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What to look out for when buying used cars

There are some great bargains to be had when shopping for a car on eBay, however there are also some really dodgy cars out there! Why not have a flick through my guide; hopefully it will give you a few ideas on what to look for!


Work out exactly how much money you can afford to spend BEFORE you bid!! It all too easy to longingly look at some of the cars on here and bid before really looking into it!!

Be aware of the current "going rate" of the car you are interested in before bidding by checking guides available from most newsagents, or online that list the value of most used cars. It’s very easy to get drawn into a bidding war with someone and this can make the price rise far and above what its actually worth!


Rather than just plunging in and bidding on a car, why not take the time to travel and look at it first?? Ask the seller if it’s ok to come and view before you bid! No decent seller will mind!

If the seller agrees and you turn up to view never bid or buy it without test driving it yourself. I can understand the seller being reluctant to let someone drive his Ferrari or other high performance car, but for your average family car it shouldn’t really be a problem.  First make sure you are insured to drive it (and show the seller proof) Take along your photographic drivers licence. If possible, take the car out on a drive that covers a mixture of conditions such as motorway driving, slow urban driving and some twisty roads. If the car has a great stereo fitted, fantastic, but always make sure it is off whilst you are driving so you can hear any unusual noises. When test driving the car the steering should be consistent with no tendency to pull either left or right. The car should not swerve when the brakes are applied hard at speed.  If it does, it may have seized or leaking wheel cylinders or callipers. If the car judders or you can feel shaking through the steering wheel when you apply the brakes this suggests warped front brake discs.  Look through the wheels at the brake discs for heavy scoring or unpolished or rusted areas when you stop. Ask the seller lots of questions about the car. Can he open the boot? Does he know how many MPG it gets? Can he operate the air conditioning? Does he know how to pop the bonnet? If not…the car may not be his! Always meet at the seller’s house and when you check the V5 log book later make sure the address is correct!


The engine should pull strongly and cleanly with no misfiring. Listen for knocks from the suspension over poor road surfaces which could indicate worn suspension. Make a note of the cars handling, if it is vague, feels like you are driving a boat or bouncy, suspect worn shock absorbers or springs. If the steering feels heavy the tyres may be worn or under inflated. Find a large open space and drive the car round both left and right on full lock. Listen for any knocking, or squealing noises from the power steering belt (if fitted).





Always have a look round the car in good light.  I would never go along during the evening. If a seller insists the only time you can view it is when it’s dark then there is a possibility he may have something to hide.

Look for corrosion or rust.  Rust is probably the biggest killer of cars over five years old. I used to have a 1996 Ford Fiesta. That year of Fiesta suffered badly with the dreaded rust. Surface blisters can be relatively harmless and easily treated but corrosion coming from the inside of the body panels is more serious.

Look for rust at the top and rear of the front wings, along the side sills, below front and rear bumpers and the bottoms of the doors.

Sometimes a rust blemish on the paintwork can indicate more serious corrosion underneath.  Press the panel gently with your thumb.  If there is a cracking noise it indicates advanced corrosion.

Walk around the car and look along the doors and wings from each of the four corners.  Any smash repairs will show up if they have not been well done.  You will see ripples or a change in the texture of the paint if there is a lot of body filler underneath.  Take a small magnet with you, it will be attracted to metal but not to plastic body filler.  Look also for variations in the paint colour.

Water stains in the boot, around windows, on carpets and around the sunroof opening may indicate leaks. Also be wary of any car that’s packed out with air fresheners! People can do this to mask the smell of soaking wet and rotten carpets!  Be wary of freshly applied under seal under the car, it could be hiding badly rusted metal.

Look at brake pipes, if they are rusty, it could be dangerous. Check any rubber brake hoses for leaks, splits, bulges and tears.



Look under the carpet between the front and back doors for signs of welding or repair in case two halves of different cars have been welded together (cut and shut), which is extremely dangerous.


Sit in the car and have a good look around. Check the odometer, if the numbers are out of line the mileage may have been altered.

Look to see if the  mileage corresponds with the general condition of the car.  A worn brake pedal and wear marks on the gear lever indicate a car that might have done more than 60,000 miles.  A worn or sagging driver's seat and carpet are other signs of high mileage.

A very low mileage may indicate the car might have been left unused for long periods or used only for short journeys.  Both can cause engine problems.  A car that has been regularly used and serviced is a better bet. Personally I wouldn’t entertain a car that’s had ‘One elderly lady owner’ or a car that has ‘Only been used for the school run’


Pop the bonnet and have a look at the general state of the engine.  A dirty engine and surrounding area suggests that the car hasn't been well looked after and that routine servicing may have been neglected.  A sparkling clean engine could have been steam cleaned to disguise problems such as oil leaks etc. However a lot of car enthusiasts spend ages cleaning their engines. You will soon realise if the car is that persons pride and joy by the condition of it overall.

