Buying a second-hand car can be a bit of a painful experience – especially if your budget is limited. It’s something I’ve had to do myself, and I generally find the experience pretty stressful. There are a few things you can do to make sure you don’t end up getting a turkey.

I guess the only ‘gotcha’ is that ANY car can go wrong, no matter the age, or condition – so don’t come running back to me if your new wheels fail!

Go to a dealer

Whilst it might be tempting to pick up a roadside bargain, or something cheap and cheerful from eBay. If you’re going to a dealer you have some comeback if there any issues. Car dealers like KAP Motor Group will help you find best used cars. Most will offer warranties on cars they sell. You can also research dealers online, search for reviews of them – although remember people generally feel more inclined to leave negative reviews. It’s good to look at a car on a business with premises, and not meeting in a car park.

Take a good look at the body

Before you even start the engine, or get inside – take a really good look around the car. Check for any bumps or scrapes. Examine the gaps between the panel, they should all be similar, watch out for any that are wildly different. Open up the bonnet, check the inside for any damage. Get in the boot, and lift up the carpet, make sure there’s no rusting, or sign of damage. Accident damage can hide in the places you’re not likely to look in. Have a look at the tyres, check they have enough tread – the ’20p test’ is helpful.

Take the top off the oil cap, check there’s no white / creamy residue – it’s a sign the head gasket is going and is an expensive repair.

Start it up

Get the engine started, hopefully it’ll start first time from cold. You should still have the bonnet up – and listen to it carefully. Engines are of course meant to make noise, but use your ears carefully to listen for anything that doesn’t sound quite right. Grinding, Whistling, Screeching, Whining – they are always warning signs. Diesel engines are noisy buggers, but use your instincts to tell if it doesn’t sound quite right.


No! Not like that.. Once the engine is running, get inside the car and play with every single switch, button and knob! See if everything works as expected. With so many electric toys in newer cars, there is a lot more to go wrong. Check all the electric window switches, move the mirrors, wash the windscreen, fire up the Air Con, turn on the heating. Try everything in the car. Take your time. If there are any faults, it could be something you can use to barter the price down. Ideally, ask that it’s fixed before parting with cash though! Also, check the biting point of the clutch, if it’s stupidly high, you might have to factor in a clutch replacement in future repairs. Check that there aren’t any warning lights on the dash either.

Give the engine a rev too and look out the back – plumes of white or blueish smoke aren’t a good sign!

Check the Paperwork

Paperwork is GOOD – the more the better. Previous owners who have cared for the car will have the service book stamped. On top of that, there will probably be receipts for the any repairs / services. Take your time and check that it’s been well looked after. If there aren’t any stamps, or paperwork with the car, it’s a massive gamble. The most important thing to look out for are timing belts, these need changing at regular intervals. Some cars need them every 5 years, others 10 year. Some cars have chains instead of belts, these don’t USUALLY require changing.

You can quickly check when a car needs the belt changing on this site. If it’s due, it can be a costly job – and if it’s overdue the car will really need it looked at as soon as possible. A broken cambelt can cause MASSIVE damage to the engine.

There are also Apps / Websites you can use to check a car’s MOT history – take a look at advisory items on the last MOT, these might need looking at before the next one.

Take it for a spin

If everything is looking good – take it out for a drive. Don’t whack on the stereo, or natter too much to the salesperson. As you’re driving – LISTEN. Check there’s no grumbling from any of the tyres. Try and get through all the gears as you drive, keep an ear out for any strange noises. Let go of the wheel for a moment on a straight road, ensure the car doesn’t creep off to the left or right. Over-rev the engine too See how it feels as you drive, again – use your instincts, if something doesn’t feel right – bin it off.

Also, when you need to head back, make sure you give the reverse gear a try. It’s easy to forget.

Don’t feel pressured

Second Hand car dealers are often keen to make a deal. This can make them pushy – don’t feel forced to part with your money. Some will instantly start telling you how much interest they’ve had in a car. “Yeah, I’ve had the same chap on the phone about this car 5 times already” “Well if you don’t take it now, someone will definitely buy it later”. It’s probably bullshit – even if it’s not, who cares? You’re there, now. If you’re not feeling it – walk away, let the phone guy buy it!

Get a deal!

If you’re at this stage, and the car is looking good, get a deal on it. If the car is due a service, or has any niggles – get the car dealer to do it for you. Or, failing that enough money off so you can get it sorted yourself. Don’t pay the price on the ticket, even a percentage off is helpful.

Hopefully there’s some helpful advice in there, there’s lots to remember. Once you’ve looked at a few cars, you soon remember the things to check. Don’t be swayed by the first thing you see – there are hundreds of cars out there, you might miss something even better!

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