When buying a car check it thoroughly.

"Don't just count the wheels and check there is an engine."

Check the vehicle history, this can tell you a lot about a car before you even go to see it. Have there been lots of changes of keeper, has the current owner only had the car for a short time.

Do your research as well and check the large bills that could be looming. When does the cambelt, clutch and brakes needs changing. Has the car been regularly serviced with documentation to back this up?

Looking around the car you will get a feel for the sort of owner, have they fitted cheap budget tyres, do all the tyres match, do they have good tread depth?

Buying  a car is fraught with problems, so follow our tips and identify the problem areas.

Documents should be checked carefully, ensure the Chassis numbers and engine codes match those on the documents.

It is worth carrying out a car history check to see if the car is listed as being on finance or has been previously written off or reported stolen.

Buying a car which is stolen or a car that is on finance will usually result in the car being reclaimed by it's rightful owner leaving you to try to get your money back from the seller.

Does the car have a current road worthiness certificate (in the UK we have the MOT test), you can probably check this online as most countries update to a computerised system. Has the service book been fully completed and stamped and are there supporting receipts for the work. Have the services been carried out at the correct intervals. Please note that an oil change does not count as a service, some owners seem to think this is all that needs to be done.

Body work checks.

Are there stone chips on the front of the car, this can indicate the car has been driven fast and hard.

Do all the panel gaps match up, if the gaps are narrow at the top or bottom or uneven on either side of the car then it may well have been involved in an accident. Check underneath the car for signs of welding or accident repairs and check the paint finish of the panels in good daylight. It is impossible to verify the condition of a cars paint when the car is wet or in artificial light.

Do any of the panels have rough surfaces or signs of repair and filler? A small magnet on the corners, edges and bottoms of panels can help verify that everything is solid.

If a car has been resprayed recently it is worth checking why. Has the car been vandalised, started to rust or had some other damage repairs?

Engine checks.

Look over the top and bottom of the engine and look out for oil leaks, be suspicious of a very clean engine.

It may have been cleaned to cover up a potential fault.

Are all the fluid levels up to the correct amounts? When you pull out the dipstick you get to see the condition of oil as well as the level.

If the oil is black and sludgy it is overdue a change, it should be fairly clear to a light brown consistency.

Are there any signs of light brown mayonnaise around the oil filler or in the top of the engine when you remove the oil filler cap? This is a sign that the head gasket is gone or on it's way out.

Is the engine warm? Some owners will warm up a car before you arrive to hide any cold start problems or rattles. On starting the car you should look out for chattering or clattering from the engine on tick over.

After a minute or two the exhaust gases should be clear. Blue smoke indicates engine wear and burning oil, white smoke indicates a potential coolant leak.

Rev the engine hard and look out for black smoke. Sometimes this will clear up on the second rev, and is a sign that the car has not been driven hard enough to blow through all the accumulated soot.

Interior checks

Does the wear and tear match up with the mileage claims, a smooth gear stick and steering wheel can indicate an high mileage.

Are the carpets dry or is there any sign of a water leak or damp problem? Do all the warning bulbs light up on the dashboard when you turn the ignition key on. It is not uncommon for a seller to remove a fault bulb rather than deal with the fault. 

Scams to avoid when selling

Never ever pay the seller transaction fees, accept bank drafts or uncleared funds or use an escrow arrangement for payment. 

Scams to avoid when buying.

Don't ever use email addresses embedded in pictures, and be very wary of exceptionally good deals. If it sounds too good to be true it probably is! Get a full receipt for the transaction and verify the seller is the current owner of the car by contacting the vehicle registration authority in your country.

Always see the car and owner at the registered address. Dodgy dealers will often use throwaway telephone numbers and meet you at service areas making tracing them after the sale impossible.

See our other article covering the road test and other things to note when buying  a car.

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One Response to “How to check a vehicle”

  1. Peter says:

    I would recommend that you also take the car for a test run at maximum permitted speed on the motorway.
    This will make sure that a headgasket failure or cracked cylinder head will become visible. Als check for bubbles in the cooling system after your high speed test run. If you notice many corroded aluminum parts under the bonnet, it may be caused by a previous headgasket blow-out or cooling system failure, in which case the engine may have run hot. Ask the seller questions about this and how it has been fixed.
    Running hot can result in scratched piston skirts and cylinder walls , seized bearings, a warped cylinder head which all require a major engine repair operation in order to be fixed.
    If the seller allows, a good indication of engine condition is to be found at the throttle body, so remove the air hose connected to the throttle body and check for oilsludge build up. An oil filler cap can be easily cleaned to hide asludge engine, but the throttle body needs more work to clean. Hope this helps.

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