Buying a used car can be a real minefield – the wrong choice can leave you out of pocket and constantly worrying about the next visit to the garage. 

There are thousands of cars on the market and some great bargains easily available both online and at your local dealers. This is why it’s important to know how to spot a good buy – especially if you’re buying your first car.

You don’t need to be an expert in cars but there are a number of tell-tale signs to look for to make sure you’re making the right purchase. 

We created a step by step checklist for buying a used car to help you buy a car that’ll keep you safe even though it’s used.

1. Make a game plan

Before you part with your hard-earned cash, think carefully about what you need in a car. Once (you think) you’ve found the right model for you, it’s time to get clued up about everything.

Read reviews on your desired car model. Is it easy to drive? Are there any common problems? Browse through car review sites, such as Carbuyer or AutoExpress. Get to know the qualities and most importantly, work out what it might cost to run the car long-term.

2. Choose where to buy

Have you thought about whether you’re going to buy from a dealer or a private seller? It’s good to know your rights, especially when buying a used car.

Private sellers 

The benefit of choosing a private seller is that you’re perhaps more likely to bag yourself a good deal on the price. 

On the other hand, you have very few legal rights when making a private purchase. The sale will be legitimate, provided the person selling it to you has the sole right to do so but there isn’t much you can do after if things go wrong. 

It’s highly advisable, in addition, to be accompanied by either a mechanic or someone who knows a lot about cars.

Don’t buy a car if you suspect you’re buying from a dealer posing as a private seller. This is a scam in an attempt to shirk responsibility after a sale. When you call up for a viewing, tell them you’re interested in coming to see “their car”’, without specifying. If they have to ask you which car, it could be a giveaway. 

Always make sure that the address you’re given matches up with the address on the V5 certificate (log book).

Dealers and traders 

You have much more protection when buying a car from a dealer but might pay a bit more in exchange. Not only do they have a duty of care to their customers, but many reputable dealers will also be members of a trade association. They’re also required to provide a 3-month warranty, and a good dealer would’ve carried out a thorough assessment of the car additionally.

According to the Citizen’s Advice Bureau, any car sold to a consumer must: 

  • be of satisfactory quality
  • be fit for the purpose it’s being used for; and 
  • match its description.

Should you buy a faulty car, reaching resolution or rescission is achievable, if you can prove that one of these criteria were not met.

Check the Citizen Advice Bureau’s tips for buying a used car here.

3. Do your homework 

Before going to see the car, you must go through the basics. An HPI check is essential to guarantee that the car you’re looking at:

  1. has not been stolen
  2. has not been involved in a serious accident or previously declared a total loss and;
  3. does not have any outstanding finance agreements on it. Should there be unpaid finance, the car would be repossessed and you’d be left with no car and no money! 

It’s also good to get a feel for the market value based on the full spec of the model you’re looking to buy. Free valuations can be helpful: WhatCar, for example, can help to get an idea of the price. 

4. Be very thorough

It’s important to carry out all basic checks when you go see the car. Focus on the car rather than the seller’s advice. Below is an extensive list of what to check:

Exterior and engine

  • Rust can be a difficult problem to rectify and will only get worse – be afraid of rust! The wheel arches and bumper area tend to be most susceptible. Also look for any areas of the paintwork which appear to be lifting away, bubbling or corroded.
  • Check the bodywork for spacing. If the gaps between panels are not evenly spaced, it may indicate trauma from a previous accident, which could’ve caused internal damage that you’re unable to see. Check for an even spray job for the same reason.
  • Check the condition of all tyres. The tread should at least meet the minimum requirement of 1.6mm. If you believe the tyres would need replacing shortly after buying the car, you should say so and factor the expense into the price when negotiating.
  • Tyre wear can be a good indicator of internal problems which the untrained eye or ear would not notice. There are specific tyre wear patterns that could help you identify internal problems:
  1. Wear on the edges – If the tyres have worn around the edges quicker than around the centre, the tyres may be under-inflated. 
  2. Wear just along the centre – This normally just means that the tyres have been over-inflated.
  3. Only one side of the tyre is worn – This could be due to improper wheel alignment.
  4. Sporadic wear – if certain areas of the tyres have worn faster than others, it could mean that the suspension is faulty or the braking system needs seeing to. It can also be a result of excessive and hard braking, or fast pull-offs.
  5. Feathered wear – if the treads are lifted, in a feathered fashion, the wheels might not be aligned properly. Worse still, it could mean that the axel is bent – which is a tell-tale sign of a collision and can be expensive to fix.
  • Looking at the engine might be a little daunting but you don’t need to be a mechanic to spot a dirty engine. If it’s covered in grime and rust, it might indicate that the car has been neglected. Also look for any obvious damage.


  • Review the overall condition of the interior for tears, stains and burns.
  • Check that all of the electrics are in working order: windows, wing mirrors, air-conditioning, boot and fuel release, adjustable seats and steering wheel controls.
  • What’s the mileage? The more miles a car has done, the more likely it is that some of the parts will need replacing during your ownership. The estimation for “regular” car use is about 12,000 miles per year. Most car parts last between 30,000 and 70,000 miles.
  • Be suspicious, if the car looks excessively worn in for its mileage. It’s increasingly harder to tamper with a car’s mileage but it’s something to be aware of.
  • To check you’re not buying a stolen car, check the VIN number against the car’s V5 certificate. You’ll find the VIN number on a metal strip at the base of the windscreen, under the bonnet or under the driver’s side carpet, or it might be engraved in the corner of the windows. 

Consider paying for a mechanical check, especially if you’re not sure about the condition of the car. Most reputable recovery services carry out full mechanical checks for around £140.

5. Test drive the car

If you’re satisfied with your checks, it’s time to take the car for a spin. Don’t rush it – you should expect at least 20 minutes with a private seller and a good half an hour or more with a dealer to drive around.

Keep an eye on these things like dashboard warning lights, the clutch’s “biting point”, control of the steering wheel, and any unusual noises or smells. Also pay attention to how it feels to drive the car. Does it feel comfortable? Do you think you could park it with ease? It’s also about the connection you have with the car!

6. Read the paperwork 

After your checks and a test drive, you’re now seriously considering buying the car. There’s one more important step to take – the paperwork. Here’s what you should check:

  • When is the MOT due? If it’s due soon, take it into account when settling on a price.
  • Check each MOT certificate chronologically, noting the increase in mileage each year. Is it steady? Does it all add up? 
  • Does the car have a full service history? A regularly serviced car is not only likely to be a better runner but it also means the previous owner/s looked after it.
  • Is there a log of receipts and invoices for work carried out on the car? If the mileage is more than 80,000 miles, check to see if any expensive parts have been replaced; if not, it could be yours to pay soon.

7. Get the best deal 

Don’t be shy to haggle when you’re buying a used car! The price really depends on the condition of the car and what costs might come your way once it’s yours. If you need to do any work on the car or the MOT is due for renewal very soon, make sure it’s all considered in the final price.

And finally – enjoy your new ride!