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How to spot a problem when buying a used car

17 January 2019

Opting for a used car instead of brand new is sensible in order to secure a lower price and reduce loss of value through depreciation - if you follow these tips...

Used cars in a car dealership

After a property, buying a car tends to be one of the biggest purchases most of us make. Subsequently, you may choose to opt for a used model in order to secure a lower price and reduce loss of value through depreciation.

However, when shopping for a used car, do you know what you are looking for? To help you in your search, here are seven things to consider when buying a used car.

Discrepancies between model and advert

If you’ve found the car via an advert, start by making sure the vehicle matches the description. For example, is the mileage significantly different than that advertised? Is the interior trimmed in fabric when the advert stated leather?

Even smaller inconsistencies could indicate a larger problem, either because the person selling it doesn’t know very much about it (begging the question, if they don’t know all about it, where did they get it from to sell?), or because they simply don’t care enough to get it right (which raises questions about how well they might have looked after it).

Top tips for buying a second hand car

Complete a visual inspection

Simply assessing the car can tell you a lot about its overall condition. As such, take some time to inspect both the exterior and interior. Walk around the bodywork and check for chips and scratches, look for misaligned or different coloured panels, and check that lights and signals are functioning.

On the inside, make sure there are no stains or rips, that seat belts are working and there are no engine lights displaying on the dashboard.

Check all tyres (including the spare)

The tyres can be an important indicator of a vehicle’s health, so it’s a good idea to take a close look. What is the tread like? Are any of the tyres cracked or damaged? Are there signs of uneven wear? What about the condition of the alloys or wheel trims? Also remember to check the spare tyre in the boot.

If all the tyres are mismatched, then it could indicate a more haphazard attitude on the part of the previous owner, whereas if they’re all matching that could mean that they looked after the vehicle when it was in their care.

Deciphering your tyres

Assess the keys and locks

Depending on the age of the car, the type of key and locking mechanism may vary. However, before buying a used vehicle, it’s important to make sure the car is secure. If the model has a physical key and lock, check that the key fits easily and there is no sticking. Alternatively, if it has an electric keyfob, make sure the button unlocks first time as replacements can be expensive.

Test the gadgets and technology

As well as making sure the car drives as it should, make sure you test the technology, too. Does the air conditioning work? How long does it take for the heating to warm up? Are there any faults with the entertainment system? What about the extras like satellite navigation or cruise control?

Take it for a test drive

While there are many checks you can do on the forecourt, one of the best ways to inspect a used car is to take it for a test drive. When doing so, look out for any unusual noises – there should be no clunks or rattles. Test the brakes to make sure they are sharp and working as expected.

Also check that gear changes are smooth and that the biting point is not too high – both could indicate a clutch that may need replacing.

How to test drive a new car

Inspect the paperwork

Does the car come with a full MOT and servicing documentation? How many previous owners does it have? In addition to checking the paperwork, you can also find out the car’s history with an HPI check. This can highlight if the car has been stolen, written off or has outstanding finance, helping you to avoid any nasty surprises.

Written in association with Shelbourne Motors: whether you’re looking for a second-hand model in Surrey with enough room for the grandkids, or searching for used cars in NI that you can enjoy after retirement, hopefully this checklist will help you through the process.


The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.