Basic Car Buying Checks

Basic Car Buying Checks

Basic Car Buying Checks 

Don’t panic – I’m not expecting you to get your overalls on, get your toolkit out and start taking the vehicle apart! No, you can leave that to the technicians in the workshop as these are just basic car buying checks anyone can do.

And while we’re on the subject, if you really need to take an “expert” with you, make sure he’s qualified and has only your best interests in mind. There are loads that you need to consider when you are buying a car. For example, you might want to check that it has all weather floor mats or something. It might only seem small but it might be very beneficial to you before you make the decision to buy the car.

I have seen far too many customers come in with their neighbour’s best mate’s daughter’s boyfriend’s brother who once changed a tyre on his mum’s car and now thinks he’s a qualified mechanic!

Okay, maybe I exaggerated a little there, but when they’re looking at a car at a dealer, most mechanics seem to see it as a challenge to find as many faults as possible, to prove they’re better than the technicians in the workshop. It’s their moment of glory and a time for them to shine and impress you.

It’s no different really with AA or RAC inspections. You pay them £100 or so to find faults on a car, so they have to find some – otherwise no-one would use them! One of the most common things noted by them all is, “This car’s had some paintwork done.” Well done, Sherlock! About 70 – 80% of used vehicles have had some form of paintwork done. It’s perfectly normal.

Don’t worry about any of that; the dealership has the responsibility to sell you a car that is roadworthy and fit for purpose. If it’s not, you have every right to take it back. No, the checks I’m talking about are basic things that you don’t need any qualifications for but which are missed by many customers, who then have the inconvenience of bringing the car back to have the problem rectified. It’s best to take a notepad, make a tick-list, and check each item off.


Ideally you want the same make of tyre on all four wheels. Failing that, at least pair them up so that you have two of identical make on the front and do the same at the back. You may have noticed various numbers and symbols on tyres without knowing what they actually mean. Here’s an introductory lesson.

A tyre will be marked with seven pieces of information that will look like this, although not necessarily in one straight line:

195/50 R16 92 V E4, which means:

195 – The width of the tyre in millimetres.

50 – The height of the sidewall, i.e., the distance between the top of the tyre and where it meets the wheel. It is shown as a percentage of the width, so in this case 50% of 195. Also called the aspect ratio.

R – Means radial construction.

16 – The diameter of the gap in the tyre in inches, i.e., the big hole! This reflects the alloy/rim the tyre fits on so this tyre is for a 16” alloy/steel wheel.

92 – Load rating. Shows the recommended load this tyre can carry (92 = 630kg). You need only check this if you are carrying heavy loads.

V – Speed rating. Indicates the speed the tyre is designed for. The salesman will be well impressed that you know this one, as they definitely won’t. V equals 146 mph (240 km/h). In many countries, the law requires that tyres must be specified, and fitted, to exceed the maximum speed of the vehicle they are mounted on.

E4 – The “E mark” assures you that the tyre meets the standards set by the European Regulatory Authorities.

As mentioned previously, the legal MOT limit of a tyre is 1.6mm, and this is quite low, as in countries such as Switzerland and Germany it is much higher (which is why all their part-worn tyres are now sold over here!). Most dealers will have their own limit of around 3mm, which is quite acceptable. Bear in mind that this has to be 3mm across the whole tyre, i.e., outer edge, middle and inner edge. Get yourself a decent tyre gauge for under £10 and measure all the tyres.

Note any tyres below 3mm for negotiation purposes. Right at the end say, “Well, if you get those two rear tyres at 2.8mm replaced, I think we’ll go for it.”


It’s easy to miss any chips on the glass panels (mainly the windscreen), especially in the evening or in bad weather. If you see a chip on the windscreen it will be either recent or previously repaired. I have a chap who comes round once a week and checks all the vehicles and repairs any screen chips. They’re simply sealed to prevent them from spreading and cracking the whole windscreen (an expensive replacement).

Ask for chips to be repaired with a guarantee, and if they have already been repaired ask to have it in writing that should the chip spread within a year they’ll replace the windscreen or get them to replace it now. If they won’t put it in writing make out it’s a really big concern and that you expect at least £50 off.

You can get the chip repaired pretty much anywhere these days and it’s usually free (I’m sounding like an advert here, I know). There are usually some chip repairers hanging around supermarket car parks.


I’m not talking about panels caved in here, but smaller dents that are usually difficult to spot. Once you’ve found one, your eye always seems to be attracted to it. Again I use a fantastic dent guy who comes round and checks all the cars.

The easiest way to spot a small dent is not to look at the panel straight on but to stand either at the front or rear of the vehicle and look down the side so you can see the wing, doors, and rear panel.

Look in the daylight when the light is reflecting on the paintwork and you’ll see any dents. Also check the boot/tailgate and the bonnet by bending down slightly near the wing and looking across the bonnet.


