Checklist for buying used cars – Part one

Whilst buying a brand new car is the way to go for many, there are thousands of used cars bought every day. If you sell your car online and are looking around for the best deal, going second hand can be an excellent way of grabbing a bargain, as you will get more car for your coin.

Car buyers working on a car to keep it in its best condition

But how do you know if you are getting a good deal? There are plenty of things to check to ensure you aren’t getting the rough end of the stick. The first golden rule is to buy with your head and not your heart, as cars bought on impulse can cost you dearly in the long run.

Below, we have taken a look at a few key areas to check when you are scoping out your potential vehicle. Keep these in mind next time you go car shopping, and you should avoid being ripped off.

Bodywork checks

As cars get older, their chances of being exposed to damage, accidents and rust increases. This means that when it comes to buying a used car, you should check as much of it as you can, inside and out.

Repairs on a vehicle aren’t necessarily a bad thing, as long as they have been completed properly.

Firstly, you should check for rust on all metal body panels. Rust will start by bubbling under the paint, but if left untreated, it can force the paint off and rust through. Untreated stone chips and scratches can also trigger rust.

Special attention should be paid to the wheel arches, especially the edges of the inside of the wheel arches, as the water, salt and general road grime can culminate to cause rust. The panels that run under the doors on both sides – known as the sills – should also be checked.

Crash damage

Keeping an eye out for crash damage, and more importantly, evidence of poor repairs is key. In daylight, you should check that the body panels are of the proper colour, and keep an eye out for ‘overspray’ on glass, plastic trim and rubber seals.

Take a look at the gaps between each panel, and ensure that the thickness of the gap is uniform right around the car. If it isn’t, there is a chance that the car has had a replacement panel at some point in its history, or has received a large enough hit to knock the chassis out of alignment.

Make sure you pay special attention to the front and rear of the car, as this is where low-speed shunts often occur. To check the rear, lift up the carpet in the boot and take a look at the panels. They should be straight and ripple-free – if not, it could be an indicator of previous damage. The same goes with under the bonnet, as bent panels could indicate a previous front-end crash.

Checking the engine

As the heart of the car, the engine goes through a large amount of wear and tear, meaning a number of components within it can be put under strain. Keep an eye on these factors when checking engine health.

Head gasket

The head gasket is a thin part which sits between the upper and lower parts of the engine, which prevents engine oil or coolant from entering the engine’s cylinders.

A head gasket which has blown means it has begun to leak, which can cause a variety of problems for the car, including loss of power, smoky exhaust, rough sounding engine or complete engine failure, so it is important to check it.

To do so, wait until the engine is cool and remove the oil cap from the top of the engine. If you see white or light brown sludge, around the consistency of mayonnaise, you are probably dealing with a blown head gasket. At this point, you should walk away from the deal as it is tough to know what other damage the problem has caused.


Perhaps one of the easiest things to spot on a car are leaks. When you view a used car, check underneath it for signs of an oil leak. If there is oil on the tarmac under the car, or lots of sludge (caused by road dirt sticking to the oily underside of the car) under the car, it has, or has had an oil leak.

Pop open the bonnet and check all around the engine for other leaks. Oil leaks are usually brown or black (if the oil is older), coolant is usually green, yellow or pink, and gearbox and power steering fluid is a reddish brown. Gearbox fluid if also quite thick, while power steering fluid is much thinner.

If you spot a leak, you have a few options. You could ask for money off the price and get it fixed yourself, or tell the seller to fix it as part of the deal. Alternatively, you can walk away from the deal completely and look for another car. Without it being seen by an expert, you cannot be sure of the extent of the damage, or what it will cost to fix it.

Thus concludes the first part of our used car buying checklist. Stay tuned for part two, where we will look at the interior, as well as checking the exhaust fumes of the car, amongst other things.