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How to test drive a used car

Test driving a used car? Here’s what to check, from the vehicle’s exterior to the paperwork.

Test driving a used car is quite different to testing a new car. You still need to check the car meets your needs, but you also need to check it’s in decent condition.

Used car test drive checks

Test-driving a used car often involves more checks than a brand-new car. You still need to make sure the car meets your needs in terms of size, space, practicality and how it drives, but you also need to check the car is in decent condition.
Before you test drive a used car, you should give it a thorough going over inside and out, looking for any potential signs of trouble. That means looking over the body, as well as in the cabin, under the bonnet, and in the boot.

Body and paintwork

First, have a good look for any damage to the body: scratches, dents and so on. Look for uneven gaps between the panels, too, as they could indicate problems underneath like poor repairs or damage from an accident.
If you’re looking at a convertible, make sure the roof is in good condition. Keep an eye out for any tears in a soft top and check it all operates smoothly. The paint should be an even colour all over the car. If it’s not, that could be the sign of a shoddy repair. If any of the paintwork is bubbling up, be very wary, as this could well be a sign of rust.

Tyres and suspension

Check the tyres have enough tread on them. You can do this with the edge of a coin: insert a 20p coin into the grooves of the tyre – if the outer band is covered, the tyre is legal. Make sure any wear is even right across the tread. If it’s not, this could be a sign of something wrong with the suspension.
To check suspension, push down each corner of the car. If the car doesn’t smoothly bounce back up again, there could be problems.

Cabin checks

Don’t forget to check lights and indicators work, and that there’s no damage to the lenses.
Make sure the mileage is consistent with the paperwork, then check the wear in the car matches the miles on the clock. If the odometer says low miles, but the steering wheel or gear lever is smooth, pedal rubbers are worn and fabric on the seats is frayed – the mileage may be much higher. Take a moment to see if the cabin is comfortable, can you see and reach everything easily enough? The key to a successful test drive is to take your time and check everything works: • Do the seat belts pull out and retract smoothly? • Do the adjustments on the seat and steering wheel work ok? • Do the electric windows or mirrors work properly? • If the car has sat-nav fitted, check it knows where you are • Check the ventilation blows hot and cold and doesn’t make any strange noises • Check all the equipment, including central locking, the stereo, interior lights and any trip computer that’s fitted. • If there are any controls on the steering wheel, make sure they work as well.

Car seats and boot

If possible, take your children to the test drive to see if they have enough room in the back. If you use child seats, take them with you and check they fit – just check this is ok with the owner before you do so.
Picture your average week – is there enough room for shopping bags, prams and kids? Can you fold the rear seats easily? When looking at the boot, check if there’s a spare wheel and that it’s in good condition. Also assess if the boot is easy enough to get stuff in and out of.
Hyundai i10
Hyundai i10

Test driving a used car

First up, feel the bonnet to make sure you’re starting the engine is starting from cold. This can help you spot any starting problems.
When driving, the engine should be quiet and smooth. Listen for unusual noises or rattles, and check for excessive smoke when starting the car and when driving. • The steering should feel even and responsive, it shouldn’t vibrate or feel lax. • Gears changes shouldn’t crunch, and the clutch should bite at a reasonable point – if the pedal is too high when it bites, the clutch might be worn. • Brakes should be responsive, and the car should stop in a straight line. If possible, match your test drive to your usual journeys – whether that’s on motorways or B-roads. And while you’re out and about, practice manoeuvres and parking. If you have time, driving on different types of road could give you a more rounded idea of what it’ll be like to drive. As much as you’re checking to see if the car has any faults, you should also make sure you’re comfortable getting in and out and driving around. The car could be in great condition, but not right for you.

Does my car insurance cover a test drive?

If you’re test-driving as part of a private sale, you’ll need to check you’re insured to test drive the car.
Your car insurance should specify that you can “drive another car with the owner’s permission”. This is normally third-party only. If it doesn’t, the seller might be able to extend their own insurance to cover any test drive. Ask to check the seller’s insurance if you’re unsure. Alternatively, you can ask your insurer for a temporary comprehensive cover – which could be helpful if you plan on test-driving several cars. Dealerships normally have a special cover but check to make sure this is the case.

Used car paperwork checks

The car should come with documents detailing its maintenance history and previous owners. Always make sure this paperwork is in order before you buy a used car.
Paperwork to ask for includes:

V5C registration certificate (logbook)

This tells you the basics about the car’s history, including previous owners and its current registered owner. Check the seller’s address is the same as the one on the V5C registration certificate.
Also check who the car’s registered owner is. If it’s not the seller, they may not be entitled to sell the vehicle. This doesn’t always mean the car was stolen – they may be trying to sell the car with outstanding finance (and may not even know it’s illegal to do so). If you buy a car with outstanding finance, even in good faith, you’ll inherit any debt and it’ll be your responsibility to settle the debt. Learn more about buying a car with outstanding finance.

MOT certificate

If a car is more than three years old, it must pass an annual MOT and get an MOT certificate that shows the vehicle meets road safety and environmental standards. Without an MOT certificate, cars cannot be insured and so cannot legally be driven on the road.
Always check the MOT certificate has the same vehicle registration and chassis number as the car you’re viewing. Also check the mileage on the MOT certificate matches the mileage on the odometer. If possible, ask for old MOT certificates too – this will show you previous annual mileage figures and give you an idea of how much use the car is getting (and much longer it’ll last).

Get a free MOT check

You can get a free MOT check on the Gov.uk website. Simply enter the vehicle’s registration number and either the MOT test number or, if this isn’t available, the document reference number from the V5C logbook.

Receipt

If you buy the car, get a receipt that specifies the make, model, engine size, registration and chassis number. It should also include your address, the seller’s address and the amount paid. Both buyer and seller should sign and date the receipt.
Learn more about the paperwork needed to buy a used car.
MOT certificate
MOT certificate

Should I get a vehicle check?

Every car listed on Auto Trader undergoes a free five-point background check to help ensure it has not been stolen, scrapped, written off, imported or exported so you can shop with a certain peace of mind.
But you can also get a full vehicle check to be certain about a car’s history and its value. Auto Trader’s vehicle check service covers all key points – including the car’s history, legal status, mileage, specifications, pollution and emissions ratings. It also gives you a money-back guarantee of up to £30,000 or purchase price for two years. Learn more about vehicle history checks.

Negotiating price

Remember, even if a car does have some damage, you don’t have to walk away. If the damage is only minor, you can ask the seller to get it fixed before you buy the car or to knock a few quid off the price.
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