Buying a used car can be a daunting task. But with some preparation and knowledge, you can feel confident about your purchase. When buying a used car, it’s important to know what to look for to avoid any potential problems. Check out this used car checklist to learn what to look for when buying a used car…

Don’t fret; the days of being scared by a used car checklist are long gone. With improvements to reliability, manufacturing practices, information on insurance write-offs and MOT history available at your fingertips, it’s becoming easier than ever to find the perfect second-hand car.

Purchasing from a dealer or trader

If the thought of purchasing a second-hand car privately makes you feel uncomfortable, it may be a better option to make your purchase through a dealership or motor trader.

For context, there are many forms of motor traders scaling from independent individuals to large, franchised dealers. An independent trader is an individual/s acting for purposes relating to that person’s trade, business, craft or profession, meaning they can range from a single person buying and selling cars on their driveway to a franchised dealer selling new and nearly new cars.

Depending on the size of the trader you purchase from, you may notice a difference in the level of preparation and aftersales support you are given. Typically, the larger the dealer, the better support you will get – however, it’s important to note that you may end up paying more for your car in return for these services.

Franchised dealers are at the largest end of the spectrum, with individual driveway traders at the other and typically independent garages sit somewhere in the middle. How does the support differ?

Large dealers:

A large, franchised dealer or garage is more likely to have put a used car through a really thorough inspection process, and they tend to offer a fantastic warranty upon purchase which can range between six and fifteen months. As mentioned above, buying from this type of dealership is likely to increase the overall cost of your car; however, it can offer you comfort in knowing that the car has been rigorously checked and is also covered by warranty.

Driveway traders:

Driveway traders tend to offer more competitive pricing than their franchised competitors. Whilst they are still likely to undertake basic testing to ensure the car is fit for purchase, they typically aren’t as thorough as larger dealers. If your car ends up needing repairs, you won’t have access to a warranty agreement, so the purchase could cost you more in the long run.

Things to know:

All traders must comply with the Consumer Rights Act, which means you may be entitled to a repair, replacement, or refund if the car is deemed not ‘of satisfactory quality’. However, should you ever need to make a claim under this act, you must do so within the first 30 days. It can be a very long-winded and stressful process – especially if your trader is being difficult.

How can I decide what’s right for me?

Everyone’s circumstances are different, depending on what you need the car for.

 If it’s a short-term fix whilst you’re saving to purchase a new vehicle, and low cost is your biggest priority, it could be best for you to sacrifice the guarantees given at a larger dealership to get the best possible price.

If you need a reliable car that you’d like to keep for the next eight to ten years, we recommend looking at the larger dealerships to ensure you get the security and reliability you need.

Independent garages and traders come in all sizes, each offering a different service quality – check them out on TrustPilot before making any decisions. These traders usually cater to cars that are too old for your larger franchised dealer groups, but they still maintain a quality that surpasses write-offs or auction-only cars.

Buying a car privately

Buying a car privately is often cheaper, so if you’re on a budget, this could be a great option for you. However, buying a car privately can be more difficult, as the vehicle will not have been through a rigorous checking procedure. This means that you will have to be more vigilant when undertaking the inspection and test drive.

What are the positives of buying a second-hand car privately?

  • They’re usually cheaper than buying from a dealership, and you have more wiggle room to negotiate the price as the seller isn’t solely attempting to make a profit.
  • You get to meet the previous owner – so you can get a feel for how well the car has been looked after.
  • You have the opportunity to understand the owner’s motivation for selling the car; make sure you dig deep here, as you want to ensure that they’re not just trying to get rid of the car due to ongoing problems.

What are the negatives of buying a second-hand car privately?

  • Private sellers may overvalue their car; they may have an attachment to the vehicle or have seen a similar car at a dealership and want to sell it for the amount they saw. Private sellers often don’t take into consideration that dealerships sell for a premium.
  • The car won’t have been through the vigorous inspection processes that a car at a dealership would have. With this in mind, you’ll have to be a lot more thorough when undertaking your inspection.
  • You’ll have fewer buyer’s rights, so if the car breaks down as you’re driving off, there is very little you can do. Make sure you undertake a good test drive before buying any second-hand car.

