Definitive used vehicle buying guide,
If you are buying a UK registered vehicle privately, from a dealer, auction or online, there are steps to reduce risk and increase your likelihood of buying a vehicle that is genuine, reliable and good value for money.
One such step is buying a CarVeto vehicle history check. At this stage, you already know if your potential new vehicle has Failed, Passed or produced a Warning status. The result also helps you see what, if anything, needs to be investigated further.
Alongside your CarVeto check, we suggest visual inspections of the vehicle and its documentation before you buy.
Our complimentary buying guide is designed to help you do that.
If you want further free, in-depth information about buying a used vehicle visit our sister website
The Used Car Guy
There are certain parts of a used vehicle that cannot be measured via a history check or visual inspection.
For example, the lifecycle of a water pump or alternator cannot be predicted aside from obvious external damage or unusual noises.
In fact, such vehicle parts can fail on a brand-new vehicle.
What car buyers can do is minimize risk by making knowledgeable, informed decisions when buying a second-hand vehicle.
Age & mileage
A well-executed vehicle purchase allows for age, mileage and price. Higher mileage vehicles in lower price brackets are bound to have wear and tear.
CarVeto uses wear and tear as a positive indicator to a genuine, used vehicle.
Aged-related defects can demonstrate a vehicle as being genuine when it lacks unusual gloss, shine or perhaps resprayed or replaced body panels that may have resulted from accident damage repair.
Expect the odd stone chip, curbed alloy wheel or torn seat lumbar when the vehicle is several years old and spent considerable time travelling up and down the motorway.
When viewing a used vehicle be conscious of the ‘polished finish’ the seller is presenting.
Imagine what the vehicle might have looked like before being painted, buffed and vacuumed prior to advertisement.
Be sceptical, but open-minded.
Car dealer facts
- As a rule of thumb, car dealers work to a minimum of £1,000 profit margin per vehicle they sell. This should be Net Profit after basic associated costs that may include:
- Dealers can earn money in several ways:
Profiting from the vehicle they are selling
Profiting from extended warranties, finance packages and insurances
Profiting from any part exchange vehicle that is included in a deal
- Many dealers buy vehicles from an auction, prepare as necessary, advertise and sell for profit
- Dealers are working in a competitive industry with profit margins being squeezed due to competition and private car buyers making the most of car auction purchases
There are pros and cons to a Motability vehicle purchase:
- Such vehicles are serviced under contract at supplying dealers
- Vehicles tend to be sold at lower mileages due to restrictions
- Motability vehicles can suffer excessive wear and tear due to wheelchair use and/or vehicle adaptations. A driver with physical impairments may result in a vehicle that has suffered unusual wear or stress points such as torn seats and dented/scratched door panels
- Excessive wear may result in a Motability vehicle selling at auction for a reduced price. Many dealers are attracted to this type of vehicle and attempt to buy for considerably less than average market value. Such cases may lead to excessive cosmetic or interior vehicle repairs. As mentioned, imagine how the vehicle appeared prior to preparation
General tips when buying from a dealer
- Be mindful of exaggerated part exchange valuations as they can indicate a vehicle as overpriced or has hidden issues. Dealers avoid giving away unnecessariness without good reason
- Where possible, view the vehicle without calling in advance to see if it is still for sale. It is best practice to hear an engine from stone cold before you buy it. A dealer may warm the engine first if they know you are on your way to view
- Be knowledgeable by having a list of comparative cars to view. Quickly let the dealer know you have other vehicles to view before you are prepared to buy
- Ask to be left alone whilst vetting the vehicle, to minimise distractions
- Buying a vehicle is often one of the biggest investments you can make. Take your time, research and take precautions always
- When part-exchanging an old vehicle ensures you complete the V5C yellow slip ‘notification of sale to a motor dealer’. Include the dealer business name, address, date of sale and VAT number. As the registered keeper, it is your responsibility to notify the DVLA that you are selling to a dealer
Accident Damage Analysis
Road traffic accidents are recorded via insurance companies or settled between drivers.
