Why do I need to do a car check before I buy a used car? 

June 25, 2022 by Zoe Hicks – 9 mins read

It’s always important to do a car check before buying one. For example, if you tend to buy a new one you always do a car check like internet surfing, checking about user experience, learning about paperwork and so on. Likewise, it’s wise to do a car check procedure before buying a used car.

If you don’t make the right car checks and look through the paperwork properly, you could end up with a costly mistake. Without compromising a car check it shouldn’t be on the road.

It’s important to know which questions to ask and what items to car check for when you’re viewing a used car. From basic mechanical car checks to ensuring you have all the correct documentation. This car checklist covers all the essential things you need to know and ask before purchasing a used car.


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 car you’re buying and the number plate match up with what’s noted down in the V5.Is the seller the registered keeper? If they’re not, ask why they are selling the car? If it doesn’t seem legitimate, walk away. Does the seller’s address match the one recorded on the V5C? Does the make and model recorded on the V5C match the car you’re viewing? Check the VIN on the V5C matches the car check, 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 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 can now check a 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 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.

Online car check

A car check is an online vehicle check that scrutinises the history of any motorised vehicle including car checks. Before buying a used or second-hand car, it’s always worth getting a paid car check (hire purchase investigation) done. A motorscan car check 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 car.

A motorscan car check reveals any outstanding finance on the car, whether it may have been stolen if it’s been written off as the result of an accident leaving it unsafe to drive, and whether the V5 document accompanying a vehicle has been stolen or not. The car’s identity is also checked, so you can get a better idea of whether the car’s history matches the seller’s story. If there is any discrepancy between the motorscan car check results and the vehicle’s history according to the seller, it is worth being cautious and consulting an expert before proceeding with the purchase.

Mileage check

Mileage is an important factor to check when buying a used car, although it’s often one of the things which are easiest to overlook. Low or high mileage of the car check not only affects the value of the car at purchase and sale but also impacts how much you will need to spend servicing and maintaining it, which could be something to consider before you buy.

Low mileage cars are vehicles with fewer than 60,000 miles after five years. Anything above 70,000 is considered high mileage. If you are viewing a car that has high mileage, this is a good negotiation point for the price.

Although you can save a lot of money upfront by buying a higher mileage car, you may need to spend the money you save on repairs, so make sure to check the car carefully and find out the reason for selling before you make a purchase. Compare the odometer against the mileage on the MOT history of the car check. If the two figures are significantly different, alarm bells should be ringing.

Under the bonnet and engine

Another important area of car check when buying a used one is under the bonnet. There should be no holes or leaks in the bonnet or leaks when the engine is running. To check the shock absorbers, push down into the bonnet and release. If the car bounces after you’ve done this means the shock absorbers are worn. You should make sure that the oil, brake fluid, and power steering are all up to standard and that the coolant levels are in good condition for the car check.

When it comes to engine health, one of the quickest ways to catch hidden faults is to cold start the car. If the car doesn’t start easily, there could be a problem with the battery or the starter motor. While you’re looking around the car, let the engine idle as this will give you a good indication about its general health. It should sound smooth and stable with no lulls in power. If you are in any doubt about the health of the engine or other mechanical aspects of the car, the best thing to do is to bring an expert with you. 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.


Before the car checking process of the used one, make sure that you’re not seeing it in a place that is dark as this can disguise dents, scratches or rust. Make sure your car check includes that the colour of the panels does not differentiate from each other. If the vehicle does have some cosmetic damage, but everything else is fine, you may be able to negotiate a better price with the seller.

Once you’ve examined the bodywork of the car, make sure that your car check includes that all the doors open and close correctly and that they line up properly with each other. If the hinges look like they’re straining, this could be a sign that the doors have folded back over, so make sure to ask the seller more about this. When examining the car’s exterior, double-check the front and rear windscreen for any cracks or small chips, as these could expand and lead to you having to replace the windscreen.

You should also check whether the car boot opens and closes properly and ensure that the spare tyre is in place under the carpet. Make sure you look inside the boot at the rear of the car for signs of damage, as this will reveal whether the vehicle has had a rear-end accident or not.

Tyres and wheels

When you go to check for a used car, it’s useful to bring along a torch so you can check the wheels of your car, brake thickness, brake pads, and brake disks. If these are low, that’s fine, but you should negotiate a lower price for the vehicle to cover the cost of replacements. Grazes to the wheels are common, and not often cause for concern, but check all four wheels and the spare to ensure they’re not badly dented or bent. Similarly, all the tyres should be free from cuts, splits, gouges or bulges and they should all have at least a 1.6mm deep tread all over. Uneven tyre wear can indicate poor wheel or suspension alignment and means the tyres will need replacing.


It’s important to check that all the dashboard lights are working correctly before you purchase a used car, as the vehicle will fail its MOT if they don’t. Each light, including those for the engine management, AVS light, and the airbag light should illuminate and turn off automatically when the engine is started. Other electronics you should check include the air conditioning, lights, windows, radio, and central locking, as you will need to budget for repairs if these don’t work properly.

The interior’s condition of the car checking is also another good indication about whether the mileage is genuine. If a car has lower mileage, the interior should look relatively new. A tired, or worn steering wheel, seat bases, and side bolsters could be a sign that the seller is hiding something. Tears in the upholstery or burns in the seats are also another thing to look out for. If you’re unhappy with the condition of the car’s interior, you may want to negotiate a reduced price and have issues repaired.

Watch out for the seller trying to mask bad smells such as spilt milk or cigarette smoke. A smoker’s car is notoriously difficult to get rid of smells from and can be expensive to get rid of. Sit in the driver’s seat and check the headlining above you for tell-tale nicotine stains.

Test drive

After you’ve performed all the checks on the car you’re thinking of buying, the final thing to do is to take it for a test drive. Before you do this, you should check your car insurance policy to find out whether you have DOC cover and can drive the car with the owner’s permission. Get the vehicle up to a decent speed (or over 50mph when legal to do so). Does the car drive and brake in a straight line? 

You should drive for at least 15 minutes and try to take different road types and go at different speeds. While driving you should listen out for strange engine noises and check that it feels smooth to change gears. Once the test drive is complete, turn off the car, leave for 30 seconds and then try to restart it. This will identify any hot starting problems. If it struggles to start, be aware that this could be a costly repair, so investigate the matter further. If anything feels amiss when you’re driving then you should probably consult an expert before purchasing.

Negotiating when buying a used car (car check)

Finally, it’s time to agree on a purchase price. Start with a lower offer than you’re expecting to pay. That way the seller can negotiate you up to a price that you both find reasonable. Remember the car dealer isn’t your friend. While you might very well get along with them, at the end of the day you’re engaging in a business transaction. Be detached and professional rather than feeling emotional. Don’t ever make the salesperson aware of your top budget limit.

Be positive and polite. This will help win over the negotiator more than being difficult and negative. If you’re finding negotiating a discount a challenge, say to them that you can close the deal ‘then and there if you can both agree. At the end of the day, be prepared to walk away if the negotiator just isn’t willing to budge on the price.


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