Risky business, buying a used car. But you can minimise the risks by finding out as much as you can about the car you’re thinking of buying, and that’s where this 50-point checklist comes in. Anyone can do these simple checks, which not only pinpoint any problems with the car, they also help you to assess the honesty of the person selling it.

For instance, let’s say you find that the steering wheel and pedal rubbers are worn smooth. You’ve learnt something about the condition of the car, which will help you work out whether it’s worth the price you’re being asked to pay. But you also have a clue that the car must have done a fairly major mileage for these components to have worn out, and that means the components you can’t easily assess will also be well worn. Further, if you find the mileage reading 19,995 you can be pretty sure that someone somewhere is telling fibs.

Likewise, if the service book is full of stamps which say the car has been meticulously maintained, you should find all the fluid levels are correct, the engine oil looks reasonably fresh and the tyres are all in good shape. If not, you have to doubt the seller’s word about everything else, too – even such fundamentals as whether the car is his to sell.

So keep in mind the dual aim of these tests: first, to give you a good idea of the car’s condition to help you assess its value, and second to see if the vendor’s version of the car’s history stacks up. If you can be reasonably sure about both, then you’ve gone a long way towards making your next used car buy a risk-free result.

Exterior

1  Look along the side of the car for dents and ripples in the panels. Then stand square-on to the side of the car, about 10-12 feet (3-4m) away ­– from there it's easiest to see any colour variation between doors and wings. Check each side of the car in turn.

2  Check for consistent gaps around the doors and between adjacent panels. Variations suggest shoddy accident repair work, but cars vary – you can get an idea of the standard to look for by viewing new cars of the same model.

3  Look carefully at the rubber seals around the windows: is there any evidence of paint ‘overspray’, indicating that the car has been repainted? For more evidence, pull back the edge of the seal and see if there’s a join in the paint underneath, and see if the colour inside the fuel filler flap is different to the car’s outer colour.

4  Dealers usually fit number plates bearing their own name or logo when they sell the car new. Check the plates fitted to the car now: if they don’t carry the name of the original dealer, maybe the plates have been replaced following crash damage. Check.

5  Go round the bumpers checking for scrapes, particularly on the corners and underneath. Look for evidence of cracking paint if the bumpers are body-coloured.

6  Check the headlights and tail lamps for chips and cracks – they’re often frighteningly expensive to replace. Try all the lights to check that they work correctly.

7  Examine the windscreen carefully for cracks and chips. Damage bigger than a 1p piece within the area swept by the windscreen wipers  will cause an MOT failure. Stricter rules apply to the ‘A zone’ (essentially the area swept by the wiper on the driver’s side), where damage must not exceed 10mm in diameter – about the size of the nail on your little finger. If you find damage, make sure the car’s price reflects the expense of a new windscreen.

8 If there’s a sunroof, check that it opens and closes smoothly. Stains in the headlining indicate sunroof leaks. If the car is a convertible, check the hood carefully and make sure all the latches and clips are in working order.

9  Check that all the door handles and locks work properly – often the passenger door lock seizes up through lack of use.

10 If the car has central locking, make sure it operates correctly. Try locking and unlocking using the key, and using a remote control if there is one.

11  Most cars have one key which fits both the door locks and the ignition. If you find more than one key is needed – and particularly if you have a different key for each front door lock – that suggests there might have been some damage as the result of an accident or attempted theft.

12  Feel along the bottom of the sills and around the lip of the wheel arches for rust – be careful of sharp edges. You can also check for filler using a magnet, wrapped in a tissue to avoid scratching the paint – the magnet will be attracted towards a steel panel, but not to an area of filler hidden under the paint.

Engine bay

13  How clean is it under the bonnet? If it’s been cleaned recently that might just be a sign of diligent preparation, but it might have been to hide any obvious evidence of fluid leaks.

14  Look for overspray on engine components indicating a front-end respray. If the front wings bolt on, look for signs that the bolts have been removed recently.

15  Check all the fluid reservoirs you can find under the bonnet. You don’t need to know which one does what – just make sure the fluid level in each is between the ‘Max’ and ‘Min’ marks. If they aren’t it’s a sign of iffy servicing.

16  When you remove the dipstick to check the oil, wipe a little of the oil onto your fingertips and feel its texture: it should feel smooth, not gritty.

17  Another clue to how well the car has been maintained is the presence or absence of antifreeze in the cooling system – if it’s there the cooling water will have be a bright colour, often green or blue. Antifreeze should always be present, even in summer, because it helps cut down on internal corrosion.

