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What to look for when buying a used car

Our handy checklist will prepare you for going to buy a used car. We highlight the main things to look out for and why they’re important.

Use our handy checklist to make sure you've covered everything before buying a used car

Use our handy checklist to make sure you've covered everything before buying a used car

It’s no secret that buying a used car can save you a lot of money. But, nevertheless, it still pays to be savvy when choosing your new set of wheels.

You might initially have more change in your back pocket than if you were to buy new, but if you choose poorly, you could start facing repair work and maintenance bills not long after purchase.

It’s always important to remember that a used car is never going to be as perfect as the day it was made, but some problems caused by wear and tear are harder to fix than others.

There are certain things you can look out for to make sure you’re purchasing a used car that’s going to be reliable and safe. This handy checklist will keep you on the right track.

If you can, do some online research first and go and check out the car in person. Take this checklist with you, ticking things off as you go.

Initial checks

Before you take the car for a test drive, tick off the following sections to make sure it’s up to scratch.


Reputation and reliability


Aesthetic condition


Engine and transmission



The first step to take when looking for a used car to buy is whether or not you can afford it. There are plenty of reliable used cars available for reasonable prices, but you must look at your personal circumstances and weigh up the options. If you’re taking a car out on finance, think about your other monthly outgoings and consider the length of the contract term. As a rule of thumb, your total outgoings shouldn’t exceed 36% of your gross income.

Things to look out for: Purchasing the car is just the first step. Make sure you consider the car’s total running costs as well. If you’re buying a rust bucket for a few hundred pounds, it might not turn out to be the bargain you thought it was when you consider the cost of repairs.

I'm confident I can afford the car

Reputation and reliability

Do your research. Buying a car is a big commitment and you want to make sure you get it right. While a new model of car may have glowing reviews, you might find that older versions of the same model were less reliable. A good place to start for impartial advice is With reviews of both new and old cars, you’ll find a helpful database of just about every vehicle that’s on the market.

Things to look out for: Safety ratings, recalls, maintenance costs and mechanical faults.

I'm happy with the car's reputation


Low mileage and low cost is the ideal combination, but of course you can’t always have it all. Be sure to compare the mileage with your reputation and reliability research – a well maintained model with no notable mechanical faults and high mileage is going to be a better bet than a car with less miles but lots of reported issues.

Things to look out for: If you’re buying privately be wary of any cars with suspiciously low mileage for their age. Car clocking is still possible, even with digital odometers. Make a note of the mileage before you buy the car to use as evidence if needed.

I’m happy with the car’s mileage

Aesthetic condition

Walk around the car and make sure there are no big scratches or dents. You should also check the paintwork, looking out for an uneven finish or a change in colour. Don’t let minor scuffs put you off too much, though. Small blemishes can be easily removed at a repair centre and are cheaper to fix than a mechanical issue.

The interior can often be revealing. A car with low mileage is unlikely to have a driver’s seat that looks like a poorly-stuffed punchbag. Check the steering wheel and inner door handles too for excessive use.

Things to look out for: Steer clear of severe rust damage. Even if it looks like repair work has been done, once corrosion has started it is difficult to stop. Looking at the body panels, any uneven paintwork could be a sign of previous body repairs.

I’m happy with the car’s aesthetic condition


Not everyone likes the same car, that’s why there are so many variations on our roads. It’s important to make sure you’re happy with the specific car you’re going to buy. Hop in the driver’s seat and make sure you’re satisfied with things like the ride height, head and legroom and visibility. Does it have the features you need? Check out the centre console for things like sat nav, USB ports or DAB radio – whatever your priority is.

Things to look out for: Give the car a good sniff. Strong odours can cling to fabric interiors. If you’re a non-smoker, for example, you might want to make sure there’s no stench of tobacco inside – it’s not easy to get rid of.

I feel comfortable in this car

Engine and transmission

This is perhaps the most important step, as engine repairs can be expensive. Firstly, pop the bonnet and check for any leaks, burnt oil or antifreeze smells, signs of poor repair work or any modifications. Engine or radiator leaks can be a sign of a serious issue. Look underneath the car as well to make sure everything is nice and dry.

Once you’re satisfied with the way the engine looks, it’s time to try it out. Once you’ve started the engine, listen for any rattles or loud noises and check there’s no smoke coming from the exhaust.

Things to look out for: While looking at some engines can reveal obvious issues, others aren’t as clear. If they’re available, check the car’s records for signs of things like previous accidents or flood damage and for proof that the car has been through regular maintenance.

I'm satisfied with the engine's condition


Check the tyres for any bulges, cuts or worn-out tread. If the tyres show signs of severe damage, such as large bulges, they will need to be replaced. Replacing a full set of tyres can be costly, depending on what brand you decide to go for, so it’s good to check before you buy the car so you can factor any repairs or replacements into your budget.

Things to look out for: With tyres, you should pay close attention to how the tyres match up. Have they worn out unevenly? If so, this could be a sign of wheel alignment issues.

I’m happy with the car’s tyres

Test drive

Once you’ve ticked off all of the main points on our checklist, you can then get in the driver’s seat and take the car for a spin.

But don’t get too excited – there are still plenty of things to be thinking about!

Warm up the engine

Often, problems don’t become evident until a vehicle is properly warmed up. Make sure you drive the car for a good enough amount of time to get a real feel for it. If you’re test-driving a car from a dealer, you should be allocated around 20–30 minutes which will be plenty of time to warm the engine up fully.

Take a route that suits you

It’s important to drive the car as you normally would. If you’re visiting Arnold Clark to take a test drive, just ask a member of our sales team about different route options and they’ll happily recommend one that suits your lifestyle.

Drive at higher speeds

If possible, take the car on a motorway during your test drive. Lots of issues such as vibrations, alignment issues and noisy wheel bearings are only evident at higher speeds.

Our top tips for test drives goes into a little more detail of how to get the most out of your test drive before you commit to buy.

It’s a deal!

If you’ve done your research, given the car a thorough check and taken your test drive and you still think the car you’re looking at is a winner – go for it!

Still looking for inspiration? We have a stock of over 18,000 used cars on our website. With that much choice, you’re bound to find something you like.

If you’re unsure what would suit your needs, just find your local branch and give them a call, our sales executives have a wealth of knowledge and are able to offer expert advice.

About the Author

Sophie McGraw

Staff writer at Arnold Clark