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Hints and Tips when buying a secondhand or used car.

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car salesman


What to look out
for when buying used cars

This is always a mine field and nothing guarantees success
but there are a few things to look out for before parting with your hard earned cash.

Obviously different countries have different rules but I am
sure a lot of the following would apply wherever you are located.


The depreciation of used cars is much less than new cars and,
therefore, they are a more cost effective purchase.

Get your finance in place before choosing your car, this
saves time as you know exactly which vehicles you can or cannot afford.

Be aware of the current “going rate” of vehicles
before purchasing by checking guides available from most newsagents that list the value of
most used cars.

Consider all different outlets such as trade-ins at new car
dealerships, private sales etc., not just secondhand car dealers.  In the U.K.,
however, the purchaser has more rights and safeguards when purchasing through trade rather
than a private sale.

Cars less than three years old which have been driven 10,000
– 15,000 annually are probably the best buys. An average annual mileage is about 10,000,
so for a 3 year old car mileage between 25,000 and 35,000 would be reasonable.  
Anything over this could have been used for business and driven hard.

Small and medium saloons and hatchbacks are easier to
maintain and repair than convertibles or luxury cars.


Check the engine plate on the car corresponds with that given
on the registration documents and that it has not been tampered with or changed.

Never buy a car without test driving is yourself.

lady looking under car bonnet

make sure you are insured to drive it then, if possible, take it on a drive that covers a
mixture of conditions i.e. fast motorway driving, slow urban driving, twisting roads and
don’t forget to check reverse.


Always inspect the bodywork in good light. 

Look for corrosion or rust.  Rust is probably the most
damaging thing of all on cars over five years old.

man checking car bodywork
Surface blisters can be relatively
harmless and easily treated but corrosion coming from the inside of the body panels is
more serious.

Look for rust at the top and rear of the front wings, along
the side sills, below front and rear bumpers and the bottoms of the doors.

Sometimes a rust blemish on the paintwork can indicate more
serious corrosion underneath.  Press the panel gently with your thumb.  If there
is a cracking noise it indicates advanced corrosion.

It is usually not worth repairing rust that has perforated
the bottom of doors, the bodywork around the front and rear screen rubbers, on trailing
edges of bootlids or tailgates and leading edges of bonnets and on rear wing panels.
  These can only be repaired expensively by specialists and subsequent painting is

Walk around the car and look along the doors and wings from
each of the four corners.  Any crash repairs will show up if they have not been well
done.  You will see ripples or a change in the texture of the paint if there is a lot
of body filler underneath.  Take a small magnet with you, it will be attracted to
metal but not to plastic body filler.  Look also for variations in the paint colour.

Water stains in the boot, around windows, on carpets and
around the sunroof opening may indicate leaks.


Look for rust perforation on inner wings, the bulkhead and
any cross members and chassis members visible under the bonnet.  If you see any,
reject the car.

Beneath the car check side sills, chassis legs, cross members
and subframes.  Tap suspicious areas with a lightweight hammer, or push hard with
your hand to detect the ‘give’ of weakened metal.  Be wary of freshly applied
underseal – could be hiding weakened metal.

Check the floorpan for corrosion.

Look at brake pipes, if they are crusted or pitted with rust,
these could be dangerous.

Check suspension and steering mounting points for serious
corrosion, especially under the bonnet.


A car that has been in a collision can be dangerous,
especially if its suspension and/or steering have been damaged.  

Examine under the
bonnet for damage, creasing or replaced inner wings (unsightly welds are a give-away).
  Also inspect the engine bay forward panels and forward chassis legs for repairs or

man working under car bonnet

When test driving the car the steering should be consistent
with no tendency to pull either left or right.

Look under the carpet between the front and back doors for
signs of welding or repair in case two halves of different cars have been welded together
(cut and shut), which is extremely dangerous.






Check the odometer, if the numbers are out of line the
mileage may have been altered.

Look to see if the  mileage corresponds with the general
condition of the car.  A worn brake pedal and wear marks on the gear lever indicate a
car that might have done more than 60,000 miles.  A worn or sagging driver’s seat and
carpet are other signs of high mileage.

A very low mileage may indicate the car might have been left
unused for long periods or used only for short journeys.  Both can cause engine
problems.  A car that has been regularly used and serviced is a better bet.


car engine
Have a look at the general state of the engine.  

A dirty
engine and surrounding area suggests that the car hasn’t been well looked after and that
servicing may have been neglected.  

Conversely, a sparkling clean engine could have
been steam cleaned to disguise problems such as oil leaks etc.

Before starting the engine remove the dipstick and check the
colour of the oil.  If it is very black the car has probably not been recently, or
regularly, serviced.  Also check for beige “mayonnaise” on the dipstick, a
possible symptom of head gasket leakage.

Check the quantity and colour of coolant.  It should be
the colour of antifreeze not rusty red.  An engine that has been run without
antifreeze may have problems.