Buying a second-hand car from an auction

Most individuals are somewhat wary about buying a car from an auction, and you should be too. Cars sold at auction are usually sold for a quick sale and have no buyer protection or warranty.

However, due to the low prices of cars at auctions, you could get a great deal if you’re clever and careful with your purchase!


What are the positives of buying a car from an auction?

  • Cars are much cheaper when buying via an auction, and you could get a great deal if you’re smart with your purchase.
  • With individuals bidding on multiple cars, you can get a feel for each vehicle’s actual value.
  • It’s quick and easy to purchase a car.
  • You may have the opportunity to purchase the car before it even goes under the hammer, giving you an excellent opportunity to take time in your decision-making and snap up the vehicle before anyone else for a great price!


What are the negatives of buying a car from an auction?

  • You may be pressured into purchasing a car without thinking it through enough – you have less time to decide.
  • It’s becoming harder to get a great deal at auctions, as many dealers are now utilising online selling websites such as eBay and others.
  • You won’t have the opportunity to inspect the car, nor can you undertake a test drive.


Other helpful information about purchasing a car via auction:

  • Most auctions only allow a few hours of viewings before the sale, so you must arrive at the auction early and take your time viewing any prospective cars.
  • We’d also recommend that you do thorough research before you attend and look at how much similar cars are selling for at dealerships and auctions.
  • It can be easy to get caught up in the moment and overbid for a car, so make sure you set a strict budget of what you’re happy to pay for your shortlisted vehicles.
  • Whilst you can’t undertake a thorough inspection, it’s essential to have a good look at the car’s general condition; it may give you an insight into how well it has been looked after.

Remember to check for any auction fees that are payable upon purchase.

Buying a second-hand car online

As the world becomes more digitised, the world of online shopping is becoming more popular than ever – and this includes used cars. There is a wide range of online auction sites, such as eBay, where you may be able to snap a bargain on your new vehicle. It’s a simple approach to purchasing your new car, where you’ll have the opportunity to buy outright or place a bid on your preferred vehicle.

Many online auction sites or online sellers will expect buyers to pay a deposit for the car via an online service, such as PayPal, prior to picking up the vehicle. There are some risks that you need to consider before doing this, as you may be asked to purchase the car without viewing or a test drive – so there may be hidden faults that you aren’t aware of.

It is important to remember that if the car isn’t as described when you go to pick it up, you are free to walk away – you don’t receive the same buyers’ rights when purchasing online, so be sure to do an inspection before you drive off.

What should I check for when buying a used car?

Buying a used car can be a stressful experience, especially if you don’t know what to look for or check. To make your car buying experience a breeze, we’ve provided a full checklist of what to look out for.

Check the tyres – all tyres need to have a minimum treat of 1.6mm, so if they’re below 3mm, you’ll need to replace them soon. Whilst this isn’t necessarily a problem if you want premium tyres, it could end up costing you a lot of money.

Did you know you can check the tread depth of your tyres with a 20p coin?

Bodywork – inspect the vehicle in clear daylight, as you’d be surprised by how much poor weather and cloudy conditions can hide. Check for any dents and scratches; look at the alloys for signs of kerbing.

Whilst some small scratches aren’t expensive to fix; you could use this as a negotiation tactic.

Panels – when you’re undertaking your inspection, check for gaps between panels. Large gaps could be a sign that a car has been in a crash and has been poorly repaired.

Be sure to check for variations in the panel colour.

Under the bonnet

  • Check the car’s fluid levels, including oil, brake and power steering fluid. If these levels are low, this could signify that the vehicle hasn’t been looked after correctly.
  • Oil cap – when you’re checking the oil, we’d also recommend that you look under the oil cap for signs of a white gel-like substance, as this could be a sign of condensation.
  • Electrics – play with all of the cars electrics, including windows, radio and air conditioning.

