Starting with the outside of the car, there’s a number of important things you’ll want to look out for.
Check for superficial damage & rust
Start by looking for any superficial damage – any signs of dents, chips, bumps or scratches. The main thing you’re looking out for when inspecting the outside of the car is any sign of poor repair work. If the car’s had repair work done, this isn’t necessarily a problem, as long as they were completed well. The paint on the vehicle should be an even colour all over, and all the panels should fit together properly. If this isn’t the case, it could be a sign of shoddy repair work. Additionally, check the paint for rust, which can be a serious and expensive problem.The windscreen should have no chips or cracks, which likewise could leave you with a hefty bill.
Pay close attention to the tyres
Check whether the tyres on the used car you’re inspecting are any good. Remember that new tyres are expensive, so if you’re going to have to buy a whole new set soon after purchasing the car, it’s worth trying to negotiate a bit of money off the asking price.
Test the suspension
Whilst inspecting around the car, push every corner of it down in order to test the suspension: it should smoothly bounce back up after each press.
Does the mileage make sense?
Once inside the car, it’s important to check that the mileage marries up with not only the paperwork, but also the wear of the car and its age. If you’re being told it’s got a low mileage, but the interior is clearly very well-worn, you might want to start asking some more questions.
Check every interior element you can
Check every interior element you can: do the seats adjust properly? Do the seatbelts work? Does the radio work? Does the air conditioning work? Do the indicators, interior and exterior lights work? Does the central locking system work properly? Do the windows and doors open and close properly? Some things will be dependent on the model, but check everything you can, and ask questions if anything isn’t working that should be.
Look in the boot
Don’t forget to look in the boot, either: check that the spare tyre and tools are there and in good condition, but also that there’s no sign of rust or damp in the engine itself, which can be a sign of water entry.
Under the Bonnet
Although it’s worth getting the opinion of a professional if there seem to be some issues once the car’s started, there’s a few quick but important checks you can do under the bonnet.
Are there any leaks?
Visually check for any leaks around the engine, whether oil, antifreeze, steering or gearbox fluid.
Feel the belts & hoses
Carefully check the belts and hoses for excessive wear, particularly cracks. Find the upper and lower radiator hoses, which should feel firm, as soft radiator hoses need replacing.
Inspect the timing belt
The timing belt is the most important piece of kit under the bonnet and is expensive to replace. Look out for small cracks along the timing belt, which are a sign of excessive wear. Have a look at the teeth on the belt – a single broken tooth can cause the belt to break, which’ll be much more costly to repair than a replacement.
Identify a potential head gasket issue
If the head gasket has started to leak, this can lead to all manner of problems. You can check this out by having a look under the oil cap. If there’s any kind of white foam, it could be a sign of problems with the head gasket. If that’s the case, it’s probably worth setting your sights on a different used car as this can lead to serious issues.
What’s the oil level like?
Checking the dipstick is a good idea, too – ensure that the oil is at its proper level and that it’s a golden, clear colour. If the oil level’s low, this could be a sign that the car’s not been well looked after. Just like the exterior of the car, check under the bonnet for any rust or dents, which can be a sign that the car was damaged in the past.
Does the engine sound right?
Start the car and listen to the engine noise – are there any unexpected noises? A sign of engine wear could be the oil warning light staying on after the engine’s started, so ensure that this goes out.
Does the exhaust emit smoke?
Look for smoke from the exhaust. If it’s black, this signifies fuel that’s not been burned and could be due to a number of factors. Excessive blue exhaust smoke is caused by burning oil, which is a sign of engine wear. Excessive white smoke can be a sign of a broken head gasket.
Feel the clutch
When it comes to the clutch, these checks will mostly be based around what you can feel. Check the clutch operates properly. Familiarise yourself with the biting point of the car, which should be around the middle of the pedal’s travel – if it feels high then it could be in for repairs sooner than you’d like. All gears should engage easily. If it’s an automatic, when the engine is hot and idling, check that the transmission dipstick’s fluid level is correct.
Don’t forget the documents
Don’t forget to assess the documentation that any used car should have. This includes the V5C logbook, any MOT certificates (where you can assess the mileage) and a service book detailing any work carried out.
These tips are by no means exhaustive, and provide just a basic overview of any immediate tell-tale signs that your next used car may need some work, whether that’s exterior, interior, or under the bonnet. If you’re not too confident, it’s best to purchase from a dealership, where you can be assured of the car’s quality and be offered expert advice.