Essential Tips For Buying A Secondhand Car

Car speedometer
Don't get carried away with the excitement of buying a new car, make sure you focus on its service history and condition

Secondhand cars can offer outstanding value for money — but they can be money pits or even dangerous, too.

Given that most modern vehicles are fairly reliable if they are correctly maintained and not abused, the quality of a secondhand car is mostly determined by its previous owners.

I’ve previously written a simple guide to buying a car, but this week I came across a set of secondhand buying tips I thought were worth sharing with you.

The tips come from Simon Elstow, who his head of training at the Institute of Advanced Motorists, and I reckon they provide an excellent summary of the key things to check — although I would also suggest an HPI Check if the seller isn’t providing one.

  • Do your research. The RAC and both offer a vehicle database which will have a report on “what to look for” for when you inspect the car. Check the mileage and MOT history at
  • Blown turbo chargers, snapped timing chains, smoking engines – all these and more can result from delaying an oil change or using the wrong oil. Ask for the service history and take time to look through it. If a service is due, negotiate on the price, but if the history’s missing, walk away.
  • Dashboard lights check all the systems such as ABS and stability control. Make sure they all light up when you turn on the ignition and go out when you start the engine. Check the handbook if you’re not sure you’ve seen them all.
  • After starting the engine, listen carefully for the first few seconds – any knocks or rattles are bad signs.  Grey exhaust smoke is a sign of a worn engine – check it after your test drive when the engine is hot.
  • As well as checking the suspension by listening for rattles or clunks over rough roads, try stopping at different rates – gently and rapidly. The engine should never stall as the car stops and the revs shouldn’t drop very low and then pick up to the right idle speed.
  • Reject a car if you have any concerns. Cars are too often an emotional rather than a rational choice. If in doubt, sleep on it and make a decision in the morning.

After all, buying a car is a big decision, as Simon points out:

“Getting a new car, whether it’s brand new or new to you, is an exciting time. It’s also an expensive time, so the last thing you want is to pick a dud.

Do your preparation before you go so you know what you’re looking for. If you’re not confident take a friend, get it checked at a garage, or ultimately walk away.”

You can find more motoring tips along with traffic updates and other useful live information on the IAM’s new website,

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