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.

How to check a vehicle’s history

The DVLA offers a free service that tells you a lot of basic information about a car, which is a quick and easy way to tell whether it’s even worth going to see a car.

To use the service, all you need is the registration number and the vehicle make. Enter this information and you’ll receive details such as the date of first registration, engine size and fuel type.

Cross-checking this information matches the advert description allows you to ask questions that may uncover issues. For example, if the car is registered as yellow but the photographs show a red car, there may be a reason it was resprayed.

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.

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.

What documents should I check before buying a car?

When you arrive to look at the car, the most important thing to ask for is the V5C registration document. Only the registered owner should have this, so if the person showing you the car doesn’t match up you’ll want to find out why they’re selling on behalf of someone else.

Never buy a car without the V5C. If the seller doesn’t have it there’s a chance the car is stolen, plus you can’t tax the car without it.

To check its authenticity, look for a DVLA watermark by holding the paper up to a light. You should also check the serial number, which is printed on the top right corner. In 2006, two million blank log books were stolen; if the V5C has a serial number between BG8229501 and BG9999030, or BI2305501 and BI2800000, then it could be 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.

How to inspect a car for damage or other tampering

Cars are complex machines with thousands of moving parts that could go wrong. It’s one of the risks inherent to car buying – even new cars develop faults – but you can decrease the risk by knowing how to spot the signs a car has damage repair or has been tampered with.

Use simple common sense to decide if the condition of the car matches the mileage. Modern cars make it much harder to tamper with the odometer, but it’s worth questioning if a fairly tatty car is presented with low miles on the clock.

Checking the bodywork carefully can give away even the best damage repairs. Check for inconsistent gaps and inspect each panel from different angles to see if the paint matches across different parts of the car. These can be signs of hidden repairs.

During the test drive, be aware of anything that might hint at a problem. For example, a disconcerting noise from the engine or the car pulling to one side. You should also check the electrics are in order by trying the radio and windows.

Check vehicle insurance – before and after buying

Once you’re serious about buying a car, you need to check insurance. First of all, can you afford to insure the car once you’ve bought it?

When you go to look at a car, you should double-check you’re insured before test-driving it. If you’re buying from a dealership they’ll probably have their own cover. If it’s a private deal you should check your existing car insurance covers you to drive other cars, otherwise you can organise short-term cover.

Now you have all the information you need for a trouble-free car-buying experience. If the world of car dealerships seems a little alien to you, though, check out our article about dealership regulation for everything you need to know before heading to the forecourt.