As I said above, most used cars have had paintwork at some point, but the quality varies. If a car comes in with a small scrape on the bumper corner or a scratch on a panel, it can normally be painted on site without the need of a bodyshop. This is known as a “local” or “smart” repair and is common in all dealerships. Major damage will have to go to a bodyshop, but again, if done properly it isn’t a concern.

To check paintwork, view the car in the same way as I described above for dents. If you see a shade or a patch in any of the panels, it could mean filler has been used to repair the door (bad job). Stand a few yards away from the car and walk around it comparing all the panels. They should all be the same shade. I’ve seen a blue car go out with one wing having a completely different shade of blue.

Be aware that some colours, especially silver, will always have panels looking different shades in different light. Colour-coded bumpers may also appear a different shade as they could be plastic, whereas the car is metal. If nothing obvious stands out, then you can assume that the car’s okay.

Panel Alignment

These are the various panels on the car including the bonnet, wings, doors, and boot lid. I remember once when our new car department had a car going out that had advertising stickers on it. In his haste to clean it, the valeter damaged the bonnet and door whilst removing the stickers.

The customer had already been delayed once so the only solution was to get another new car from the back and swap the damaged panels before the customer turned up! He didn’t have a clue when he collected the car.

Now if a panel has been poorly replaced, the gaps between it and the next panel will be uneven. If you look at a bonnet, for example, the space on each side where it joins the wings should be exactly the same width.

The same applies to the doors. If the spaces are unequal, it could be the panel was either replaced, or removed and re-attached. In the case of a door it could be that the door was forced open at some point.

Headlight Alignment

As with the body panels, the gap around each headlight should be the same. A bigger gap around one light could mean either the light, wing, or bonnet has been repaired or replaced, indicating a possible front-end smash. No car should be on the forecourt in this state.

Electrics (windows, locks)

Check that all windows are working, and smoothly go all the way up and all the way down (some rear windows are designed to stop about half way down). Make sure the central locking works on all doors. And don’t forget to test the electric mirrors if the car has them. Check all four directions, all the way.

Air Conditioning/Heating

People usually forget to check the air conditioning in the winter. Just turn the heater on for a few minutes on cold and press the AC button. It should start getting icy cold in a few minutes. And don’t forget to check that the hot air flows from all the vents.

One more thing – and I’m a little red-faced on this as I forgot to check this very recently on a car – make sure the rear de-mister works, something no customer has ever checked unless it’s been bad weather and had to be used. You’ll have to buy parts from places like spartan motor factors if you don’t check the car over fully, and the cost all adds up.


Scuffed alloys not only look unattractive but cost money to refurbish. So take a look at each alloy, especially around the edges.


Most people check the radio but never the CD player. Take a CD with you and stick it in. Tune in your favourite station and make sure its reception is okay (unless of course your favourite station is 200 miles away!).

Service History

The service book will tell you how often that particular vehicle should be serviced. Most older cars are either 12,000 miles or 12 months, whichever comes first, although modern cars tend to have longer service intervals.

Check how many service stamps there are in the book and where/when they were done, as this should match the last keeper details. So if the last keeper lived in Portsmouth and has had the car for four years, why are the last three stamps done in York? Could be a perfectly reasonable explanation of course (I’d love to hear it).

Take a case in point: I once had a visit from trading standards in regard to a customer complaint. This couple had bought a Ford Ka after being told by the salesman that it was a one-owner car with full service history.

When the V5 came back to the customer it was showing five previous owners. They contacted the last owner, who informed them that they’d bought the car with no service history! So my salesman had just taken a blank service book and stuck five or six stamps in it.

As the forthcoming newspaper headlines flashed before me, the trading standards officer told me that they didn’t want to take it any further; they just wanted a full refund. That was the biggest sigh of relief of my career. Needless to say, that particular salesman was through the door – only to get a job at another dealership two miles away!

Also on older cars, find out when the timing belt (cam belt) needs changing, if the vehicle has one. This could be 5 years/50,000 miles or 10 years/100,000 miles. Either way, if it needs changing it can be an expensive job. If it needs changing and hasn’t been changed it can cause major damage to the engine, resulting in the car being written off. So make sure this point is clarified before you buy.


The V5/registration document/log book (whichever name you call it by) will show details of the current keeper. This usually lists the person who part exchanged it, unless the car was acquired from another source, and when they purchased it. It will also show the keeper before them and when they bought it. You need to be careful how the car’s ownership is described, as one owner from new is not the same as one previous owner.

One owner from new means the car has only ever had one owner. One previous owner means there is one current owner of the car and one previous owner, so it is a two-owner car. A little misleading, but used by car sellers all the time. As well as checking that the service location matches up, check where the first MOT was done, as this should be near where the previous owner lived. The V5 will also show the car’s CO2 number, which will indicate which tax band the car falls into.

On the day you actually collect the car have another quick look around it to make sure nothing has been scratched or damaged in the meantime. Before you drive off, check the windscreen again for chips and check that all lights are working.

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One thought on “Basic Car Buying Checks”

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