Buying a used car takes time, planning, and research. There are a lot of checks to do too. That’s why we’ve put together this definitive car buying checklist to make the process easier and faster. It could even save you money.

We’ll look at every aspect of the preowned car buying process, from the first steps, to visiting dealers, to making the final deal. And we’ll provide links to other helpful guides that’ll give you even more info on the things you should check. Join us, as we show you what to look for when buying a used car.

What to check when buying a used car?

There are several things to check when buying a used car and we’ll take you through them right now. We’ll go over what to do before you visit the car seller, what to do when you’re there, and what you should do before you buy the preowned vehicle. We’ll even go over the questions to ask when buying a used car and equip you with an expert used car checklist to help you throughout the process.

Before you visit the dealer

Before you visit the dealer or private seller, there are a number of things you will want to do in advance to make sure the car is right for you and your needs. You also want to build a clear picture of the car’s history to ensure it’s in top condition.

1. Budgeting

First things first, you want to create a budget of what you can afford. You’ll want to separate your expenses from your income and work out a realistic figure that you can spend on a used car. Remember, include an estimate of car running costs, from insurance, road tax, fuel usage, to general maintenance.

2. Preparation and Research

Now you know what you can afford, choose a range of different makes and models that appeal to you and your needs. Whether you want a Volvo XC40 or a Hyundai Tucson, you can read our reviews of the cars for more info and to help whittle down your selections. Also, decide on the engine size and fuel type that’s right for you. You want to end up with a shortlist of 3 or 4 vehicles and while you’re at it you can start looking for different deals on the used car market.

When you’ve selected a few makes and models, use our Car Price Guide to see how much they typically sell for and to compare prices. Make a note of those figures for quick reference. Next, do a vehicle spec check and look into the different variants and trim options for your shortlist. You want to settle on the ones that best suit your requirements and budget, looking at the options that you can’t live without – whether that’s a 3 or 5 door car, and features like cruise control or a reversing camera. To summarise, you want to research:

  • Car makes and models, using reviews
  • Engine size and fuel consumption
  • Variants and trim options
  • The average prices to compare them

We have all this information available on our website to help you with your research. We even have a handy Car Price Guide so you can check out the current market and how much certain makes and models are selling for.

3. Running costs

When you’ve finished your research, you can go back to your budget to change those running cost estimates into something a little more accurate. You’ll want to:

  • Get quotes for car insurance
  • Check the road tax cost at Gov.uk
  • Look at the fuel consumption of the cars on your shortlist
  • Take into account how many miles you’re likely to do each year

Also, factor in servicing and maintenance. These two running costs are hugely important for how well and how long your car will last.

Finally, take a moment to consider car finance. You can use our Car Finance Calculator to get an estimate of a loan and how much you’ll roughly be expected to pay per month. It also goes into detail about all the different finance types, giving you vital information on the subject.

4. Shop around

When your budget’s all worked out and you have all your research to hand, including the running costs, it’s time to get searching for a used car in earnest. You want to shop around and create another shortlist of cars that fall into your price bracket, trim level, and mileage.

5. Do a stolen car check and a vehicle history and MOT check

As you gather more information, you can narrow down your vehicle choices. And when you’ve found a few cars that are for sale, start looking into them to build a clearer picture of their history and general care. You’ll want to do a:

  • Stolen car check – you can discover how with our stolen car check guide
  • Free MOT check at Gov.uk – this’ll tell you how the car has performed in past MOTs
  • Safety check – see the safety rating of cars at Euro NCAP
  • Vehicle history check – companies like HPI Check offer a relatively cheap service that looks into the past of used cars, providing a wealth of valuable info which can be used to avoid car scams and to negotiate a better car price

Doing these vehicle checks in advance can save you time and money, pointing out potential faults, motor fraud, maintenance issues, and manufacturer recalls. You can delve deeper into the subject with our car history check guide.

6. Check documents

Before you buy a used vehicle, you want to make sure the car seller has all the right documents. You’ll want to look at these in more depth when you visit the seller, but for now make sure they have:

  • The V5C registration/logbook
  • A detailed service history
  • A current MOT certificate (if applicable)
  • The vehicle handbook

Discover everything you need to know about the logbook with our V5C document guide. Easy to read and informative, it’s ideal for anyone look to boost their car knowledge.