Before starting the engine remove the dipstick and check the colour of the oil.  If it is very black the car has probably not been recently, or regularly, serviced. Diesel engines however will usually have very black oil, this is quite common and is not a problem unless it is really thick and gloopy. Also check for beige "mayonnaise" on the dipstick and under the oil filler cap, a possible symptom of head gasket leakage. Look into the engine through the oil filler cap hole. If you can see any part of the engine, it should look clean and not covered in black gunge.

Check the quantity and colour of coolant.  It should be green or blue not rusty red. However a lot of cars now have Red antifreeze so don’t confuse the two. An engine that has been run without any antifreeze may have problems as antifreeze also inhibits corrosion. Have a look under the cap to make sure it is clean and not covered in oil.

Listen to the engine starting up from cold.  The oil light should go out soon after the engine starts, if it doesn't there may be engine wear. Make sure there is actually a bulb fitted to this light, some sellers will remove it if the light keeps coming on!

Heavy rattling or knocking noises shortly after start up could indicate wear of the crankshaft and big-end bearings.  Listen for clattering or light knocking noises from the top of the engine which indicate camshaft wear.

Turn on the ignition and press the accelerator.  Check for black or blue smoke from the exhaust.  Blue smoke comes from burning oil and shows engine wear, whereas black smoke is un-burnt fuel and has many possible causes.  Check for smooth idling when warm. If the rev counter goes up and down after the engine has warmed up when you are not touching the accelerator it can point to a blocked fuel line or a fuel injector.

Keep an eye on the temperature gauge or warning light which may indicate overheating. Let the car engine idle until the automatic cooling fan kicks in, and then listen for any knocking from the fan itself.

Finally check for oil leaks.


If the car has a manual gearbox, check the clutch operates smoothly and all gears engage easily.  If the gear change stiffens as revs increase the clutch may be worn.  Check for clutch slip by driving the car up a hill in top gear. If the engine revs increase without changing gear this points to a slipping clutch. You should be able to smell burning as well if this is happening.

When driving change down into each gear from a higher speed than normal to test the synchromesh.  If the gears crunch, or if the gearbox whines excessively, you may be looking at a new gearbox

If the car has automatic transmission check the transmission dipstick for correct fluid level, this is best done with the engine hot and idling.  Not all Autos have one however.

When driving an auto check that the transmission changes down into each gear properly under full acceleration and at the right time. If there is a sports button, check that is working. When the sports button is pressed this helps an auto when overtaking.


Check shock absorbers by pushing down hard on the bodywork at the corners and letting go.  The car should rebound once just past the level position, then return without any grinding or knocking. Anymore bouncing than this indicates the shock absorbers need replacing.  Look for any leaking oil from any of the suspension struts.


Rock the steering wheel gently from side to side whilst watching the front wheel, there should not be any noticeable delay between steering wheel and road wheel movement.  Excessive free play or any knocking will mean a failed the MOT.


The brake pedal should offer good resistance when pressed and not sink most of the way to the floor when applied.

If a servo is fitted, check that it works by pumping the brake pedal several times, holding the pedal down and starting the engine.   You should feel the pedal creep down as it operates. Try pulling on the handbrake and driving off. If it is working correctly you shouldn’t be able to!


Check the tyres thoroughly!! Some tyres on performance cars cost a fortune to replace!!  There should be more than 2mm of tread all over the tyre, whether you are looking at a big performance car or a Ford Fiesta! The legal limit is 1.6mm in the U.K. but in my opinion that’s not really enough! The sidewalls should not be cracked or damaged.  If you are viewing a people carrier like a Ford Galaxy then check the tyres are the uprated version as these vehicles are heavy and require a reinforced tyre. Uneven wear on treads suggests steering, tracking or suspension problems. Beware of a car that’s not in particularly good condition that has 4 brand new tyres on it. Some sellers will fit 4 new cheap tyres to a car to hide any serious and expensive steering or suspension faults! It’s always good to check the spare. If it has been used and worn unevenly it’s often a good indication of problems.


If you have driven the car, checked it over and still like it here are a few more things to bear in mind!

Ensure the MOT certificate is valid and stamped. It used to be easy to forge an MOT certificate but it’s a bit harder now. However a lot of MOT stations get broken into and blanks stolen. If you are in any doubt you can contact VOSA. Ask to see service and repair history and well as repair receipts. Most people keep them, if the seller cannot produce them then they may not exist!!!

Check the mileage on the odometer tallies with service and repair receipts.

Ask to see the V5 (commonly known as the log book). If the car is about 5 years old yet it has had lots of former keepers you have to wonder why! Check the sellers name and address is correct.

There are some good cars to be had on eBay. I hope this guide helps you. If you did find it helpful please let me know.


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