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What to look for when buying a used car

Used car checkWith so many things to remember, knowing what to look for when buying a used car can at times be a daunting task. It can be all the more daunting when you are not just buying a used vehicle, but buying your first car as well. This situation can be exacerbated further if confronted with a seller who is more than willing to take advantage of your vulnerabilities. Fortunately, when you are inspecting a vehicle, many of the basic faults a used car can have are easy to find. As well as our RAC Car Passport vehicle check showing you a car’s history, this guide teaches the simple checks you can make to a car to help you decide whether you want to buy it or not. Once you have successfully bought a new car, selling your old one is easy with our RAC Cars service which allows you to sell your car for free.

Inspecting a used car tips


Car Bonnet Checks

  • Check VIN matches the V5C document.
  • Check under the car for oil, water or any fluid that could be leaking.
  • Check with a dipstick, or the electronic oil check on some cars,   whether the engine oil needs topping up or changing to get a gage for the level of care the current owner has for the car.
  • Check whether the top of the engine or oil cap has a white cream seeping from it. This can indicate serious engine damage.
  • Check car fluids like brake fluid and engine coolants are topped up.
  • Check that there is no rust around the battery terminals.

External Car Checks

  • Check the paint work. It should be the same throughout the car. If it is not consistent, that could suggest a re-spray trying to cover damage or rust.
  • Check the panels. If they are not the same size, this could suggest the car was involved in a crash.
  • Check all the doors, windows and boot open and shut properly.
  • Check the suspension by leaning on the corners of each car and then checking on release that the car returns to its original height.
  • Check the VIN (Vehicle Identification Number) for any alterations. This metal strip can be found in the engine compartment and somewhere else on the car, so you might need to hunt around for it. On some modern cars, it’s also shown on the windscreen. If it doesn't match the V5C in all locations, or looks like it has been tampered with, it’s worth investigating further.
  • Check the tread of the tyres and spare tyre if the car has one. The legal tread depth is 1.6mm across the tyre width.
  • Check the tyre wear is even. Uneven wear can suggest the tracking is not aligned and that the car could have been in an accident.

Internal Car Checks

  • Check the car’s mileage matches the car’s documents.
  • Check that the car’s upholstery reflects the history of the car. Extensive wear could suggest the car is older than advertised.
  • Check the electronics work, including the widows, seats, sunroof and air con.
  • Check whether there is damage around the steering column and ignition. Tampering and damage could suggest the vehicle may have been stolen.
  • Check if the car has been in a crash by inspecting the seatbelts, passenger dashboard and steering wheel for damage.

Car Paperwork Checks

  • Inspect the car at the seller’s home address to ensure it matches the one on the V5C document.
  • Check for the V5C, service history and MOT certificate to establish whether the car has recurring issues.
  • Check the V5C to see whether the mileage has increased at normal rate.
  • Only check the original paper. Do not accept copies.

Getting an RAC Car Passport car data check is quick and easy to do online.

Generate a Buyers Report in 3 simple steps:

  • Input the vehicle registration (of the car you want to check the history for)
  • Enter your email address (so we can send you a copy of your report)
  • Complete payment details

Your online report will be generated on-screen.

To prepare a Sellers Report:

Follow the same instructions above. You’ll also need your V5C document to hand (so that we can retrieve your vehicle MOT history) and details of any servicing you’ve carried out on the car.

Car Data Checks
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