Windows & glass 

  • Check for any chips or scratches to the windscreen and windows. In the cold weather, these tiny dents can turn into cracks requiring a complete replacement windscreen.
  • Look at the car’s lights (Both front and back), and make sure there aren’t any chips, cracks or fogging.

Interior checks

  • Look at the car’s interior; you should look out for any stains, burns or tears in the seats.
  • How does it smell? Cars regularly smoked in can smell quite severely, and it’s sometimes tough to get rid of.

Car accessories

  • Check all the car accessories. Does it have a spare wheel? Is there a wheel nut provided? If there isn’t, this may be a cost you’ll need to factor into your budget.

General wear and tear

  • When buying any second-hand car, you should expect the vehicle to have a certain level of wear and tear… but the level of wear and tear must reflect the age of the car. In some older models, it’s incredibly easy to manually amend the miles clock so be careful when checking the general wear and tear vs mileage.

This checklist should hopefully give you a good enough insight into what you need to inspect when purchasing a second-hand car. However, if you’re not confident in knowing what to look for, we’d recommend you take someone who knows a thing or two about cars or mechanics. Many garages have a service where a qualified mechanic will visit the car with you and check the condition – this could be an option if you’re worried about doing so yourself; remember to budget for this cost

How to conduct accidental damage checks

The tips above will help you assess whether a car has been in an accident, but here are some specific areas you need to look out for.


  • Make sure the panels line up tightly and the paint colour perfectly matches.
  • Check for ripples in the car’s bodywork, as this may mean that the car has been damaged and poorly repaired – you can use a magnet to check if filler has been used.
  • Familiarise yourself with the make, model, and specification of the car – for example, if it is a high-spec model that comes with a chrome trim and it’s missing, ask question.
  • Look at the number plates – these must have their supplier printed on them as required by law. Ask why and how this car was procured if it’s not a car dealership. It could be that the number plate needed replacing, or it could have been damaged in an accident.


How to check your second-hand cars paperwork

The most important piece of paperwork you’ll need to check when buying a second-hand car is the V5C document, also known as the ‘vehicle registration document’ or ‘log book’. When checking the V5C, ensure that the number plate and make and model of the car you’re buying match the document.

You can also check that the VIN (Vehicle Identification Number) matches the vehicle. You should be able to read this from outside the car at the lower part of the windscreen.How to check a cars service and MOT history

An MOT test is the yearly compulsory test of roadworthiness which is carried out on all cars that are over three years old.

Gone are the days that you’d need to see a physical certificate, as you can now check a car’s MOT history online.

We recommend that you check the MOT expiry date, which is available on the certificate or online, and note any advisories that the testing garage has recommended. As these suggestions are advisory, the seller may not have fixed the issues. Many of these advisories are easy to check (Such as tread depth), but others aren’t a quick fix.

You should ask the seller to provide information on the service history; however, the seller may not have this. Depending on the type of car, age and price, this information may not be important. However, if you’re purchasing an expensive model, you’ll ideally want a full-service history to ensure it’s been well maintained.

It’s time for your test drive…

We cannot stress enough the importance of undertaking a test drive before purchasing any vehicle, especially if you’re buying privately. Remember that to undertake a test drive, you must have some form of insurance, such as temporary or comprehensive insurance on another vehicle.


So, your seatbelt is fastened, but what do you need to look out for when test-driving a second-hand car?

