A beginner’s guide to buying a used car

Whether you are young and desperate for the taste of freedom that driving brings or need to get behind the wheel for family reasons, buying your first car can feel like a big decision. Plenty of people have seen the benefit of having their transport due to the Covid-19 pandemic, so you aren’t alone if you are making your first car purchase now.

Buying a car might seem intimidating, especially if you aren’t mechanically minded, but it is easily accomplished with a handy checklist:


Before you view

Get a few tools/handy items together to make your test drive that much easier and help spot any potential troublesome areas.


  • A smartphone. It’s unlikely you’d head off without it, but it will allow you to check the car’s MOT history online, get a valuation while you are out, and you can use the torch and camera to inspect behind the wheels and under the sills – those are spots that can hide rust.
  • A tire pressure and depth gauge. If you are buying a cheap car, then a full set of tires might well cost more than the car itself. The legal depth is 1.6mm, but you’d want more than that. A quick test is to put a 20p piece in the tread – if you can see any of the band around the 20p’s edge, then the tyres are probably illegal.
  • Some disposable gloves and a tissue or rag. You’ll want to check the oil, and this will mean that you can keep your hands clean and wipe the dipstick off.


When you arrive and before you drive


You might well be able to save yourself some time by doing these few checks before you drive the car.


  • Check the V5C (logbook) and make sure that the name and addresses match. Also, check the MOT and tax by putting the registration into the relevant sites. It needs to be taxed and have an MOT drive on the road, although a dealer might have trade plates that allow you to head out on a test drive legally.
  • Put that tread depth gauge to use and check the tyre tread depth and pressure. The pressures will be listed somewhere like the inside of one of the doors.
  • Look for damage on the wheels, especially on the rims if it has alloy wheels fitted.
  • Look for chips or cracks in the windscreen.
  • Walk around the car and look for any apparent damage, along the sides and low down.
  • Check the oil and make sure it is not below the minimum notch on the dipstick. It should be golden brown on a petrol car, and it may be black-brown in a diesel. There shouldn’t be any mayonnaise-like stuff around the filler cap, though – that’s a sign of trouble and should be one of your ‘test drive stops here’ points.
  • Check the radiator, and if there are any rusty bits around it, it might have overheated – another ‘walk away’ reason. To gain further insight you may want to grab an ODB2 scanner, here are the best OBD2 scanners in 2021.


When you fire it up


  • Look to see if smoke comes out of the exhaust when you fire it up – get a friend to come along or look in the mirrors.
  • If it doesn’t start easily then ask why
  • Look for all the lights on the dashboard when you turn it on. Several – the oil and battery ones – should come on when you start up and go out again. 
  • Listen out for any odd noises from the clutch, sniff for any odd smells and keep an ear open for any strange sounds when you are on the move – clonks, rattle or grinding noises.


When you’re driving


  • Check all the lights work.
  • Make sure the seat is comfy, and you can get the steering wheel and seatbelt in the correct position for you.
  • Try and go over a variety of roads – motorway or dual carriageway, town, speed bumps and roundabouts are good things to include
  • Drive it in reverse as well as forwards
  • Check for any play in the steering wheel
  • Make sure the brakes work – before you drive quickly and find out the hard way!




  • Look at the temperature gauge – make sure it is in the normal zone
  • Listen for any cooling fans
  • Check things like the satellite navigation, stereo and Bluetooth if they are fitted.
  • Make sure all the windows open properly.
  • Check the sunroof and make sure it is fitted and opens, and closes properly
  • Make sure the remote locking works if it is fitted
  • Check the heater, both at hot and cold
  • Double-check the paperwork


Photo by John-Mark Smith 



Mark Munroe is the Creator and EIC of ADDICTED. He's ADDICTED to great travel, amazing food, better grooming & probably a whole lot more!