Churchill magazine

How to avoid a scam when buying a used car

Updated on: 24 September 2020

Cars in a showroom.

Buying a used car can be confusing. That’s why we’ve put together some simple tips to help you through the car buying process. Read on if you want to avoid buying a banger.

How to identify a possible dodgy deal

When buying a used car, it’s possible to avoid common scams and frauds by following this advice.

  • Arrange to view the car at the seller’s home (if buying privately). Most people selling stolen cars will try to avoid this.

  • Be sure to get a vehicle history check done. This will prevent you buying a write-off or a car with outstanding finance payments.

  • Make sure the data from the check matches both the V5 document and the car itself. If it doesn’t, there’s a chance the car could be stolen.

  • Check to see if the service history matches what the owner has told you. For example, if it has “only been used for the school run at home in Suffolk”, but several MOTs are from a garage in Scotland, then there could be more than meets the eye to the car or the seller.

More detailed checks of the car

There are a number of visual checks you can do, which don’t require any mechanical knowledge:

Exterior tests

  • Sides of the car – Are any panels wobbly? Are they misaligned? Take a look from each corner of the car. If the car doesn’t look straight, it may have been poorly repaired.

  • The roof – The panel should be even with no signs of rough paintwork. Cars that have had major smashes often need a twisted roof disguised.

  • Bonnet – Check for fresh paint, new panels, any uneven panels, or signs that a repair has taken place.

  • Boot – Lift the carpet and take everything out, including the spare wheel. Look for crude repairs and fresh paint as these are signs of a crash.

  • Paintwork – Does it look like an original factory finish? Drips, an orange peel effect, lots of blemishes, pockmarks and panels with different shades all indicate a re-spray for one reason or another. Is there documentation explaining why this work was done?

  • Excess paint - Look around window rubbers and under wheel arches. Excess paint gets on these areas when the car has had a rushed paint job.

  • Panel gaps – Look at the doors, bonnet and boot. Uneven gaps suggest they’ve been bolted back on after a crash.

  • Does the car sit evenly on the road? – If not, maybe the suspension’s sagging because it’s worn out?

  • Wheels and tyres – Uneven wear to the tyres suggests that the steering isn’t adjusted properly, or perhaps the wheels have been regularly whacked by a driver parking carelessly.

Interior checks

  • Make sure that everything works – Sit in the driver’s seat and press every switch and twiddle every knob. From windscreen wipers to electric windows, it’s essential to try everything.

  • Seat covers – Don’t assume covers have been fitted to protect the seats. It’s possible they’re hiding damage or serious wear. Take them off and see what lurks underneath.

  • Boot area – Expect wear and tear based on age, but it shouldn’t look like a builder’s van. If it does, the rest of the car may not have been treated so gently either.

  • General condition – Look at the trim and upholstery. Does it look fresh or rather worn? Decide whether the car looks as though it has covered as many miles as the seller says it has.

Check under the bonnet (with the engine cold)

If the car’s running when you arrive, ask to turn it off and wait for the engine to cool.

  • Dip stick – If the oil’s black, dirty or burnt, then it hasn’t been serviced properly. If the level is low, then the car’s either using lots of oil or maintenance has been poor.

  • The oil filler cap – This should be clean. Any black or white sludge is a sign of a possible issue.

  • Engine coolant – Undo the radiator cap and check the colour of the fluid. A brown colour and/or white deposits means there might be a problem.

  • Underneath the engine – Look for any signs of water or oil leaks.

  • Start the engine – A light metallic tinkle is fine, but a worn engine will crash, bang, click and clatter. Walk around to the exhaust and ask the seller or a friend to rev hard then back off suddenly. If there’s lots of blue smoke, rather than a light haze, this means serious engine wear.

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