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Crucial things to check before buying a car

Women with car breakdownYou may have just found your dream car, with a great price tag and great looks: but don’t let your heart rule your head. Failing to make some basic checks could prove costly.

Pacing beside the vehicle, rubbing your chin and kicking the tyres may give the illusion that you know what you’re looking for in a new motor but for many buyers, the used-car market is a minefield.

Unless you’re a qualified mechanic, problems can be almost impossible to spot so it’s good to get clued up beforehand.

Most motorists know to check for visible damage, the condition of the tyres, signs of rust and any unusual noises during the test drive, along with the service history. But what about the spare tyre? Or extras like cupholders? And what’s the best weather to view a vehicle?

It might seem trivial but these often overlooked factors can quickly turn a dream motor into a heap for the hapless buyer.

We asked around the Confused.com office and came up with some top tips you may not have considered before.

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Cup holders

IT operations analyst Dave Trickey said: “I made the mistake in the past of buying what appeared to be a sound car second hand car, only to discover that there was nowhere to put my supersized coffee!

“It sounds like a minor thing, but actually once you have poured hot coffee over your lap while driving you realise how important a cup holder can be.

“First thing I check when looking to buy a car now is does it have a cup holder and how easily accessible it is?”

Spare tyre

It’s all very well checking the tread on the main tyres but what about the spare? It’s usually in the boot so first of all, check it’s there. Secondly, check its condition. If it’s bald or damaged, negotiate a discount because it’ll need replacing.

Also check whether the jack/wrench/tools are there. Some cars have wheel bolts which if they are lost means you can’t change the tyres.

What’s the weather like?

Picking the right day to view a vehicle can be crucial. In the same way that it’s not a good idea to view a car in the dark, it’s best to avoid rain. Pete Dobbinson, auditor, warns: “Never go and view a car when it’s raining, most sellers will give their car a good polish, and raindrops sat on polish provide very good cover for scratches.”

However, a bit of rain can be good for testing things like windscreen wipers, seals and the car’s grip. So, where possible, try and test-drive a couple of times in rain and shine. Or find ways to test the seals, even if it’s dry.

Air-con and heating

Blast the heat up, then blast the air-conditioning on to cool. Check they both work. You don’t necessarily check that in a quick test drive but it can be fatal to your enjoyment of the purchase if these are broken.

The same applies to the stereo too – make sure it’s working along with the CD player, if there is one.

Look under the surface

Checking the engine is one thing but many buyers neglect to check under the mats in the footwells. It’s a great place for rust to hide, which can be a costly problem if it’s not spotted early.

Make sure the car matches the description

This sounds obvious but if you spot a scratch or a dent that wasn’t mentioned in the advert, make sure you negotiate a discount. Many buyers won’t ask but it’s a fair request if the car doesn’t live up to the advert.

Check the locks

If the car has an immobiliser locking system, test the key. Is it temperamental? Does it work in the door as well as remotely? Does the spare key work as well? Also, check the petrol cap and back doors and make sure the boot opens both with a key and any release catch in the car.

Don’t go it alone

Take someone with you so they can put all lights and indicators on while you walk around checking that they work.

“Get your friend to rev the engine hard, whilst you stand at the back and look for any blue or black smoke coming from the exhaust, if it does, it means the engine is burning too much oil,” adds Dobbinson.

And in general, an extra pair of eyes will help you spot any faults and encourage you to stay level-headed even if you fall in love with the car.

The test drive

Drive the car over a few uneven roads during the test drive, and check there are no clunks. These can suggest a loose exhaust or damaged anti-roll bars.

Sit in the back of the car too. Chances are you never will do again but it’s good to check the car from the rear and see if the seats are in a good condition. Likewise, If it’s a three-door, check the seats flip forward ok and how easy is it getting in and out the car.

For the more mechanical aspects involved with certain models it’s best to consult a website such as Used Car Expert, which has lots of good advice about individual cars.

Alternatively, get an AA/RAC check if you’re not sure. This will cover the bodywork, paintwork, interior, visible mechanical and electrical components and equipment as well as a road test. However, the specifics of the check and the price will vary depending on the age of the car.

Please watch our 30-second guide for more information.



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Lois Avery

Lois Avery

Lois joined Confused.com in 2010 after working for Dyson and as a local newspaper reporter in Wiltshire. After a year writing financial journalism at Confused.com, Lois won the 2011 'most promising newcomer' at the BIBA journalist of the year awards.

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