7. Part-exchange valuation

If you’re looking to part-exchange or selling your old car, as well as buying a new one, you’ll want to find out its value. You can find out how much you’d get for selling your vehicle with our free car valuation. We also have a step-by-step guide on how to sell your car.

Photo by Gustavo Fring from Pexels

At the dealer

Equipped with all your research, you’ll have an easier time at the dealership or with a private seller than if you went without any preparation. You’ll also be better placed to get the best deal possible. However, there’s still lots more to do before you get to the fun of haggling.

1. Vehicle inspection

Always examine the car, from top to bottom and inside and out. A common question, however, is: what to look for when buying a used car? Simply put, you want to look for signs of damage, that mileage matches the age, and that the overall condition of the vehicle is in top quality. You can perform this car inspection yourself or you can pay for a technician to do it on your behalf.

There are lots of things to check, which is why we’ve put together this separate vehicle inspection checklist. Even if you have no mechanical experience, this guide will give you practical advice on what to look for, how, why, and where. It could help you spot various problems, damage, and faults, giving you essential information for buying a used car. For those in a hurry, here’s a quick outline of what to check in a vehicle inspection:

  • Bodywork – look for scratches, dents, and damage and window cracks
  • Interior – again look for any damage, but also check all the electrics
  • Documents – inspect the V5C, MOT, and service history
  • Engine – look for leaks and inspect the radiator, timing belt, coolant, battery and radiator

Use all your senses when doing the checks, as odour can be a key indicator as much as sight. In addition, you want to inspect the panel gaps as large gaps could be a sign of repair following damage. On top of that, check the:

  • Exhaust – do a cold start: thick white, grey, or light blue smoke from the exhaust are problem signs
  • Wheels and tyres – check tyre tread and test the suspension by pushing the car’s corners
  • Test drive – listen out for clunking sounds and see if there’s any steering drift or body shaking
  • Gearbox and clutch – ensure the transmission is smooth and test the clutch’s biting point

2. Questions to ask

What to ask when buying a used car is also important. The right questions will help you build a better picture of the vehicle’s past, filling in any blanks that may be present. You want to ask the seller the following:

  • What checks the seller has carried out and when?
  • How many previous owners are there?
  • Has the car ever been involved in a collision?
  • When is the car’s next service and MOT due?

There are other things worth asking too. You could inquire:

  • If the car has any modifications (this can affect insurance and car depreciation)
  • If the car is still under warranty and, if so, how long is left
  • About the vehicle’s service history and ask for more info on specific points
  • About any specific requirements you have, for example towing capabilities

You could also ask how it’s been driven, whether predominantly on the motorway or in the city? One of which is better than the other… See our City vs Motorway Driving to find out which and why that’s the case.

3. Space and practicality

Get inside and sit in every seat to get a feel for the car from every point of view. You want to make sure it’s spacious enough for your needs and practical too. So check the cubbies, storage areas, and of course, the size, shape, and lip of the boot. Ask yourself:

  • Are the seats comfortable?
  • Can you adjust them and move them easily to meet your needs?
  • Can you get in and out easily?
  • Is the boot the right shape and size for your requirements?

4. Check documents

Now you can see the documents in person, it’s time to give them a proper look over. Pay attention to the following:

  • V5C document – look for the DVLA watermark, and ensure the registration and car’s VIN numbers match the V5C. Also, ensure the seller is the one registered on the V5C, and that it’s their address.
  • MOT certificate – check the expiry date and pay close attention to notes from the mechanic. Look for any recurring issues that are listed too.
  • Service history – look through this document to see how well the car has been cared for. You want to see if the seller has all (or the majority) of the receipts too. If they do, it’s a good sign they looked after their car.
  • Vehicle handbook – make sure they have it present. You should never have to buy a new handbook, as well as a new car.

If you want even more info, check out our car documents guide. It goes through every car document you need and what to check, providing an in-depth look at the subject.

5. Warranty

You want to see if the car has any remaining warranty left on it and, if so, how long for. You can find out too if the dealer is offering any additional warranty. Either way, check the warranty’s terms and conditions to see what is and what’s not included.

