Inspecting a used carGiving a used car a thorough check can seem daunting, but many faults are easy to spot. We take you through the must-do checks when inspecting a used car.

Exterior checks | Under the bonnet
Inside the car | Paperwork checks

Exterior checks

• Check the bodywork for a consistent paint finish – the paint should be the same shade all over the car; if not, it’s probably had some damage and a respray
• Make sure the gaps between the panels are the same width – if not, the car could have been crashed and repaired
• Check the doors and the boot open and close smoothly, and examine the rubber seals for paint – it could point to a respray
• Press down carefully on the car at each corner and release; the car should return smoothly to its normal height – if it bounces before settling the suspension could need work
• Bubbling paintwork indicates rust and is most common around the wheel arches, bumpers and window frames – check everywhere, particularly areas regularly in contact with water
• Check the car’s Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) for signs of tampering. The VIN is recorded on a metal strip at the base of the windscreen, under the bonnet or beneath the carpet on the driver’s side.
• Check the tyres and the spare wheel with a tread depth gauge, which are available from car accessory shops. The minimum legal tread depth is 1.6mm across the width of the tyre, but more is better
• Make sure the tyres have even wear – more wear on one side of the tyre indicates the suspension or tracking alignment needs adjusting – it could also point to crash damage
• If the car is a convertible, make sure the roof moves up and down smoothly and locks fully into place, check the material for tears, and make sure the rear window is free from cracks and discolouration

Under the bonnet

• Check the car’s VIN is the same as recorded in the logbook
• Check for oil, water or other fluid leaks around the engine and other mechanical components, as well as on the ground underneath
• Remove the engine oil dipstick, wipe it with a cloth and replace it. Remove it again and check the oil is on or around the ‘max’ level; the oil should be golden and free from debris – if not, the oil will need changing and could indicate neglect
• Check the top of the engine (you may need to unclip the plastic engine cover first) and underneath the engine oil cap for a white, mayonnaise-like substance which could indicate a damaged engine head gasket and often-irreparable engine damage
• Check the fluid levels for the engine coolant (large, often round tank with a screw cap filled with pink fluid) and brake fluid (small bottle, often attached at the rear of the engine bay) are at the correct indicated level when the engine is cool
• Check the battery terminals and connectors on top of the battery are rust-free and in good condition

Inside the car

• The mileage on the odometer inside the speedometer should be consistent with the advert and car’s documents
• Check wear on the seats and steering wheel are consistent with the car’s mileage – high mileage cars will often show wear on the side bolsters and the steering wheel may have a shiny appearance
• Check the VIN for signs of tampering. The VIN is recorded on a metal strip at the base of the windscreen, under the bonnet or beneath the carpet on the driver’s side.
• Make sure everything works, including the air conditioning, all electric windows, sunroof, adjustable seats and even the fuel-filler and bonnet release
• Look for damage to the steering column and ignition – damage could indicate the car has been stolen at some point
• Check the seatbelts, the passenger side of the dashboard and the steering wheel cover – frayed seatbelts could indicate they’ve been activated in a crash and damage to the dashboard and steering wheel could mean the car’s airbags have been activated in a crash

Paperwork checks

• Always visit private sellers at their home address and check it is the same as the one listed in the car’s logbook
• Check the car’s logbook, service history, previous MOT certificates and any old bills and receipts to establish if the car has been cared for, identify recurring faults and checking the car’s mileage is genuine
• Look at each MOT certificate and servicing stamp – the car’s total mileage should increase at a steady rate at each MOT and service interval
• Only accept original paperwork, and check for forgeries – the logbook should have a watermark, and you can call the garage the last MOT was carried out at and the previous owner to check the car’s past

How Auto Trader can help:
Vehicle Check
Car valuation
Contacting the seller

More in-depth buying advice:

How to choose the right car:
Buying a used car | Buying a new car | Setting your budget
Comparing new and used cars | Choosing the right car
Buying an imported car | Buying a classic car

How to buy a car:
Contacting the seller | Inspecting a used car | Test driving a car
Haggling with sellers | Doing the paperwork

How to pay for your car:
Understanding car loans and finance | Checking your credit rating
Returning a car