Cars aren’t cheap, so many people choose to buy a used car instead of a brand new one. And the last thing you want is to buy a used car from a private seller, only to find that it’s going to cost you more in maintenance in the first year than what you paid for it. So here are some things to look out for when you’re planning to buy a new car.
“Hello, I’m calling about the car”
You should be vigilant from the outset; when you call the seller up about the car they have advertised, never mention the specific car. Just say “I’m calling about the car you’re selling”. If they have to ask which one you mean, they could be a trader in disguise. Walk away – if the seller isn’t honest enough in the advert, they probably won’t be honest enough about the condition of the car. This isn’t to say that buying from a trader is a bad thing, but they should state this fact in the advert.
Be wary of sellers who don’t want you going to their home to view the car. An honest seller should have nothing to hide. If they suggest a neutral location, politely state you’d rather see where the car is usually parked, and could you come to their home instead?
Ask if the car is their own, or if they’re selling it for someone else. The latter itself isn’t a warning sign, but if they’re a dishonest seller (for example, trying to sell on a stolen car), then their attitude to this question should speak volumes. Trust your instincts.
Arrange to see the vehicle in daylight, preferably the middle of the day. You need to allow for enough daylight hours to make a thorough inspection of the car.
Ask the seller for the vehicle registration. Before you view the car, order a history check on it. This will show if there is any outstanding finance on the car, if it’s been reported stolen, or if it’s an insurance write-off. If the check shows up any of these, walk away.
Inspecting the car, inside out
Take back-up! A savvy or dishonest seller will keep chatting at you, pointing out good bits when they think you may be about to discover the bad! So a distraction in the form of a friend is a good idea, leaving you to look over the car in peace.
Look at the tyres. The tread should be of a good depth, and be equally worn across the tyre. If the tread is unevenly worn, it could indicate a suspension or alignment problem.
Inspect the bodywork, especially around the wheel rims, door edges and along the bottom edge as they’re usually the first places to develop rust. Take note of the paintwork too, if there’s discolored patches it may indicate a spot respray – ask the seller why this was.
Inside the car
Have a big sniff! Does the car smell musty? If so, it usually indicates a leak somewhere, or that the car has been flooded at some point. Either could point to some costly repairs at a later date.
Pull at the seat belts to ensure they lock properly. Turn the steering wheel to make sure the wheels turn correctly –they should move with minimum turning of the steering wheel. Examine the pedals – are they brand new, or very worn? The latter could indicate heavy use, the former could indicate very light use (or an attempt to conceal heavy use). Either could have a bad effect on the engine and mean costly repairs later on.
Look closely at the odometer if it’s an analogue one. Are the numbers lined up perfectly? A classic fiddle by unscrupulous sellers is to turn back the mileage, but if this happens the numbers on the odometer will be misaligned. Walk away quickly if this is the case.
Turn the ignition and make sure all the lights on the dashboard come on and go off properly. Sound the horn, switch the headlights and indicators on, and check the locks work.
Under the hood
Pop the hood (also checking that the release lever works!). This is the part that can be confusing if you’re not an expert, but there are a few simple ways for even the most inexperienced to know if the car’s any good.
How clean is the engine? If it’s covered in grease and oil, or black sludge, then the car really hasn’t been maintained or serviced properly, and could develop problems later. On the other hand, if the engine is squeaky clean, be wary – it may have been cleaned to hide the fact that it’s been heavily used.
Open the oil filler cap and look inside. If you see any black sludge, it’s a warning sign that the oil hasn’t been changed. It should look relatively clean inside. Check the dip stick – what color is the oil? Gold is good, black or gritty is not. You also want to see the oil level above the minimum.
Even if you’re not a mechanic, it should be easy to tell if the car has been shoddily repaired. Look over the engine as a whole, paying particular attention to any seals and fixings. You’re looking for evidence of bulging gaskets (this usually looks like rubber oozing out from between two metal parts), missing or loose bolts, stripped wires or covers missing off parts. If any of these signs are evident, it usually means that the engine has been repaired at some point by an amateur. Again, this could lead to costly problems in the future.
By no means does this list cover every point to look at when buying a used car, but it should alert you to any major or obvious problems there may be with it, and help you to avoid buying a dud.
Louise is a financial writer in the UK with several years experience in buying (and selling) used cars. Although she drives a regular family hatchback, she has a (not so) secret longing for a Monster Truck 😛