The 7 Physical Checks You Need to Make When Purchasing A Used Car

When buying a used car, it’s important to take a good look at the car in depth to see whether or not you’d be getting a good deal. Below we recommend what you should be looking for when buying something that has had a previous life before it ends up on your driveway.



The bodywork is a good general indicator of how well looked after a car has been. If you are buying an older car, you are going to have some signs of rust, so don’t rule a car out just because of this. It’s more important as to where the rust is. Get on your hands and knees and look along the full length of the car for any scratches or dents. They may seem minor, but they can sometimes be very expensive to fix.

Also look carefully at the body panels. Uneven gaps can reveal a car that has been in a crash and has been badly repaired. Also, look at the colours, are they exactly the same? A slight difference between panels can also reveal this.


Car Oil

Check the oil in the car. Whilst doing so, you should check to see how warm the engine feels. If it is, this may be perfectly innocent and indicate the car has just been driven. However, it could have been pre-warmed to hide a starting problem. If it is a petrol car, the oil on the dipstick should be light in colour – a yellow/brown. If it’s dirtier than this, it indicates poor oil maintenance and poor car maintenance in general. All oil in diesel cars, however, will be very dark, so this conclusion cannot be reached in these types of cars.



As cars develop over time, so do their accessories and electronics. Faulty electronics can now be some of the most expensive faults to fix, so you should test carefully. Test every gadget the car has fully, and don’t forget to include the lights, heated rear window and aircon. Don’t feel under pressure to hurry up testing all these things. A reputable seller will be quite happy to let you test every one of them fully. If they’re not, chances are they may be hiding something.



Tyres are the only part of the car in contact with the road, so it is crucial that they are in good condition. Ensure that they have a good, even tread and are all the same. If you’ve got tyres with less than 3mm of tread, they will need replacing soon and depending on the size of the car, this can be relatively expensive.

Check that the spare wheel is in good condition and is inflated, or that there is a sealant kit in serviceable condition present.

Ensure that all seat belts operate correctly and all click into their designated pod. You should make sure that there are no cuts or frays, as this could be lethal if you were in an accident.

If the car has airbags, check that their warning lights work as described in the car’s handbook. Normally, this means the light will come on when you start the engine and then quickly turn off.

You should also check that the windscreen wipers and washers work properly. Although you may think these are relatively minor things, if you are caught in heavy rain, they are vital to your safety.


Oil slick on road

When you’re looking at the engine, can you see any signs of leaks? Oil will leave brown, dark stains, whereas evidence of a water leak will appear as a chalky white residue. One thing that many people forget is to look at the ground beneath the car. If you can see evidence of oil here, it could be evidence of quite a severe leak, and this could be an expensive problem to fix.

Does the condition of the car match the mileage?

Run down car

Even though most modern cars have computerised odometers, clocking is still a problem. If you’re looking at a car with a particularly low mileage, does the condition of the car illustrate this? Shabby seats, worn clutch, brake and accelerator pedals and a shiny steering wheel could all indicate a mismatch between the displayed mileage and the actual mileage.

The test drive

test drive

You must test-drive any car that you are thinking of buying. The seller will generally come with you, and you should try and drive it in a range of environments, from busy town traffic to a dual carriageway/motorway. Listen out for anything that doesn’t feel right, and listen for any knocking noises or rattles. Does the gearbox feel OK? Is the clutch slipping? Is the steering true and smooth? Don’t forget to test the brakes. Do they take a long time to come into effect? Or are they a bit too keen? You should also make sure that they don’t pull you across to one side when pressed. An old dealers trick is to demonstrate the radio whilst you are driving. The noise from the radio can mask vital noises from the engine, so you should drive with it off. For any test drive, you need to ensure that you have the appropriate insurance cover.

This list isn’t exhaustive, but it should give you a good idea if the car you are buying is full of faults or not. If in doubt, walk away. You may be best getting a mechanic to have a look at any car you are thinking of buying. Paying them for the day to look at some cars could save you a LOT of money in the long run. Both the AA and the RAC offer these types of services.