18  Take off the oil filler cap. If the underside of the cap is covered in black sludge, the car has probably received minimal maintenance. If you find a gooey white substance (the trade call it ‘mayonnaise’) the car may have been subjected to multiple short journeys, which is bad for engine wear – or there may be a major problem such as a head gasket failure. Either way, the car probably isn’t for you.

19  Look for evidence of leaks from pipes – stains or rust, particularly where pipes join other components. You should be able to squeeze the fat rubber water hoses with your hand: if cracks show up in the rubber when you squeeze, the pipes are on their last legs.

20  Check the battery casing for cracks and take a look at the connections – they should be secure, and preferably coated with petroleum jelly to fight corrosion. Frayed wires are bad news. One connection on the battery might have a braided metal ‘earth strap’ leading from it – if this rusts through the engine stops, so check its condition.

Underneath

21  Use a torch to examine the exhaust system. Holes usually appear in the joints and the silencers rather than the pipes themselves. Check the front of each silencer for impact damage. If one piece of the system looks cleaner and newer than the rest it’s probably been replaced – which suggests the rest of the system will need replacing before long.

22  Find the jacking points – the owner’s manual will help – and check that they are in good order: they’re often exposed to the elements under the car and take high loads when they are used, so you want them to be sound. And if the jacking points are good, it’s likely the rest of the car’s structure is good, too.

23  The underside of the car will be protected with underseal, a thick paint that fights rust and protects agains stone chips. Make sure there are no gaps or cracks in the finish. Find out if this model has plastic liners inside the wheel arches, and if it does make sure they’re present.

24  You don’t have to understand the intricacies of suspension to make a visual condition check: look for rust in the arms leading from the car body towards the wheel. Some components are mounted in rubber bushes – see if you can spot any cracks in the rubber.

25  If you can take a front wheel off it makes inspecting the brakes easier – but you can often check them by looking though gaps in the wheel. See how much material is left on the brake pads – if there’s only a few millimetres left, you’ll need to get the pads replaced soon. Look for scoring on the surface of the brake disc, and see if you can feel a lip forming at the outer edge: both indicate that the discs will need replacing.

26  Check for scrapes and dents in the wheel rims. The manufacturer’s own alloy wheels are often very expensive to replace, though they can often be refurbished by a specialist at reasonable cost.

27 Look for splits in the tyre side walls and check that all four tyres are wearing evenly across the treads – uneven wear suggests incorrect tyre pressures (a sign of bad maintenance) or suspension maladies. If you don’t have a tread depth gauge, rest a 1p coin in one of the grooves. The tread blocks should at least reach the bottom of the ‘1’ on the back of the coin if they’re to exceed the minimum legal requirement of 1.6mm, but even this isn’t really enough for safety on a wet road. A new tyre will have 5mm or more of tread depth.

28  Check to see if the wheels are fitted with locking nuts. If they are, make sure a key is supplied so that you’ll be able to get the wheels off for servicing or in an emergency.

29  Check the suspension dampers (often erroneously called ‘shock absorbers’) by pushing down each corner of the car in turn. When you let go, the car should spring back up, drop again, then settle at its normal height. If the car bounces several times before coming the rest the dampers are worn out.

Inside

30  The carpets, pedal rubbers, steering wheel and gear knob should all tally with the mileage the car is supposed to have done. If the mileage is low but the interior looks worn, maybe the mileage recorder has been tampered with. If you’re doubtful, walk away.

31  Check that the digits on the mileage recorder line up properly. If they don’t, it’s another sign that the car may have been ‘clocked’. For more evidence, see if you can spot signs that the instrument panel has been removed – signs like scuffed screwheads and scratches round the edge of the panel.

32  Check the driver’s seat for wear – it’s the seat that’s used most often. Look especially on the outer edge, particularly if the car has contoured sports seats.

33  Check that the seat belts engage correctly. Snatch each belt to make sure it will lock in an accident, and make sure the belts rewind correctly when released.

34  Play with all the electrical items to make sure they still work – electric windows and seats, the heater fan, the radio, electric sunroof and so on.

35  If you can lift the carpets, feel underneath for damp both in the passenger compartment and in the boot. At least feel under the floor mats.

36 While you’re in the boot, check that the spare wheel is present and that its tyre is in good condition. Make sure the jack and tool kit are still there, as they can be tricky to replace.

