Your ultimate pre-purchase vehicle inspection checklist


Unless you’re a qualified mechanic, buying a car can feel like a lottery. The risks of buying into someone else’s problems, as opposed to getting the deal of the century, can be reduced by your decision to make your purchase from a dealer, trade garage or a private seller; but that’s a topic that merits a discussion for another day.

The golden rule when buying a used car

Buying a used car is a risk. We would always suggest that at any point in your selection, you aren’t 100% happy about the vehicle or its owner—WALK AWAY.

There will be other cars; many will be in much better condition and even at a better price. If any part of what you see doesn’t sit quite right, then forget it—there’s a better car for you somewhere else. With your safety at risk—and your finances—you need to be 100% happy with your choices.

Our used-vehicle inspection checklist

The car you drive says a lot about your personality, but we’d advise you to buy with your head and not with your heart. The vehicle in front of you might look like the perfect car for who you are, but if it’s going to cause you endless problems and the associated costs, it could well be a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

1. Poor vehicle bodywork

Small dents and scratches are commonplace on older cars. It’s unlikely that a car won’t pick up a few marks and battle scars over its lifetime, but signs of major damage, whether repaired or not, can indicate collisions or breakages that might not have been adequately taken care of.

Gaps between bodywork panels are key indicators that there has been damage to the framework that hasn’t had the correct repair. Different coloured panels are also telltale signs of damage repair serious enough to merit replacement bodywork.

2. Chipped windows or windscreen

Chips to the windscreen could turn into cracks that will need repair or a full replacement. Chips that appear to be in the driver’s eye line could cause an MOT failure, so be sure to find out if that’s going to be the case or not.

Make sure all windows, manual or electronic, operate correctly, opening and closing, just as they should.

3. Wheels and road legal tyres

To be road legal, all tyres need a 1.6mm minimum depth, so anything under 3mm will need replacing in the near future. Uneven tyre wear (excessive wear on one side more than the other) can point to poor wheel balance or problems with the steering or suspension.

Don’t forget to check the condition of the spare wheel and its tyre. You’ll also want to make sure there are a jack, a spanner and any specialist adapters needed for locking wheel nuts where appropriate.

4. Engine noises and fluid leaks

The engine shouldn’t make any unusual sounds, nor should it be emitting any colour of smoke from the exhaust. If you hear knocking sounds, misfiring or unusual or unexpected variations from the engine when you depress or release the accelerator, they should all be treated with the utmost concern.

Check all fluid reservoirs—oil, brake, power steering and coolant—for levels and obvious signs of leaks. Low fluid levels could be a sign of poor maintenance or malfunctioning hoses or engine parts.

Take a look under the oil cap too; any sign of a white thick mayonnaise-like substance could be caused by condensation but is more likely to be caused by coolant mixing with the oil. This could be a sign that the head gasket is failing to do its job properly.

Take a good look at the ground underneath the car. Any problem leaks might leave a patch or a stain on the ground as an indicator from where fluids are leaking.

5. Gearbox and clutch checks

Feel for the biting point and listen for the smooth transaction between engine and accelerator. Any unwanted noises or clunky vibrations are signs that there’s a problem with one or the other of these components.

6. Faulty car brakes

Don’t be afraid to jump hard on the brakes. In an emergency you’ll have to have every confidence that you can do just that, so make sure they’re not spongy or slow to respond. You need to be completely sure that the car’s brakes are in perfect working order.

7. Vehicle electrics and the car battery

Make sure you test all of the car’s electric components from its headlights, indicators, mirrors and windows, to the central locking, air-conditioning and the stereo.

You should also take a look at the battery, checking the terminals for wear and tear, leakages or corrosion.

8. Interiors and upholstery

The interior and upholstery of a car can give away clues to the level of use it’s undertaken. A well-worn steering wheel, worn-out pedals or excessive wear to the side of the driver’s seat fabric, indicates a car that has had a lot of regular use; if this doesn’t tie in with a high mileage, then there may have been some tampering with the odometer.

If there are any odd smells, find out why. It could be engine or running-related—it doesn’t always have to be from a wet dog or a particularly feisty take-away.

9. Registration and service history documents

Proof of ownership is covered by the V5C registration document—otherwise known as the logbook. Make sure all the details of the car you’re buying relate to the information on the V5C and the Vehicle Identification Number shown matches the one on the car.

If the car has had a lot of owners over a short period of time, it could point to be problems that have been passed from one owner to another.

If the address doesn’t match that of a private seller, it could be stolen, or it could be a trade dealer pretending to make a private sale. Whatever the reason, you should find out why.

You should also gather as much service history and previous MOT paperwork as possible. This will give you a much better idea of how the car has performed over time and how much care has been taken of its upkeep.

10. If you’re not sure, seek professional help

Fixter has a range of expert mechanics and technicians, ready and waiting in your area, to help you determine the condition of any car prior to purchase. For a small and sensible fee, this professional service could well save you a fortune in the long term.

So, if you’re not completely sure whether or not to buy a car, protect yourself and your wallet; get one of our friendly and professional Fixter mechanics to give you the ultimate rundown when you’re faced with buying a new-to-you car.

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