When buying a car, there are so many things to consider:

Is it big enough? Is it well-priced? Does it come with all the equipment I’m after? The list could go on.

But the thing that’s often forgotten is to check the vehicle, and importantly it’s past. And that doesn’t just include the service history and how many owners the car has had — but also if there is any outstanding finance on the car, and if it’s been subject to any insurance write-offs.

Here’s all you need to know about checking a vehicle’s history.

Basic checks

The DVLA website offers a useful tool to check the tax and MOT status of the vehicle. It also tells you basic information about the car itself, such as the registration date, engine size, fuel type and colour, which can all be useful when helping to validate a car’s past.

MOT history check

Another useful government tool is on the DVSA website, which gives you a comprehensive MOT history of any vehicle. It helps to give an indication as to if a car has been looked after, by listing when the model has failed, and any advisories it has had, too. If advisories appear on the last MOT, it can be a bargaining point if these issues haven’t been sorted.

However, MOT history is another way of verifying a car’s mileage, and checking that a model hasn’t been ‘clocked’ to give it a lower mileage. It’s also easy and completely free.

HPI Check

For more in-depth vehicle checks, there are multiple firms you can look to offer full vehicle history checks. However, the HPI check is one of the industry’s favourites and offers great value for money.

At the time of writing, the basic service cost £9.99, which checks for outstanding finance, if the vehicle is stolen or recorded as scrapped, as well as looking out for insurance write-offs and for import and export reports.

The full check from HPI costs £19.99, and is a worthy purchase as it adds a number of extra features – such as pointing out cloned models, mileage discrepancies, details about the insurance write-off, overall ownership costs and valuation to check that you’re getting a good deal.

All you have to do is enter the number plate and all the details will appear.

It’s worth doing, particularly as HPI’s own records show that 2,001 vehicles come back as write-offs on a daily basis, with nearly a quarter of models that undergo checks appearing as having outstanding finance on them.

What physical documents should I check?

As well as looking out for a full and up-to-date service history, a vital document is the V5C registration document. Only the registered owner should have this slip of paper or the dealer. If you can’t see this slip of paper, it should set alarm bells ringing as it could mean that the car is stolen.

And what about physical checks?

A key way of ensuring the validity of any car is by checking that the Vehicle Identification Numbers (VIN) match. This is the 17-digit number that is unique to every vehicle on the road, and is the safest way of ensuring the true identity of a car. It’s stamped onto the chassis, but also appears at the bottom of the windscreen and also on stickers in the door openings. Don’t consider buying a car if the numbers don’t match up.

Anything else?

Checking a car for damage might seem obvious, but in the excitement of buying a new car, it’s all too easy to not pick up on dents, scuffs and scratches. Inspect the car thoroughly and consider whether the mileage matches the condition of the vehicle — if a fairly tatty 10-year-old car has low miles on the clock, it could indicate the mileage has been tampered with.

Newer cars make it much harder for the readouts to be tampered with, but it’s something to be cautious of.

Also make sure that all body panels match and are the same colour, as badly fitted panels and mismatched resprays could indicate that the car has been damaged in the past. Mechanical checks are equally important, and we always recommend that you have someone mechanically-minded check over a car before purchasing.

Don’t forget insurance

Car insurance is a legal requirement, and don’t take it for granted that you might be insured on a car when test-driving. Nearly all dealers will have their own insurance policies, and will just ask to see your licence before throwing the keys, but when buying a model privately, you need to ensure that your existing policy covers you on other cars, and if not, take out a short-term policy so that you can be covered.

Ted Welford


March 21, 2019