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How to: Check Before You Buy

Ensure the used car you're buying has been thoroughly checked - both inside and out - before you put pen to paper.

It makes sense to have a second hand car’s condition verified by an independent inspection. But it’s not a cheap business and you could save yourself some grief by carrying out your own thorough check first, to spot any obvious problems, before the experts move in.

So you have your eye on a used car. Get sight of the registration and service history and read them carefully. Look at where the car was sourced. Is it an import, with the potential to have a non-UK specification or a conversion from left to right-hand drive? Check the number of owners and see whether the garages carrying out the services seem consistent with the pattern of ownership. Are all services properly stamped or do some look dodgy? In any case, it’s far better to see service receipts to go along with the stamps. Are the recorded mileages consistent with the ownership too?

Then, an informed look around the outside can be revealing. The panels should look uniform. If a panel doesn’t seem to fit quite snugly, it’s possible it has been replaced. The worry is that an impact may have done damage to other parts of the car that can’t readily be seen. Look for areas of paint that don’t quite match the rest, as this too can indicate a paint job. Often splashes of paint in the nooks and crannies under the headlights and under the wheel arches give the game away too.

A glance along the length of the side of the car in daylight should reveal rippling if a panel has been beaten out or repaired. If you see such rippling look closely and tap to detect filler. A magnet can be handy for the same purpose.

From the front see if the car sits straight or whether the tyres seem slightly at an angle. This can indicate problems, as can uneven tyre wear or different gaps between opposite tyres and the wheel arch. While you’re at it, check that there’s enough tread on the tyres and that there’s no damage to the sidewalls. This includes the spare.

Take a look underneath the vehicle. Even the uninformed eye can spot areas of serious corrosion and it should give you some idea of how near the exhaust is to replacement. And look out for any potential leaks. If buying privately, glance at the driveway for telltale patches of oil.

Under the bonnet, look for leaks or excess oil. If it’s spotlessly clean, you may be justified in wondering what was too bad to merit a full steam treatment prior to sale. A sludgy grey or brown mayonnaise-like deposit under the oil filler cap could indicate engine damage and expensive repairs in the offing. Dip the oil to see if it looks mucky – a sign of poor maintenance.

While you’re peering at the engine, look at the edges of the body panels for signs of rust or different coloured paint or overspray of paint. All could indicate damage repairs. And look at the vehicle identity number (VIN) too. It must match that on the registration document and if it looks as if it’s insecure, or been tampered with in any way, walk away.

Moving to the interior, check all the doors, including the boot, to ensure they open freely and that the locks haven’t been damaged, which might indicate a theft. The seals around the doors are another telltale area where splashes of paint indicate repairs.

Take a good look at the upholstery. Are the seats unduly saggy for the mileage the car is meant to have done? Other giveaways to a car with incorrect mileage are pedal rubbers worn more than normal for vehicles with that mileage and steering wheels and gear levers that are shiny through long use.

It used to be that misaligned numbers on the odometer – mileage counter – were a dead giveaway for a car having been “clocked”. Sadly modern computer technology means it’s all too easy for skilled clockers to leave no such trace. But check nonetheless in case some mileage “adjustment” was done by someone less proficient.

A car that’s been stolen by so-called joyriders, who generally aren’t too neat in their endeavours, may show damage to the ignition, a steering column that’s not properly aligned, door trim that doesn’t fit snugly or even the odd glass fragment that got under the carpet and escaped detection.

Lifting the carpet will also let you check for any obvious welds, which would be a really bad sign, or corrosion. If you find damp patches there it can also indicate problems. This is a particularly important check if you’re buying a cabriolet, as it can indicate a faulty seal on the soft-top.

Check that the seatbelts return properly and that the in-car entertainment system, especially a cassette player, works properly. Ensure all the electronics are in proper order: windscreen wipers, lights, electric windows etc.

If you’re happy that everything checks out so far, have the car started up and see what comes out of the exhaust. What you don’t want to see is blue smoke, as this can indicate excessive engine wear. If not, and the engine revs evenly and normally, you’re ready to think about investing in a check by a qualified mechanic and arranging a test drive.
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