  1. Does the car start ok? Listen to the engine as you start the vehicle and throughout the drive. We’d recommend turning off the radio so you can hear better.
  2. Check the clutch – is it easy to find the biting point, or is it a long way up the pedal spring? Try test-driving the car on a hill at a higher gear. Do you notice any slipping? Is the clutch working correctly, or does it jitter?
  3. Check the temperature gauge before starting – if the seller has been warming the car up before your test drive, you may want to ask why. The engine must start in perfect condition when it’s cold.
  4. Check the temperature gauge whilst driving – does it get to halfway quickly and stay there? New thermostats can be costly, and overheating can signify something serious.
  5. Review the steering – is the steering smooth and operating correctly without any strange noises? If the car has power steering, is this working effectively? A great way to test this is to remove your hands from the wheel whilst on a good levelled, flat road and check to see if the car pulls to one side.
  6. The transmission – check to make sure all gears are working effectively. When changing gears, they shouldn’t make any strange noises or be notchy. If the car you’re reviewing is an automatic, make sure that the vehicle changes gears smoothly and that it matches the road speed that you’re travelling.
  7. Is the suspension working correctly? Take a drive over speed bumps or on a bumpy road and listen for unusual sounds or jolts.
  8. Test the brakes throughout your drive, and if safe to do so, perform an emergency stop. Do the breaks stop in a straight line without pulling to one side? Are there any unusual sounds? We’d also recommend testing the handbrake too.

The most important part… do you like it? Can you see yourself driving it?

Whilst a test drive is an excellent opportunity to find issues with a second-hand car, the most important thing is to make sure that you’re buying the perfect vehicle for you.

Make sure you’re comfortable and that you’d be happy to drive it for all likely journeys you may experience. Purchasing a car is often a significant investment, so you must be satisfied with it before agreeing to pay.

Okay, so you’ve conducted the checks and are happy to purchase the car… but how will you pay for it?

Many payment options are available for second-hand car purchases, including cash, bank transfer, and online services such as PayPal and car finance.


The type of payment that you select typically depends on the value of the second-hand car you wish to purchase. While paying cash for a £350 car should be okay, you could find yourself in trouble if you tried to do this for a £15,000 vehicle.


By opting to pay with car finance, you’ll receive more rights and be more protected than purchasing outright. Car finance is often an excellent option for second-hand cars, as you can spread the cost of the vehicle instead of paying upfront.

Click here to check how much you’re able to lend, without impacting your credit score!

Used car FAQs

  1. Q) Are there any used cars that I shouldn’t purchase?
  2. A) It depends on your individual circumstances and what you need to utilise the car for. We’d recommend doing a quick google search of the make and model, as any manufacturer issues will typically appear. Otherwise, if you’ve conducted all the checks listed above
  3. Q) What maximum number of miles should I consider when purchasing a second-hand car?
  4. A) It depends on the age of the car. On average, the UK annual mileage is roughly 7,000 miles, so an excellent way to check is to times the vehicle age by 7,000. It’s important to note that whilst cars with fewer miles may seem like a better option, we’d recommend that you carry out all the necessary checks, as listed above, to make sure.
  5. Q) How much is too much when negotiating?
  6. A) This depends on your negotiation skills. Many feel uncomfortable negotiating a discount on a used car; if that’s you, we’d recommend taking a friend with you who may be more comfortable. We’d always recommend researching the market price for the vehicle online before entering any negotiations.
  7. Q) What’s the first thing I should do after purchasing a car?
  8. A) First, make sure you have insurance and road tax! You don’t want to be pulled over when picking up your new car because it isn’t insured. Make sure you insure your vehicle before sitting behind the steering wheel.
  9. Q) Is it better to buy a new or used car?
  10. A) It depends on your personal circumstances and your preference. When purchasing a brand-new car from a dealership, the second you drive out of the lot, the vehicle depreciates in value. Buying a used car can offer more flexibility and is typically better for money.
  11. Q) Can I pay for a new car with cash?
  12. A) We’d only recommend paying cash if the second-hand car is less than five hundred pounds.
  13. Q) Should I get car finance before or after I’ve chosen a vehicle?
  14. A) We recommend obtaining car finance quotes before selecting your chosen car. This is to ensure that you have a complete insight into what you can afford and how much the monthly payments would be. Check out how much you could borrow with Marsh Finance without impacting your credit score.
  15. Q) How long does buying a second-hand car take?
  16. A) It depends on where you’re purchasing the vehicle from. It’s usually a quick process, especially if you buy the car from a private seller or auction house. However, a car is a big investment, so don’t feel pressured into making a purchase. If something doesn’t seem right, it probably isn’t.