Searching for a second-hand car can prove to be a challenging task, especially if you don’t know your head gaskets from your gearbox transmission fluid. Of course, the fact that used car salesmen have long carried a reputation for exaggerating the assets at their disposal doesn’t make the task any more appealing. But thankfully the automotive world has come a long way since then. What's more, there are key things to check when buying a used car that will make your experience easier.

Nowadays, you can conduct a significant amount of research online, long before you set foot in a dealership forecourt or clap eyes on the vehicle in question. With a wealth of information at your fingertips, including 360° images of the interior and exterior, a full history of its past performance and user reviews from other owners of the same make and model, you’re better equipped than ever before to land yourself a bargain. You can even find used car finance easily online to help you fund your purchase!

Having said all that, there’s still no substitute for giving the tyres a good kick and running your eye over the vehicle in person before you sign on the dotted line. For anyone unsure about which questions to ask and which tell-tale signs to look out for, here’s a quick reminder of what to check when buying a used car from a dealership, at an auction or via a private seller. 

Buying a used car checklist

With so many things to keep in mind, it’s a good idea to separate out each area of concern into a different category. This can greatly simplify the process and make it far easier to remember everything when compiling a buying a used car checklist. You should make sure you cover the following areas:

Under the bonnet

As the beating heart of any vehicle, the engine should always come in first on your list of what to check when buying a used car. Make sure there are no signs of leakages in and around the engine, which could come from the oil, the coolant, the transmission fluid or the power steering fluid. It’s also a good idea to leave the engine running and inspect the tailpipe for discoloured emissions, which can indicate an issue.

In the driving seat

Get into the driver’s seat and switch the ignition on, which will allow you to instantly see on the dashboard whether any warning lights come on. While you’re here, you can also confirm the car’s mileage and try out all signalling lights, as well as satisfy yourself that all the climate controls, windows, central locking system, infotainment panel and any other electronics are all in good working order.

On the road 

It should really go without saying, but the number of buyers who finalise their purchase without taking the car for a test drive is quite staggering. Make sure you get behind the wheel and on the road to get a feel for the car’s brake response, clutch biting point and ease of changing gears. Any delay, resistance or grinding is a red flag that not all is well with the gearbox or brakes, both of which are absolutely crucial to the running of the car.

In black and white

Documentation is still an all-important piece of any car purchase, since it will not only enable you to see a detailed breakdown of the car’s past history including any insurance write-offs, but will also allow you to prove it is yours after the fact and help you get the car taxed when the time comes. Don’t move forward with any deal if the vendor can’t provide a service history, a V5c and an MOT for the vehicle.

On the eye

When buying a used car, check everything that the seller is telling you with your eyes and your ears. For example, dinks and dents to the exterior bodywork could point to a past accident they would prefer you didn’t know about, while strange sounds during operation might highlight an ongoing issue. Take stock of the car’s outward appearance, its purported age and the service history to see if they all tally. If they don’t, the seller might be trying to pull the wool over your eyes.

Safety first

Last but not least, it’s essential to make sure you prioritise safety every time you buy a used car. This means checking all the nitty gritty details of a car’s operational status, including making sure that the windscreen wipers, air bags, headlights, seatbelts and other safety features are in perfect working order. You should also verify whether the car comes with a spare tyre, jack or any other maintenance tools, as well as measuring the tread of the tyres themselves. Any tread that is less than 3mm will mean they’ll need replacing sooner rather than later.

Evaluate your options

Whatever vehicle you wish to buy and whoever you’re trying to purchase from, it’s important not to rush into any decisions. If you uncover faults with any of the items mentioned above, you can insist the seller handles it, negotiate a reduction in price or simply walk away from the deal. With eight million used cars sold in the UK each year, you should always remember that there are plenty of other options out there.

With that in mind, if you have any doubts about a used car, checking the market for other alternatives is always a good idea. Listen to your head – not your heart – and err on the side of the caution with any second-hand purchase and you can’t go wrong. As always with these types of deals, price is a major factor, but it should never be the defining one. Don’t plump for a substandard set of wheels just because they come at a discount price.

At My Car Credit, we make it easier to buy used cars on finance, so you don’t have to compromise on the quality of your purchase because of the up-front costs. To find out more, simply drop us an email at and we’ll be happy to run through your options. Whether it’s a new car or a used one, we’re here to make the whole process that little bit easier. Get in touch today!

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