6. Mileage

Of course, you’ll have checked the mileage during your vehicle inspection. However, it’s also an important subject to garner its own spot on this vehicle checklist. After all, it’s one of the important things to look out for when buying a used car. In terms of mileage, inspect the following:

  • The odometer for any signs of tampering, such as worn or replaced screws
  • That the car’s mileage is in accordance with the MOT certificate
  • That the mileage matches the age and condition of the car
  • Use a full vehicle history check to help spot mileage fraud and car scams, such as clocking

7. Test drive

Taking the car for a test drive will let you see if it meets your drive-ability standards. It’s also a great way to see if there are any faults or underlying issues with the used vehicle. When you take the car out on the tarmac, be sure to:

  • Drive at different speeds
  • Do a 90-degree turn to see its turning circle
  • Test the brakes and gears
  • Test all the electronics, the air con, and heating

At the same time, keep an eye out for any potential problems. Look out for:

  • Any steering drift or the car pulling to one side
  • Any unusual noises when you brake, corner, or change gear
  • Body shaking at low speed
  • Any unusual odours and/or thick white, grey, or light blue smoke from the exhaust

We have a whole separate guide on test drives, as well as a list of things you need to check on a used car test drive. Take a look at both if you need more info on the subject.

Photo by Erik Mclean from Pexels

Buying your car

When you’ve followed this car checklist, you’ll have built up a clear picture of the car’s history, condition, and value. And you’ll almost be ready to purchase it. You’re at the last hurdle, but there’s still a few things to be prepared for in advance.

1. Make a deal

Whatever price the seller is asking for, you should always try to negotiate a better deal. And when you strike the deal, be sure to get it in writing. Remember:

  • Stay calm, confident, and friendly
  • Offer a price lower than your actual budget
  • Be upfront and ask for a discount and free extras
  • Be prepared to walk away if you can’t make a deal that suits you

If you feel your haggling skills are a bit rusty or you’re looking for some advice to boost your confidence, then check out our tips for negotiating car price. It’s a one-stop guide for all your haggling needs.

2. Agree a collection date

Unless you plan to buy it and drive it away there and then, you’ll need to arrange a collection date. When you go back to collect the car, give it another check over to make sure you’re happy with it. Before you pay for the vehicle, always make sure you’re satisfied with the car and confident in the seller. If you’re not, you can still walk away. If you have to pay a deposit to secure the car, always get a receipt.

3. Pay for the car

If you’re buying from a car dealership, know your payment method in advance – whether you’re going to pay by cash, card, or via a finance deal. If you’re going for a finance deal, check what’s available ahead of time and use our Car Finance Calculator to help you in the process.

If you’re paying by cash or card, don’t tell the dealer upfront. Why? Well, finance deals turn a bigger profit for car dealerships, so they may offer a better price for you in hope of selling a finance deal too. When you go to pay, you’ll also need:

  • Your driving license
  • Employment details and history (if you’re opting for a finance deal)
  • Additional proof of your identity and address (such as a passport)
  • Your payment method (whether cash, card, or cheque)

4. Arrange insurance and road tax

To make sure the car is roadworthy, you’ll need to pay for the car’s insurance and road tax from the agreed date of collection. You have to do this to be able to drive legally on UK roads.

5. Complete the V5C

You’re almost there and on your way to hitting the tarmac in your new used vehicle! First though, be sure to complete the new owner’s section of the V5C registration document.

6. Part-exchange your old car

If you’re part exchanging, obviously you’ll want to take the car you plan to trade in to the dealership. Remember, a car salesperson is likely to only make a deal on the part-exchange value or a better car price for the vehicle you want. You probably won’t get a deal on both. On top of that, make sure you:

  • Check your old car’s value in advance with our free valuation tool
  • Clear out all your belongings from the vehicle
  • Take all the car’s documents to handover (V5C, MOT certificate, service history, and handbook)
  • Fill out the old vehicle’s V5C and notify the DVLA that you’ve sold the car

7. Check fuel level and drive home

Most dealers and private sellers will give you some fuel in the tank to get you on your way. It might not be enough to get you to your destination though. So check it and top it up if you need to. Now… Congratulations! You’re the trusty owner of a new car. Adjust the driver’s seat just for you and enjoy the drive home.

And so we come to the end of our buying a used car checklist. It should make purchasing a preowned vehicle easier, faster, and hopefully save you money in the process.

It goes over everything you need to know, with practical advice from what to do before you visit the dealer, things to ask and check whilst at the dealer, and the final stages of buying a car. And for those who want more detailed info beyond a checklist, we’ve provided a wealth of links to informative guides that cover every aspect of buying a used car.