CarVeto history checks provide background information that is recorded on the MIAFTR Insurance Write-Off database. But, we cannot provide details of accident damage settled without insurance company knowledge.
Although a vehicle has passed our history check it may have endured minor or medium accident damage.
Vehicle panels repainted or replaced
Highlighting accident damage repair
Inspect nuts and bolts that attach panels to the main shell of the vehicle. Looking under the bonnet you will see arms that attach the bonnet to the rest of the vehicle:
- Is paint missing from the edges of the nuts or bolts?
Missing paint may indicate that a panel has been removed from the vehicle resprayed or replaced.
- Check the bonnet, front wings, doors, boot and rear panels
Most motorists would not buy a vehicle with replaced panels such as a bonnet and front wings
Open each door and look at the outer seam on the inside of the door checking for inconsistencies between one door and another. Are the doors the same finish on the inside edge? If there are differences the vehicle could have endured a new door skin.
Such damage may indicate accident repair or indicate further damage to the vehicle.
Wheel arch measurement
Fingers are ideal for measuring the space between the back of the tyres and the wheel arch. How many fingers can fit between the back of the tyre and the wheel arch?
Expect the same finger measurement on each wheel. If there are inconsistencies the vehicle may be out of alignment as result of a front or rear end accident and poor repair.
Imagine you were running a marble along the seam of adjoining panels i.e. bonnet to the wing. Would the marble disappear due to the space being wider at one end and thinner at the other?
Differences in adjoining panel space may indicate the panel has been removed and replaced due to poor accident damage repair.
Sand texture to panels or windows
Gently rub the palm of your hand across windows and body panels to feel for a sand or gravel type texture. Rough textures upon the outside of a vehicle may indicate resprayed panels where paint has over sprayed and blown against other parts of the vehicle.
Glance the sides of the vehicle (in direct sunlight if possible) to see if panel colours are a perfect match.
Metallic colours and especially silver can be challenging for a cosmetic body shop to match exactly. Off colour panels may be an indication of damage repair.
Rubber seal overspray
Examine the black rubbers that seal the doors and boot shut. Rubbers can be found attached to the body of the vehicle upon opening the doors.
Look for paint over sprayed on the black rubbers for indication of cosmetic repair.
Standing in front of the vehicle, compare the front headlamps and see if one is obviously newer than the other.
Whilst a faulty headlamp can be replaced it may also indicate front end side damage that has been repaired.
CarVeto searches and returns mileage data from the DVLA MOT history database. Whilst the information provided is accurate at the time of record there are instances where mileage can be artificially corrected to increase vehicle value.
Consistently ask the question: “is the interior and exterior of the vehicle in keeping with the claimed mileage?”
CarVeto records an average of 1 in 15 vehicles carrying a mileage discrepancy. Potentially, the vehicle you plan to buy may have mileage issues that are hidden from your CarVeto check.
Is the vehicle in keeping with age and presented mileage?
If the vehicle appears overly worn or tatty it may have a discrepancy.
Vehicles with 40,000 miles + should show signs of wear. Expect the odd stone chip, scratch or age-related scuff. Higher mileage vehicles will display more cosmetic defects.
Begin by checking the door mirrors as they give away a great deal about high mileage vehicles.
- Are the mirrors overly spent from many tens of thousands of miles up and down the motorway?
- Are they covered in scratches and tiny nicks?
- Are the mirrors faded or clattered?
- Are they fixed correctly to the rest of the vehicle?
Wheels and tyres
Tyre and alloy wheels or wheel trims can also say a lot about a vehicle. Examine the wheels for curbed or chipped radials.
Look out for ‘nail scratches’ around the driver and passenger door locks. This may indicate the remote central locking is faulty and can lead to an expensive repair.
Scratches around door locks can indicate a vehicle with high mileage.
Chips in a windscreen are not always easy to repair, especially with heated front screens where the filament becomes damaged and prevents the vehicle from demisting.
Cracks or excessive chips in the front screen (especially lots of tiny chips) may indicate a vehicle with high mileage.
