to several components so it can be harder to pin down the cause. If you’re still keen to buy a used car that’s emitting smoke of any colour, you should always get it checked out by an expert.

2. Used car bodywork checks

Essentially, you’re searching for any signs of repainting or replacement panels that might suggest the model has been in an accident. Used car park dents and dings can be common on doors, too, while a chipped front could suggest a lot of heavy motorway miles. Check for panel gaps, and the door seals for potential leaks, as well. Pay special attention to the front and rear of the car, as this is where low-speed shunts often occur. Lift the boot carpet. The panels below should be straight and ripple-free. Bent panels under the bonnet can indicate a previous front-end crash. You should also look for evidence of crash damage, and more importantly, evidence of poor repairs. In bright daylight, check the body panels are of a uniform colour and look for evidence of ‘overspray’ on glass, rubber seals and plastic trims.

Check all of the tyres too. They should be free from cuts, splits, gouges or bulges; if you see any, they’ll need replacing. The tread should be at least 1.6mm deep around the whole tyre. Uneven tyre wear – where one side of the tyre is more worn than the other – can indicate poor wheel or suspension alignment. That could be caused by a crash, or simply hitting a pothole at speed, but will need fixing.

3. Interior car checks

The condition of a used car’s interior can help to indicate whether the mileage is genuine. A car with 20,000 miles on the clock should have an interior that’s almost like new – if it’s tired and worn, especially the steering wheel, seat bases and side bolsters, the seller could be hiding something. Check for rips or tears in the upholstery, holes drilled in the dashboard and a sagging roof lining. 

A smoker’s car might be prone to burns in the seats too. If you’re happy with the condition, that’s fine, but if you’re not, haggle some money off the price to pay for repairs. What’s more important 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. In the luggage area, as you can see if the used car’s got a full-size spare wheel, space-saver or merely a can of foam. Make sure the boot carpet is dry in case of any leaks, and do the same for carpets both front and back. It’s also good to check the rear seat folding mechanism works properly and gives you the space you require.

4. Used car documentation

The holy grail of used car purchases is a folder crammed with receipts for work carried out. This enables you to check the car’s history for the work carried out and parts fitted. Plus it allows you to check the mileage against what’s displayed on the dashboard. A service book is a valuable document too, as you can see who has serviced the car, and when.

The most important document needed when you’re buying a used car is the V5C (also known as the logbook or V5), as without it you can’t insure the vehicle. When checking the logbook make sure that the used car you’re buying and the number plate match up with what’s noted down in the V5. If it doesn’t seem legitimate, walk away. Check the VIN on the V5C matches the used car, this can usually be found on the passenger side of the windscreen or under the bonnet. Check the engine number matches. The V5 will tell you how long the owner has had the car and how many previous owners the used car has had. If the seller fails to produce a V5 or the details in the V5 don’t match up with the vehicle, you should question this.

You must check a used car’s MOT history online but having an MOT certificate is still useful. The MOT test (Ministry of Transport) is nothing but an annual car check of vehicle safety, roadworthiness aspects and exhaust emissions required for vehicles over three years old. Make sure you check how long the used car has left on its MOT and make note of the advisories suggested by the tester as these could be a good indication about whether a seller is trying to shift the vehicle before the bills become too big. A car check is a vehicle check that scrutinises the history of any motorised vehicle including a used car. Before buying a used car, it’s always worth getting a car check (hire purchase investigation) done. Carried out by a specific company, a used car check used car uses information from the police, DVLA, and leading industry bodies to tell you more about a vehicle’s history. Having a car check done is a good indication of whether it’s worth purchasing that specific used car.

5. Car safety and spare parts

Safety should be paramount when buying a used car, but what are the core safety checks you need to be aware of? Here’s what you need to look at.

  • Check all the seatbelts work and there are no signs of fraying
  • Inspect the condition of the tyres. If the tread is less than 3mm, it will need to be replaced soon.
  • Make sure all the lights work, including headlights, indicators, brake lights, hazard lights and fog lights
  • Ensure the windscreen washer and wipers is working
  • Check the vehicle horn works
  • Inspect the fluid levels, including oil, brake and power steering. You can do this using the dipstick with your vehicle. There are two typical markers on these – a bottom and an upper line. If the oil film reaches between these two, it’s at its optimum level. For coolant, if your car has an expansion tank, check to see if it falls between the minimum and maximum indicator lines on this.
  • Make sure there are no oil/water leaks around the engine or underneath the car
  • Ask whether the cam belt has been replaced. If the answer is yes, check the service history for evidence.

6. Test driving the used car

Hop into the driver’s seat and turn on the ignition. This will allow you to check for any warning lights, plus confirm that the used car’s mileage is as advertised. Beware of potential ‘clocked’ motors– excessive wear on the pedals, seats and gearstick inconsistent with the odometer reading are all signs of the claimed mileage having been tampered with. Used cars are increasingly loaded with technology, and this can quite easily go wrong. Lights are arguably the most important electronic device on your vehicle, so make sure they’re working properly. Fogged lenses or uneven beams should all be warning signs, while a dim beam will mean you’ll need to change bulbs soon. Also check that the radio, infotainment system, climate control, windows, central locking and any other gadgets work as advertised.

When you decide to buy a car, this can apply to a used car or a brand new one, one of the most important things to do before you part with your cash is to take it for a test drive. This is obvious when it is a used car because it allows you to find out if anything is wrong with it first.

Once you’re ready get the engine started and take a minute to check for unusual noises or smoke coming out of the exhaust. Then, when you’re ready to set off, make sure that the gears can be engaged smoothly and you’re happy with the operation of the clutch. Now it’s time to head out on the open road! Many dealerships will have a set test drive route. Typically this is to ensure that, in the unlikely event of a breakdown or accident, the dealership can easily locate the advisor and customer. If you require a longer test drive, on the motorway, for example, you may be required to ring the dealership in advance to arrange it. Whilst driving, check to see if the steering is pulling. Try a few manoeuvers like reversing around a corner and parking to see if you encounter any problems. Drive the used car on different lanes, such as country lanes and motorways.

 When you brake, the used car shouldn’t veer in either direction and you shouldn’t hear any grinding. Make sure you’re comfortable with the feel of the brake pedal and how the brakes respond. If test driving a manual used car, is the clutch too heavy? Also, listen out for any unusual sounds. They may be a characteristic of the used car, but it doesn’t hurt to express any concerns so the dealership can address them.

If you are buying a used car for a particular purpose, make sure it’s suitable. Bring whatever you need to ensure the car will do what you need (even if it is to see if all the family will fit in!). Take the family with you when you test drive; better to hear their objections before you buy rather than every time you take them out! Finally, as you return to the dealership, one thing to check is how easy the used car is to park, especially if you’re upsizing. Try parking in the dealership car park (if it has one) and check that you’re happy with visibility. Modern used cars are increasingly available with some kind of park assist technology, from standard parking sensors to the more advanced auto park assist. Check that these are fully functioning too. Make sure you always take the used car for test drive before buying it, so you could save yourselves a lot of problems in the future




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