What to look for when buying a used car
Checking a potential purchase is an important part of the car-buying process. If you don't feel confident about this part, why not take a knowledgeable friend or family member with you.
Let’s start with the outside:
Ideally, we would all like our cars to be shiny and blemish-free but day-to-day motoring can take a hefty toll on bodywork. Whether it is rust, paint-chips or dents, there are plenty of things to look out for when examining a potential purchase so allow plenty of time for a thorough check-over. And always try to look at the car in dry, bright conditions - it is amazing how many people go to look at cars in the pouring rain just as it is getting dark and this can hide a multitude of bodywork sins. Be suspicious if the seller seems particularly keen that you see the car late in the evening, or if the car is wet for no particular reason. When a car is wet, it can be harder to spot paint defects and it is not unknown for unscrupulous vendors to soak a car just before a potential buyer arrives to try to hide faults.
Let’s move on the bodywork checklist:
Check the paintwork carefully for scuffs and scratches. Examining each panel in turn, looking from different angles and comparing it with adjoining panels will help you to spot any mismatches in colour that could be the result of re-spraying. Pitting, “orange-peel” effects or runs in the paint are also signs of possible accident repair. At the same time, look for over-spray on areas such as window rubbers and wheel arch liners, and check door, bonnet and boot shuts for signs of a differing paint shade.
Look for dents and parking dings on wings and doors. Also, check for stone chipping, particularly in vulnerable areas such as the leading edge of the bonnet and beneath the front bumper. On off-roaders, a careful check underneath the car is vital, as even clean looking vehicles can hide signs of off road abuse. Look for signs of damage to the sills, floorpan, exhaust, fuel tank and spare wheel well. Remember that any damage to the underseal could have allowed rust to take hold.
On newer cars, rust should not be an issue - if any is visible, it could be a sign of bodged accident repairs. On older cars, check areas such as the bottom of the doors, sills, wheelarches, and front wings for signs of rot. Bubbles under the paint are a sure sign that rust has already begun to take hold, so future problems lie in store. Use a magnet to check for filler.
Check carefully for signs of damage caused by an accident or theft. Does the paint match across panels and are panel gaps even? Under the bonnet, look at inner wings and chassis members for signs of creasing. Do the same in the boot by lifting the carpet and checking the floor, and beneath the spare wheel.
People are often worried about checking the mechanical bits on a potential purchase, and whilst cars do appear to be getting more and more complex, there are still some basic checks you can do to help you avoid buying a dud. Having said that, a professional inspection is money well spent and these can be arranged through motoring organisations or garages. Here’s the checklist:
Look at the condition of the fluids – oil, water and brakes – do these look fresh? Check for signs of oil or water leaks, and check the condition of the hoses for the cooling system, heater, power steering etc. At the same time, check drive belts for fraying or splits; if the car has a cambelt, try to find out when this was last changed, as breakages can be very expensive. Lastly, do appearances under the bonnet match the indicated mileage?
Check for signs of smoke on start-up and whilst driving. A puff of blue smoke when starting indicates worn valve guides whilst blue smoke on the move is likely to mean more serious engine wear, for example cylinder bores or piston rings. Black or grey smoke is a sign of excess fuel entering the engine pointing to carburettor or fuel injection problems. However, diesels, even modern ones, do tend to emit some smoke or soot particularly under hard acceleration though this should not be excessive. If the car has a turbocharger, run the car until the engine has reached operating temperature and then at standstill, quickly rev the engine – blue smoke indicates potentially expensive turbo wear. By the way, if the car had already been warmed-up when you arrive for a test drive, the seller could be trying to hide something.
Listen for unusual noises. Ticking from the top of the engine could be camshaft or tappet wear, while a deeper knocking or rumbling points to wear at the bottom end of the engine, such as the crankshaft or main bearings.
Moving on to the gearbox, manual changes should not be overly obstructive, though this can be a characteristic of some cars. If it seems excessive, synchromesh, gear linkage or clutch problems could be the cause. There should be no obvious whining noises, although this can be a feature of older off-roaders. Automatic gearboxes are complex, and expensive to repair or replace, so pay extra attention to these. Main things to watch for are an excessive delay when selecting gears from rest, and rough or jerky changes. If the ‘box appears to ‘hold-on’ to gears when changing, or the change is accompanied by a ‘flaring’ of engine revs, expect repairs to be necessary. Finally, check carefully for fluid leaks, as a low fluid level affects the operation of automatics, and check the condition of the fluid – a very dark colour or ‘burnt’ smell can indicate problems.
Staying with the driveline, check for wear in front driveshaft CV joints by turning on full lock at slow speed. A clicking sound or light knocking means they need replacing. Be wary of clunks or knocks from the driveline when taking-off, or on releasing the accelerator as these can signal wear in engine/gearbox mountings, propshaft bearings or universal joints, or the differential.
