Essential checks when buying a used car

Buying a used car can potentially be a daunting process. If you're not dealing with hard-nosed sales staff, you could be up against people selling cars that don't belong to them, that have outstanding hire purchase payments, or vehicles that have had their mileage tampered with to make them appear more valuable than they really are.

More than seven million used cars are sold every year in the UK- around 19,000 a day - and the buyer of each one should follow these checks to ensure they don't end up owning something that they later regret.

Where and when do you view a used car?

See the car at the vendor's address, regardless of whether it's a dealer or a private seller. Never arrange to meet at a halfway point, or have the car brought to you, no matter how convenient it may seem. That way you can be sure the seller is who they say they are. View the car in daylight too. When it's dark, dents, marks on the bodywork and dodgy resprays are harder to spot. For the same reason, if at all possible, avoid viewing a car when it's raining.

Does the V5C paperwork match the vendor's ID?

Before seeing any used car, establish that the vendor has the vehicle's V5C registration certificate, sometimes referred to as the logbook. This is the document that the Driver Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) uses to record and store all the important information about every car on the road. If the vendor doesn't have this, ignore their excuses and don't bother going to see the car.

When you look at the V5C, check it has a 'DVL' watermark running through it when it's held up to the light. The vehicle's details - make, model, registration number, engine number and vehicle identification number (VIN) - should all correspond with the actual car. The details of the registered keeper of the vehicle should also match any identification provided by the vendor, so ask to see their driving licence.

Check the MOT history

You can perform this online for free at the government's website. All you need is the registration number. This enables you to verify that a car's mileage is genuine and check any 'advisory' items that could prove costly if the car is to get through its next MOT test.

Ask to see the car's service book and all paperwork

A sure sign of a considerate car owner is someone who ensures their vehicle's servicing book is stamped by the garage after every service. They'll also keep invoices for that servicing work and any additional repairs. Cast a careful eye over those invoices. It's a good way to see how troublesome the car has been to date, and helps verify that its annual mileage roughly corresponds with the MOT certificates and the current claimed mileage.

Is the car clocked, stolen or unsafe?

There's nothing new about people winding miles off used cars' odometers (mileage counters). But rather than using a screwdriver, lap tops are employed on the latest generation of digital dashboards. There are even so-called 'mileage correction' companies charging drivers around £80 to have mileages changed.

At the same time as checking the mileage is what it's supposed to be, it's worth finding out if the vehicle has any outstanding finance on it. If it does, the car will be owned by the finance company, even if you've paid good money for it.

It's worth having an independent vehicle history check too. The longest standing is HPI. It is so confident of picking up on a car's hidden history, its product comes with a £30,000 guarantee. As well as looking for evidence of clocking and unpaid finance, it also checks that cars have the correct identity and haven't been insurance write-offs and put back on the road when they might be unsafe. It's probably the best £20 you'll ever spend on a used car.

Take a test drive - in your own time

Having arranged insurance, it's time to test drive the used car. Take a meaningful amount of time: 10 minutes won't be enough; an hour should let you know that you find the car comfortable in all conditions.

Plan the route in advance and if you can, drive on roads that you're familiar with and that are representative of the conditions you'll drive the car in. This means you won't be anxious about getting lost, and can concentrate on how the car feels.

Start with a cold engine, to check it fires into life promptly. Even a 10-year old car should feel relatively responsive and composed on the road. There shouldn't be any slack in the steering, the car should brake to a halt in a straight line and any vibration, clonking sounds, or slipping clutches signal mechanical problems. Make sure every electrical switch and function works. Halfway or at the end of your route, park, turn off the engine and rummage around the back seats, boot and engine bay. Look for any fluid leaks and once done, check the engine starts happily when it's still hot.

Changing the registered keeper on a car's VC5 document

Once you're happy with the car, the vendor and the price, all you need to do is pay for it. The vendor must notify the DVLA that you are the new, registered keeper of the vehicle. The fastest and most convenient way of doing this is via the government website. The vendor can show you it has been done, too. For those without internet access, the DVLA still accepts the slip from the V5C through the post.

Remember to tax the car

Road tax belongs to individuals not cars now. The seller must reclaim any outstanding tax, and the buyer has to register for and pay tax before driving the car. To do this, you'll need the 11-digit reference number from the car's V5C registration document.



Find your nearest branch or cash machine using our Branch Locator tool.

Find branches