Compare the outside edge driver’s seat bolster with that of the passenger seat. This area of the vehicle can be one of the first to show signs of excessive wear and tear.
Check seat stitching, dirt and further unusual wear, for indications of excessive mileage.
Look underneath fitted mats, particularly beneath the driver’s foot pedals for holes in the carpet.
Also, examine the peddle rubbers for excessive wear or breakage.
New peddle rubbers are an inexpensive replacement for the seller. New rubbers may also be an indication of a high mileage vehicle.
Steering wheel & gear nob
Carry out a visual inspection of the steering wheel for excessive wear or an unusually shiny finish. Worn steering wheels are an obvious sign of a vehicle that has travelled considerable mileage.
View the gear nob for missing stitching or unusual wear around the stick gator.
Examine the seat belt, particularly the driver’s side, for fraying or discoloured effects.
Check for a smell of damp or mould.
Excessively used vehicles may have suffered considerable water use during preparation/valeting and can be rather difficult to dry out.
You might also look for unusual condensation on the inside of the windows as another indication of deep clean valeting.
In just a few minutes you can check every electrical item on the vehicle is working correctly.
This is an important series of checks as dealers are less likely to agree to electrical repairs compared to mechanic ones.
The adage goes, ‘sorry, that is not covered under our basic warranty’.
Below is a full list of electrical components. Certain items will not be fitted to all makes and models:
Begin by starting the vehicle to ensure all the dashboard lights illuminate and switch off in around 5 seconds of a running engine.
Pay attention to:
Engine management light | ABS Lights | Airbag Lights
These are the more common warning lights for faults and costly mechanical repair. Should any of these lights remain illuminated after a few seconds of starting the vehicle, there is likely to be a significant mechanical issue.
After an ignition test switches the engine off but leaves the ignition on. This allows you to test electric items while ensuring the vehicle battery is reasonable. If the battery is poor and about to fail it’s likely to do so after these tests are carried out.
Ensure each of the following is working correctly:
- Electric windows front and rear – also check windows on their independent switches
- Electric sunroof
- Electric mirrors
- Electric seats
- Heated seats
- Central locking and remote central locking
- HornSide lights and headlights and main beam
- Wipers front
- Wiper rear
- Any additional features the vehicle may have
Restart the engine and test all features listed below:
- Power steering is light
- Air conditioning runs very cold (wait up to a minute for ice cold air) If the air-con is not working a re-gas may be required. If not, the condenser may be faulty which can be costly to repair.
- Electric handbrake
- Fog lamps front and rear
- Stereo system / Bluetooth etc
- Sat nav
- Cruise control illumination (depends on make and model of vehicle as some may need to be at speed for a warning light to activate)
- Cigarette lighter for the USB port
- Fuel gauge
- Rev counter
- Dashboard background illumination lights
Under the bonnet
CarVeto history checks cannot assure the health of a vehicle engine. Therefore, this section provides a vital step to avoiding an unreliable vehicle and expensive repair bills.
Checks only takes a few minutes to run.
Begin by checking that the engine is cold or slightly warm, to avoid risk of injury. If the engine is already hot it is worth asking the owner why.
Ideally, the engine will be stone cold to run the most effective engine checks.
Oil filler cap and dip stick
Open the oil filler cap and notice any creamy or mayonnaise substances on the inside of the cap.
Pull out the oil dip stick, clean with a piece of cloth, dip back into place and pull out once more. Look for the oil level, oil colour or any unusual creamy substances.
Expect dark oil on a diesel engine
Expect a transparent oil with petrol engine vehicles. If oil is darkened a little on a petrol vehicle a service may be due. Check when the vehicle was last serviced, via the service book.
Mayonnaise type substances in the oil indicate terminal problems.
If the oil level is below minimum levels via the dip stick it means the working parts of the engine are not properly lubricated and may lead to significant mechanical issues.
If the oil level is above the maximum levels via the dip stick it may indicate the engine is burning oil and the seller is regularly topping up.