Road test

37 Before you start the car, feel the cover on the top of the engine – is it warm? If so, the seller might be trying to hide the fact that the engine is difficult to start from cold.

38  When you start the car, check that the oil light comes on with the ignition and then goes out once the engine is running. Airbag and ABS warning lights should also come on, then go out.

39  A good test is to hold down the brake pedal as you start the engine – the pedal should sink under your foot, indicating that the servo which provides braking assistance is working correctly.

40  If the engine is cold it should run at a ‘fast idle’, usually 1000-1200rpm, until it starts to warm up. After a few minutes you should hear the revs drop back to the normal idle speed of about 750-850rpm – check the rev counter if one is fitted.

41  Check for smoke from the exhaust just after the car has started. Blue smoke suggests engine wear, black indicates excess fuel which could be a sign of poor maintenance. White ‘smoke’ is actually water vapour from inside the exhaust system, which will stop after a minute or two once the condensation in the exhaust is blown out. If it persists, suspect engine troubles.

42  Let the engine run until it gets hot, and make sure the cooling fan cuts in – even if you can’t see the fan in the engine bay, you should be able to hear it.

43  On your test drive check that all the gears gears work, including reverse. Try driving along and suddenly pulling your foot off the accelerator, to show up any tendency for the gearbox to jump out of gear. If it does, or if you hear crunching sounds as the gears engage, expect big bills in the future.

44  Check that the clutch bites smoothly, with no juddering. Let the car labour in a high gear up a long hill – if the revs start to rise but the car goes no quicker, the clutch is slipping.

45 To check that the handbrake works, try pulling away with it still engaged.

46  Check that all of the instruments work. If there’s an oil pressure gauge, make sure the pressure reads in the middle or upper part of the gauge while you’re driving along.

47  On a front-wheel drive car, drive on full lock and listen for ticking noises indicating worn ‘constant velocity joints’, the universal joints which transfer drive to the front wheels.

48  Check that steering play is not excessive. Hold the wheel gently, feeling for vibration which could be out-of-balance wheels or worn suspension.

49  Listen for engine noises during the drive: excessive, rhythmic tapping or heavy knocking signifies major wear.

50  On a quiet, empty road, hold the steering wheel gently and brake hard (check in your mirror first). The car should stop straight, not veer off to one side.

Buyer’s Toolkit

You need very few tools to carry out our 50 essential buyer’s checks. Kitchen towels are useful for wiping your hands and for wiping the dipstick when you check the engine oil level. Disposable gloves and/or hand wipes will be useful. A magnet (to look for body filler) and a tyre tread depth gauge are both useful, but you can get by without: tyre tread depth can be gauged by eye, or you can use a 1p coin (see main text). A torch is also worth having so you can more easily inspect under the car, and it’s a good idea to take an old blanket to give you something more pleasant to lie on than cold concrete.

Safety first

  • Don't inspect underneath a car which is supported only on a jack – use axle stands to support the car, or a use a professional four-post lift.
  • Be wary of the fan and moving drive belts when viewing a running engine. Remember a stationary electric fan might start up at any moment.
  • Be wary of sharp rusty edges under wheelarches.
  • Remember that engine components and the exhaust system can remain hot enough to burn long after the engine is switched off.

Professional Help

If you’d prefer a professional to check over your prospective purchase before you buy, there are plenty of options. The AA offers a Car Inspection service to members and non-members, starting at £99 and consisting of a stem-to-stern visual condition check by a qualified engineer. The RAC has a similar vehicle inspection scheme: its ‘Vehicle Examinations’ cover up to 166 individual checks and start at £119.95.

Other schemes allow you to find out about the vehicle’s history, rather than its condition. The AA and RAC both offer history check services, and another alternative is the well-known HPI Check, all of them providing useful information which can help you to spot a vehicle which has been stolen, written-off, or clocked, or which has finance owing.

Another way to give you more peace of mind when buying used is to opt for a car supplied through a manufacturer’s Approved Used scheme (Carbuyer, June). These generally offer only relatively recent vehicles with low mileage, and they have been subjected to multi-point inspections before being accepted for the scheme. The list of checks varies between schemes, but a dealer or the manufacturer’s website can tell you more.

AA Car Inspections 0800 085 3007 or www.theaa.com

RAC 0870 533 3660 or www.rac.co.uk

HPI Check 01722 422422 or www.hpicheck.com

Published by Carbuyer Magazine 2004