How to test drive and check a used car
It goes without saying that a car should be test driven and inspected before purchase. And this is doubly important for a used car, particularly if you’re buying privately. Read on to find out what you need to check – from the car’s performance to documents on its history.
Tips when test driving a used car
Our top tips cover checking the car’s exterior and interior and testing the engine, steering, clutch, brakes and suspension.
If you discover any problems, you have two options. You can either use them to drive down the asking price on the basis that you’ll need to spend money fixing them, or you can simply walk away from the sale.
Exterior and interior
You may want to consider paying an independent vehicle inspector to check the car as well. This gives extra peace of mind and any problems they find might be useful bargaining tools for you.
The AA, the RAC and a number of other companies provide such services. However, there’s a limit to what they check and they can’t be held responsible if additional faults become apparent later.
- Look for rust and any chips, scratches and dents to the bodywork.
- Check that all the panels fit perfectly. If they don’t, the car may have been in an accident.
- Don’t forget the windscreen – chips and cracks here could cost hundreds of pounds to repair.
- Check the tyres and the spare wheel. The minimum legal tread depth should be 1.6mm across the width of the tyre. This can easily be done with a 20p coin – watch a video on how to at the First Time Driver website.
- If the tyres are worn more on one side than the other, the wheel alignment may need adjusting, or it could be something more serious.
- Check the seats and trim for signs of damage.
- Excess wear on pedal rubbers, carpet and seats could be an indicator of a car that’s older than it seems.
- Check that all electrics (lights, windows) are working and try the air-conditioning if fitted.
- Watch for excessive exhaust smoke and unusual noises. Check the car’s Vehicle Identification Number (VIN). Make sure that it hasn’t been tampered with and matches the number on the V5C registration certificate (log book).
Did you know?
You can find the car’s Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) at the bottom of the windscreen, under the bonnet and beneath the carpet on the driver’s side.
- Before starting the car, check underneath the engine oil cap for a thick white substance which could indicate a problem with the head gasket or engine damage.
- Pull out the engine oil dipstick, wipe it clean with a cloth, then re-insert it. Now pull it out again and check it’s at the maximum level and the oil itself is golden and clear. If not, the car is probably due a service – a possible bargaining point.
- Insist on starting the car from cold. If the bonnet’s warm, that means it’s already been started. Is the seller trying to hide an issue?
- Watch for excessive exhaust smoke and listen out for any unusual noises.
- Check for signs of excessive smoke when you start the car and when you’re driving. The engine should be quiet and pull smoothly.
- A little steam or white exhaust smoke when you start the car should be fine, especially on cold days, but excessive blue, black or white smoke may be danger signs.
- When accelerating, check in the rear view mirror for excessive smoke from the exhaust.
- Check the body near the exhaust – a dark oily layer, coupled with excessive exhaust smoke could be a sign that the piston rings are worn out.
- Check the engine coolant and brake fluid levels, plus the battery (the terminals should be rust-free and clear of debris).
- After the test drive, check for leaks in the engine bay and underneath the car.
- Listen out for any squeals or judders when turning the steering wheel, though a little whining sound is normal on power steering.
- Make sure the car doesn’t pull to one side on a level stretch of road.
- Check that the brakes stop the car in a straight line.
- Listen out for any vibrations or rubbing noises when braking.
- Try using the handbrake on a hill start – there should be no slippage.
Clutch and gears
If you’re thinking of buying a used car, find out what it would cost using our Car costs calculator.
- Make sure you try all the gears (including reverse) and there’s no ‘crunching’.
- Check the clutch biting point – if it’s near the top this may indicate that a new clutch is needed soon.
- With an automatic car, make sure the gear changes are smooth, immediate and almost silent. And check that if you put your foot down on the accelerator – for example when overtaking – the gear box is forced to change gear.
- Make sure the ride is smooth and the car soaks up bumps in the road – it shouldn’t judder or feel bouncy.
- Listen out for any unusual noises as you drive along.
Other checks when viewing a used car
At the viewing, keep safe by following our tips below and also remember to check that the car’s essential paperwork is in order.
Personal safety tips when buying privately
The V5C registration certificate only shows the registered keeper of the vehicle – not the legal owner, which might be a finance or leasing company. Make sure that you also ask for the make and model, tax details and MOT test number. Then use the DVLA online vehicle enquiry service to check the details the seller gives you with the DVLA’s records. Before buying a car, you must satisfy yourself that the seller either owns it or is entitled to sell it.
- Before test driving a car, check with your insurance company that you’re covered to drive another car. If you’re not, arrange temporary cover.
- Take proof of your insurance with you when going to view the car.
- Consider taking a friend with you, and if possible view the car in daylight.
- Check the seller’s name and address on the internet if possible.
- Arrange to view the car at the seller’s home or business address. Check the address is the same as the one on the V5C registration certificate. If the seller isn’t the registered keeper, walk away. They probably aren’t legally entitled to sell the vehicle. Make sure you ask to take the car for a test drive with the seller. If you suspect that the seller isn’t insured, ask to see proof of their insurance.
- If you decide to go ahead and buy the car, arrange to meet in person for the payment and handover.
- If the price of the car seems too good to be true, it probably is!
Checking essential paperwork
Did you know?
If you buy a car that has outstanding finance, it can be repossessed because technically a loan or finance company still own all or part of it.
Always make sure that all the paperwork is in order before buying a used car. The car should come with various documents that hold vital information on its maintenance history and previous owners.
If the seller can’t show you all of the documents below, walk away. If they can, check that the documents are all genuine.
V5C registration certificate (logbook): This tells you the basics about the car’s history such as who it is currently registered to and how many owners it has had. If you buy the car, complete the new keeper parts of the V5C and ensure it’s sent to the DVLA. Don’t forget to do this – it’s a legal requirement.
Car history check: According to vehicle checkers HPI, one in three cars has a hidden history.
You can get vehicle information from DVLA for free on the GOV.UK website.
You can find out various things about the vehicle, including:
- When its current tax disc expires
- When its MOT expires
- The date it was first registered
- SORN status
- Engine size
- Year of manufacture
- CO2 emissions
- Current vehicle tax rate
They will search a range of databases held by the police, the DVLA, insurance companies and finance houses to see if the car has any outstanding loans against it, or has been stolen, involved in a serious accident or shows a bogus mileage. You then get a report of their findings.
MOT certificate: Cars that are more than three years old must have an annual MOT to make sure they meet road safety and environmental standards. Without this, they can’t be insured so can’t be driven legally on the road. The longer the period before the next MOT is due, the better.
If possible check the old MOT certificates as well – they show the car’s yearly mileage and give an indication of its quality of life. The mileage shown should match the mileage displayed on the odometer.
Also, make sure that the certificates show the same chassis number and vehicle registration as the car itself.
If you’re able to get access to the following you can do a free MOT check on the GOV.UK website.
You’ll need the vehicle registration mark and either:
- The MOT test number (you can get this from the VT20 test certificate or the VT30 refusal certificate)
- The document reference number from the V5C registration certificate (logbook) if you don’t have the MOT test number
Car tax: Since 1 October 2014 you are no longer required to display a tax disc. The DVLA (Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency) and police now use an electronic register to check that people have paid their car tax. Now when you buy a vehicle, the car tax will no longer be transferred with the vehicle. So you must tax it before you can use it.
Receipt: Finally, if you buy the car make sure that the seller writes a receipt for you. This should include the make, model, engine size, registration and chassis number, plus your address, the seller’s address and the amount paid. It should then be signed and dated by both of you.