Steering, brakes and suspension
It is particularly important that these areas are up to scratch on your potential purchase, as any defects or failures could have disastrous consequences. A thorough test drive should show up any faults, but have the car checked professionally if in doubt.
On a test drive, the car should run straight with hands off the steering wheel, although road camber may cause a slight drift to the left, and the steering should not feel vague or ‘sloppy’. Any shaking felt through the wheel may be due just to a road wheel imbalance, but could also indicate worn suspension or steering joints so investigate carefully. If the car has power steering, turn the wheel from lock to lock a couple of times – there should be no ‘stickiness’ or juddering. A screeching noise indicates that the drive belt for the power steering pump is slipping.
Check that the car does not veer to one side under firm braking, or lock individual wheels (particularly at the rear). There should be no excessive squealing or grinding noises when applying the brakes, although this can occur when brakes are cold or the car has been standing for a while. If ABS is fitted, try an emergency stop to make sure it is working. If possible, check the brake pipes for damage or excessive corrosion.
Inspect the dampers for signs of leakage, and suspension bushes for wear and tear. If possible get underneath the car and check for signs of corrosion on suspension components and chassis mounting points – this is particularly important on older vehicles. Check also for damage to the suspension on 4x4’s caused by careless off-roading. Any knocks or clonks from the suspension on road test could indicate worn dampers or bushes, and will need investigating.
Be sure to check the condition of the tyres. The proliferation of speed humps has made this more important than ever - many tyres are being damaged by them, and this is often out of sight on the inner edge. Also, check that high performance cars have the correct speed rating on their tyres to ensure owners haven’t skimped in this area. Lastly, check the spare tyre arrangement, ensuring that space savers are undamaged. Many cars are moving over to puncture repair kits rather than spares, so ensure that the relevant kit is in place.
Interior trim and equipment
This is an area that is always worth checking carefully on your potential purchase. Not only can the interior provide clues on what sort of life the car has led, but it is worth bearing in mind that replacing interior trim and fittings can often prove to be disproportionately expensive. Also, in the case of older vehicles, replacement trim is often unavailable new, meaning a search for second-hand bits.
The interiors of modern cars are much more hard wearing than previously, hiding the effects of high mileages. However, it is still worth examining seats, steering wheel, gearlever, pedals and carpets to check for excessive wear.
At the same time, check for damage to upholstery and trim - tears and scuffs will need professional repair, especially on leather upholstery, and as mentioned earlier some interior bits are scarce on older models. Look at the dash and centre console for holes left by the removal of phones, stereos, or sat nav systems. Not only are these unsightly and hard to repair, but a poor installation could have damaged other mechanical or electrical components.
Check everything works! - This is important whether the vehicle is old or new, and while older cars generally had less equipment which makes things easier, new models are often stuffed full of gadgets, all of which need to be carefully checked if big bills are to be avoided. Here are a few tips:
Do your homework! Finding out what equipment the car had fitted as standard, and also the popular options that may have been fitted reduces the chances of overlooking something. Many manufactures have huge options lists, so it is likely that no two cars will be the same - coming across some new gadget after you have bought the car only to find it doesn’t work is very annoying!
Give all equipment the once over – don’t assume it will be okay. Remote control central locking, electric windows, mirrors, sunroofs, and seats are common now and these should all work quickly and smoothly. Repairs will be expensive, particularly if replacement electronic control units (ECUs) are required.
Do all the dashboard warning lights come on before starting the engine, such as those for the anti-lock brakes and airbag systems? On older vehicles it is possible to remove warning bulbs to hide potential faults. Equally, do all warning lights extinguish once the engine is running? Any that remain on could indicate expensive problems.
Be sure to check that in-car entertainment systems are working properly. These are becoming more and more complex, but it is worth taking the time to ensure everything is okay, and don’t forget to check the operation of any CD changers that may be hidden away somewhere – these are common fitments, and while some are located in-dash, they are more often to be found under seats, or in the boot or glove-box. If satellite navigation is fitted, try to give this a good test – many are CD or DVD based so make sure discs are not missing and remember that these will require updating periodically. Bear in mind these systems can be very costly to replace if they fail so check carefully – the price of replacing a faulty sat nav system can easily run into four figures.
Lastly, don’t forget to check that air conditioning (or the more complex climate control) systems are working correctly. Once the preserve of ‘luxury’ cars, air con is now a common fitment in all types of car, from super-minis upwards. Periodic ‘re-gassing’ of the systems are usually required, normally dealt with as part of a routine service, but lack of use can lead to leaks. Be wary if the system struggles to produce cold air, or is noisy in operation.