Once more, ensure the engine is cool or cold before opening the expansion bottle. Expect a transparent liquid with yellow, pink or blue colouration, that signals antifreeze.
Look for white, creamy substances again, similarly to when dipping the oil stick.
Creamy substances within the expansion bottle or its cap lead to terminal mechanical issues.
Additional engine checks
Examine the engine block checking for any oil or water leaks.
Bend down under the front bumper and look under the engine for evidence of oil or water leaks.
Look at the ground under the engine for any dried oil stains that could indicate an oil leak.
View the battery to see if it looks recently replaced.
Most batteries last about 5 years. You may also see a battery looking glass that should signal a green colour. A green display indicates the battery is in good condition. A black display indicates the battery is near its end of life.
Final engine checks
Start the engine from cold listening for any churning, chiming, knocking or grinding noises. Anything that sounds out of the ordinary. Problematic engines may make unusual noises from cold.
Whilst the engine is running turn the steering wheel to full lock. Ensure there are no squeaking or whining noises whilst turning the steering wheel. Such noises can indicate a leaky or broken steering rack.
Boot and tyres
Checking the boot well
Checking the boot area correctly can be as important as the engine. Especially paying attention to the spare wheel or puncture repair kit, wheel brace and jack.
- Begin by opening the boot and feel and smell for any damp or moisture. If you sense any dampness the black, rubber seal around the boot area may be split/broken. Look at the rubber surround for signs of breakage
It could also mean the vehicle has been deep valeted and not dried correctly to avoid moisture and damp build up
- Check the underside of the boot mat as this area often holds water and may need drying out
Remove boot mat if possible for the next steps
- If the vehicle has a spare wheel remove it completely along with all the tools such as jack, wheel brace, spanners etc
- Look for water inside the boot well (where the spare wheel lives)
- Examine the spare wheel and tyre. Ensure the tyre is pumped and legal to go on the road
- If the vehicle is fitted with a “get you home” puncture kit ensure it is operation and ready to use. It is best to test the kit where possible
- Use the wheel brace and see that it fits the nuts holding the wheels to the vehicle
- Most modern vehicles are fitted with alloy wheels. Ensure there is a locking wheel nut and it fits correctly
Checking the tyres
Driving with damaged, faulty or illegal tyres can result in a roadside fine and insurance invalidation. Consider that tyres are the only part of a vehicle that are in contact with the road.
Tyres that are fitted to a vehicle must be ‘Fit for Purpose’ and be ‘free from any defects which might damage the road or endanger any person’.
Tyres must be correctly inflated too.
‘Fit for Purpose’ means that a tyre must:
- Be compatible with the types of tyres fitted to the other wheels
- Not have any lump, bulge or tear caused by separation or partial failure of the structure
- Not have a cut or tear and not have any part of the ply or cord exposed
Check tyre walls for:
- Splits, holes or chunks ripped out of the tyre sides
- Sizes of the tyres – they must all match i.e. 195/55/R15
- 1.6mm tyre tread is the legal limit (most tyres have a marker to indicate legal limit)
Your Veto Platinum check provides valuable information about the vehicle you are planning to buy. Included is owner information, date of owner transfer, VIN numbers, engine numbers, full MOT history and more.
Use the information provided and compare it with the documentation belonging to the vehicle.
Below are some important checks to safeguard your money:
- Can the seller show you the V5C registration document? You won’t be able to tax the vehicle without it
- Is the seller the registered keeper shown on the V5C? If not, why are they selling for someone else? Can they provide identification on behalf of the registered keeper? (if buying from a dealer the vehicle probably won’t be registered in their name)
- Does the registration document have a watermark?
- Are there any spelling mistakes on the registration document? Does the VIN (vehicle identification number), engine number and colour match the V5C logbook and your Veto Platinum check?
- Does the number plate match the V5C and Veto Platinum check?
- Has the VIN plate been tampered with?
- Do the VIN numbers etched on the windows, lights or body match the VIN plate, V5C and Veto Platinum check?
- Are there any scratches on the windows to remove etched-in marks?
