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Buying a used car checklist

Having a ‘buying a used car checklist’ at hand can help you keep track of the numerous things you might want to check to ensure you buy a roadworthy vehicle. Of the 2,519 complaints about second-hand cars, Citizens Advice consumer service found three in four were about faults. To address this problem, we have set up RAC Approved Dealers, History Check car check and Vehicle Inspections to help motorists avoid these pitfalls. To help you further still, we have also put together a used car checklist to point you in the right direction to spot the most common problems when you’re viewing a used car.

General advice

Get your finances in order and make a budget before buying a car. This way it focuses your search and should prevent you buying something you can’t afford. You can also check the value of used cars you’re looking to buy with our car valuation tool.

Cars tend to do around 10,000 - 12,000 miles a year. If the vehicle you are inspecting has done more than the average it may have more wear and tear than is usual for a car of that age.

If the car is in unusually good condition and has unusually low mileage, it may have only been used for short drives or been left unused for long periods at a time. This can cause engine and battery problems, so you might want to check for these.

Check the number on the car’s VIN plate and engine plate correspond with the car’s registration documents. Make certain there are no signs of having been changed or tampered with.

Check the history of the car you are inspecting. An RAC Car Passport (Car Data Check) will let you know whether the car is stolen, a write-off or if it has had different number plates in the past.

Check that you have the appropriate car insurance before you test-drive the car.

Finally, remember to haggle.

Check the car’s exterior

Always check the car’s bodywork in good light. Rust is the first thing to look out for and can usually be found on wings, sills and below bumpers.

Also look for signs of rust under the wheel and the back of the under-bonnet area. Any brake pipes that show signs of rust will need to be replaced.

Look at the car from every angle for signs of damage. This can take the form of irregularities in the paintwork such as bubbles or ripples. If you are unsure, use a magnet to see if filler has been used to repair specific areas.

Similarly, check the panels are the same size and that all the doors, windows and boot open and shut properly.

Check under the bonnet

Check no oil is leaking from the engine.

Checking the oil level and whether if it has a muddy or dirty appearance. If it does, check when it was last changed with the service. If it has not been changed for a long time this could indicate neglect.

Check that the coolant is not rust-coloured. It should be the colour of anti-freeze, if the car has been run without it, this may cause engine complications.

When you start the car rev the engine and check for blue or black smoke coming out at the back.

Test the transmission by checking that the clutch operates smoothly and that all the gears engage smoothly. If the gear changes are stiff at high revs this could be a sign that the clutch is worn.

Car Safety Checks

Check the car’s tyres for cracks, splits, cuts and uneven wear. Also check the treads; any tread less than 1.6mm is illegal in the UK, but ideally it should be much more than this.

Check the suspension by pushing down at the corners of the car and letting go. If the suspension is working properly the car should return to the normal position.

Check that there is no free play in the steering.

Check that the brakes feel solid and that when applied heavily, the car does not veer – even when travelling at high speed.

For more information on avoiding fraudsters and your rights when buying a used car from a private seller, visit our guide to buying a used car privately.