Listen to the engine starting up from cold.  The oil
light should go out soon after the engine starts, if it doesn’t there may be engine wear.

Heavy rattling or knocking noises shortly after
start up could
indicate wear of the crankshaft and big-end bearings.  Listen for clattering or light
knocking noises from the top of the engine which indicate camshaft wear.

Turn on the ignition and
open the throttle sharply. 

Check for black or blue smoke from the

car with smoke coming from exhaust

Blue smoke comes from burning oil and shows
engine wear, whereas black smoke is un-burnt fuel and has many possible

Check for smooth idling when warm.

When test driving check the engine does not misfire but pulls
strongly and cleanly.  Check there are no pinking sounds (i.e. metallic rattling
sound that occurs when the throttle is open).  If the car does misfire and the engine
has electronic fuel or ignition control only buy it if the misfire is put right first.

Keep an eye on the temperature gauge or warning light which
may indicate overheating.

Finally check for oil leaks.


If the car has a manual gearbox, check the clutch operates
smoothly and all gears engage easily.  If the gear change stiffens as revs increase
the clutch may be worn.  Check for clutch slip by driving the car up a hill in top

When driving change down into each gear from a higher speed
than normal to test the synchromesh.  If the gears baulk or crunch, or if the gearbox
whines excessively, gearbox overhaul or replacement are the only solutions.

If the car has automatic transmission check the transmission
dipstick for correct fluid level, this is best done with the engine hot and idling.  
Also smell the dipstick, if it smells burnt steer clear of the car!

When driving check that the transmission changes down into
each gear properly under full acceleration and at the right time.


Check shock absorbers (dampers) by pushing down hard on the
bodywork at the corners and letting go.  The car should rebound once just past the
level position, then go back i.e. one and a half swings.  Any more than this
indicates the shock absorbers need replacing.

Listen for knocks from the suspension over poor road surfaces
which could indicate worn bushes, joint and dampers.  Take a note of the cars
handling, if it is vague, “floaty” or bouncy, suspect worn dampers.

Check for fluid leakage from the dampers or struts.  
Slight weeping is acceptable any more is not.


If the steering is vague and heavy the tyres may be worn or
under pressurised.

Rock the steering wheel gently while watching the front
wheel, there should not be any noticeable delay between steering wheel and road wheel
movement.  Free play accompanied by a knock will fail the MOT test.

Check for wheel wobble at speed.  This is often
attributable to unbalanced front wheels.  Steering wheel shimmy at low speeds
indicated distorted wheel rims.


The brake pedal should offer good resistance
and not sink most of the way to the floor when applied.

If a servo is fitted, check that it works by
pumping the brake pedal several times, holding the pedal down and starting the engine.
  You should feel the pedal creep down as it operates.

The care should not swerve when the brakes
are applied hard at speed.  If it does, it may have seized or leaking wheel cylinders
or calipers.

If the car judders when you apply the brakes
this implies distorted front brake discs.  Inspect discs for heavy scoring or
unpolished or corroded areas, they may need renewing.

Check the brake hoses under the wheel arches
for cracking, chafing, swelling or leaks.


tyre showing different layers
Check the treads and side walls on all four tyres (plus spare
wheel) there should be more than 2mm of tread all over the tyre (I think the legal limit
is 1.6mm in the U.K. at present) and the sidewalls should not be cracked or damaged.

Uneven wear on treads suggests steering, tracking or suspension problems.


If the car passes your inspection and test drive here are a
few more things to bear in mind before making an offer:-

In the U.K. every car over three years old must have an
annual MOT and, therefore,  ensure the certificate is current (although this does not
guarantee the car is still safe).

Ask to see service and repair history and well as repair
receipts.  Treat a denial that these receipts exist with suspicion.

Check the mileage on the odometer tallies with service and
repair receipts.

Check the car’s registration and chassis number matches those
on the registration document.

If the vendor is not the person named on the registration
document ask for written confirmation from the registered owner that the vendor is
authorised to sell the vehicle on his behalf.

Ask if it is permissible to have the car inspected by an
independent mechanic.  If it is (and you can afford the added expense) ask the
mechanic to carry out a cylinder compression test to assess the condition of the engine
and also to estimate the cost of any repairs he thinks may be warranted.  You can
then ask for the cost of these repairs to be deducted from the asking price.

If you have a car to trade in don’t mention the fact until
you have negotiated a discount for the one you want to buy.

If you are buying from a trader, depending on the value of
the car, it may be worth investing in a warranty.  Read the warranty small print very
carefully as some warranties exclude more than they cover.

Mr. Neville
Crocombe has kindly pointed out that if after you have done all these
checks you feel you have found “it” then don’t sign anything but
assure the vendor that the sale is “subject to a satisfactory
inspection by an independent automobile association”.

Well, if after all this you still feel inclined to buy
another car, best of luck!!!




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