- Does the seller have a current MOT certificate (if the car is more than three years old)? If so, does the information match your Veto Platinum check?
- When was the vehicle last serviced?
- Service history is easily falsified. Consider calling at least one of the workshops claiming to have serviced the vehicle (from the rubber stamps in the service book). You can provide the registration number and ask when the workshop serviced the vehicle and the work carried out
- Does the information correlate with the service book stamps?
- Many modern vehicles have a cam belt which will need replacing after a certain period and mileage (find manufacturers intervals at a supplying dealer)
- Has the cambelt been replaced and if so by whom, and when? It’s good to call the workshop who claim to have carried out this work
- Compare the MOT certificate information with your Veto Platinum. Check advisory items that may be costly on the next MOT test
- When buying from a dealer, insist on a 12-month MOT and no advisory items as a part of that agreement
- Compare the mileage at each MOT test for any anomalies
- Check for radio and key codes
- Are there spare keys with the vehicle? If so, do they unlock the vehicle, remotely? Do they start the vehicle?
- Is there a handbook kit? This can usually be downloaded if it’s not present
How to test drive a used vehicle
We advise test driving a used vehicle for around 20 minutes where you can achieve the national speed limit. It is best practice to drive the vehicle at slow speeds and across bumpy or uneven road surfaces.
The idea is to put the vehicle under stress and test its performance in such conditions.
Insurance: Buying privately means you are relying on your own insurance policy to cover you in case of an accident. Many fully comprehensive policies cover the third party to drive another vehicle. Check with your insurer.
When buying from a dealer expect to be covered under their trader’s policy.
Steps to take
- Start the engine and check once more that all the dashboard lights come on and switch off in just a few seconds
- Turn off the stereo, heaters and air-con so the vehicle is silent during your tests
- Listen for suspension noises, knocking noises or grinding noises. Anything that indicates wear or breakage to parts of the vehicle
- Pay special attention when driving over bumps and potholes, listening carefully for unusual noises
- Drive a short while on bumpy surfaces with the driver’s window open. It is surprising how different a vehicle can sound under stress
- Test the gearbox by listening to the vehicle in each gear. Is there grinding or whining noises in any gear? This can indicate gearbox bearings and potential expense
Get up to speed now and check for
- Steering vibrations (possible wheel balancing or perhaps a bent drive shaft)
- Pulling to the left or right on an even road (possible tracking issues)
- Brake hard and put the brakes under stress. Is there any vibration in the steering wheel under fierce braking? (brake discs may be warped and need replacing)
- Are there any grinding noises under braking (brake pads front/rear may need replacing)?
- Clutch test the vehicle
- High gear and fierce acceleration. A revving engine but little acceleration means the clutch is probably slipping. A rather costly repair
- Near the end of testing try the steering on full lock and pull away slowly. Check for clunking or crunching noises that indicate CV joint (constant velocity) wear and breakage. CV joints are failure items on a standard UK MOT test and rather expensive to replace. Turn the steering wheel to the opposite lock and carry out the same test
- After completing the test drive leave the engine ticking over. Check the temperature gauge is working and the vehicle is not running overly hot
- Depress the clutch pedal and listen for any dramatic changes in the sound of the engine. Whining noises or dramatic changes in sound may indicate clutch thrust bearing issues
- Next, switch off the engine and wait 10 seconds before restarting the vehicle. The engine should start the same both hot and cold.
- Pay special attention to diesel engines. If a diesel vehicle struggles to start when hot or cold there may be serious, expensive repair bills ahead
- Finally, at the end of the test drive ask yourself “how does the vehicle make me feel?”
If it feels good, you probably have the right vehicle.
If you enjoyed our complimentary guide we ask that you review CarVeto via our Trust Pilot bio.
Is the vehicle insured?
You need to check this, especially when buying privately.
An uninsured vehicle is held with illegal status unless recorded with DVLA as SORN
If buying from the trade the vehicle is most likely held on a traders policy and may not display via the askMID website. In such cases, we recommend that you ask the dealership whom you are buying from.
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