Essential basic checks when buying a used car

The chances are you're not a trained mechanic - so just how do you go about quickly establishing whether the car you're thinking of buying is a complete heap?

It's easier than you might think; just a few quick checks can soon tell you whether or not that potential purchase is a complete liability. While it's true that there's a whole stack of issues that can crop up with a car, a few basic checks can reduce the chances of you getting stuck with a lemon.

Just a few quick checks can soon tell you whether or not that potential purchase is a complete liability

Here's what you need to do to see if it's basically worth buying - and if you're not comfortable making even these rudimentary checks, don't forget that you can always call in the experts and get a professional inspection.


  • Check the MoT certificate if the car is over three years old.
  • Check the registration document; if this isn’t to hand, just walk away. The same goes if any of the details are incorrect.
  • If you can, phone the previous owner and ask them about their old car – its mileage and history. Also ask them why they sold it.
  • Make sure that the chassis and registration numbers on the car match those on the registration document and MoT.
  • Ask for proof that the car has been serviced. There should be a service book, which will have been stamped by the garage which has maintained it.
  • Make sure you’re insured before taking a test drive.
  • Look closely for dents and scrapes in the bodywork; also check panel fit. Any damage will be costly to put right, so haggle accordingly or walk away.
  • Are the tyres okay, with no uneven wear? If they’re worn out altogether you’ll need to budget for new tyres. If they’ve worn unevenly it could be poorly aligned tracking or something more serious – such as a twisted bodyshell because of poor accident repairs.
  • Do all the speedo digits line up properly? Are the old MoTs to hand and does the mileage recorded on these forms tie in with what’s displayed? If you suspect the car has been clocked, contact your local Trading Standards office and tell them about it.
  • Get an HPI check done, which will tell you whether the car is subject to any outstanding finance. It will also tell you if the registration is the original one and whether or not the car has ever been involved in a major accident.
  • Does the chassis number (usually at the base of the windscreen on the passenger side) tie up with the one on the registration document? Also check the engine number, which is usually on the top of the block, down the one side.
  • Are all the keys available with the car? There should be at least a spare and probably a master as well. Lose the only key and you may have to have everything reprogrammed – which can cost hundreds of pounds.