What to look for in a used car

Buying a secondhand car always carries a small amount of risk, but you can minimise this further by following a few easy guidelines and watching out for some warning signs.

The inspection

Look at the engine plate and make sure its number matches the registration documents, with no signs of tampering. Get a vehicle check from mycarcheck.com or similar to make sure everything’s legal.

When you go for the test drive, try out a few different driving environments – motorway, windy lanes, uphill,city and also make sure you reverse.

Look at the bodywork

Look for rust on the front wings, the bottoms of the doors and the rear bumpers.

If you see rust, press it carefully with your thumb– if you hear rustling or cracking, the rust is advanced. If not, it’s probably minor and is easily treated. If it’s advanced – gone through the metal – then it’s simply not worth it as it’ll cost a fortune to repair. Check also the floorpan, brake cables and suspension – if you see rust there, don’t buy the car.

Can you see any collision damage?

Look the car over – any badly-repaired prangs will show up and you’ll be able to see evidence of body filler.

Cars that have been in serious collisions can be dangerous, so if you suspect this is the case, don’t buy it.

Mileage

Does the mileage match the interior? A well-worn interior but only a few thousand miles on the clock is dubious. On the other hand, very low mileage in an older car is problematic – a regularly run and well-serviced car is best.

The engine

A very dirty or a very clean engine is suspicious – very dirty means neglected and very clean means a possible steam clean to cover up oil leaks.

Look at the dipstick – if the oil is very black the car may not be regularly serviced. Any beige “cream” is a possible sign of a leaking head gasket.

The engine should start easily with no rattling noises. Turn the ignition and throttle hard – blue smoke from the exhaust means engine wear and black smoke means unburnt fuel.

The gears

If it’s a manual car, ensure the clutch operates smoothly and the gears all engage well. Any whining or crunching may mean an expensive gearbox replacement.

If it’s automatic, look at the dipstick to make sure there’s enough transmission fluid. Smell the fluid – any “off” or burnt smells mean you’re not buying!

The suspension

Push the corners of the car down – the car should bounce back once, slightly above its natural level, then settle. If it jiggles more, the shock absorbers are worn. Listen out for knocks over bumpy roads – these could indicate worn dampers.

Steering

Heavy or unresponsive steering may indicate worn or under-inflated tyres. You can swing the steering wheel from side to side and watch how the front wheels respond – any delay and there’s a problem.

The brakes

The brake pedal should start to work as soon as you apply it – you shouldn’t have to push it down to the floor. There should be no swerving or juddering.

Tyres

Check out the treads and sidewalls – any less than 2mm of tread all over the tyre and it’ll need to be replaced. There should be no damage in the sidewalls.


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