Never overlook the sundry bits of paper that come, or rather should come, with a used car. Don’t be distracted by shiny paintwork or a loud stereo, ask to see the paperwork if any and start reading. If the seller makes excuses, don’t listen and look for another car. A car without any official documentation could cause you problems when it comes to registering it in your name, while a lack of service history could be hiding some awful truth.

Service history

Ideally what you want to see is a folder or a file, full of the car’s service history, which is a good indication that the previous owner was caring and meticulous. There should be receipts even for the most mundane items like tyres, exhausts and windscreen wipers in some sort of date order. Look for the car’s registration number or owner’s details on the receipts for confirmation that they relate to the car. Read these because one bill might also say that the car has been completely rebuilt, or that the speedometer was changed rendering the mileage reading inaccurate.

Look closely at the stamps. Did the same garage do all the work? Is there a phone number of the garage or garages? Call them and ask them if they remember the car, most have computer records and are happy to help. Do the stamps look as though they were done at the same time? If so, this could be a forgery.

Car brokers

Potentially this can give you the best of all worlds, low prices, no haggling and the reassurance of dealing with a UK franchised dealer. Can you trust a broker? Some have been around for decades, others since last week. A good sign is that the broker does not want any money upfront and indeed wants you to pay the dealer direct. Also ask where the car is coming from – for peace of mind you should always buy cars registered in the UK. Don’t pay in full because you could lose the lot if the broker goes bankrupt. Just because the company is called a broker it does not mean it is the best or lowest price. It must be below the quoted list price and when in doubt telephone a dealer and ask if they will sell a car at the broker’s price.

MOT certificate

A vehicle over three years old will require an MOT certificate. The certificate is a printed document with one signature on it and will have no hand written alterations. There will be a peel off section on the bottom left hand side. You can check the authenticity and also the recent MOT history online. You will need the registration number and the MOT test number. One way of confirming that the mileage is correct is to look through a succession of MOT slips and cross checking it with the reading in the car.

V5C document

Ask to see the vehicle registration document, known as the V5C. If the seller does not have it, be suspicious, it means that you cannot check the car’s ownership and identity details. Are there any spelling mistakes or alterations to the V5C? If so, it may be a forgery. Hold it up to the light as legitimate V5Cs have watermarks that read DVL. If a private sale, ask for proof of the seller’s identity and address such as a driving licence, passport or electricity bill. Check that the same name and address is the same as given on the V5C.

Make a note of the previous owner’s address, as it is a good idea to contact them to ask about the car – they may tell you that it was damaged, unreliable, etc.

Check the V5C against the car. Look at the vehicle registration mark (the number plate) and the vehicle identification number (VIN) – this can be found on a metal plate in the engine compartment, usually where the bonnet closes at the front, and stamped into the bodywork under the bonnet and the driver’s seat. Some cars even have the VIN etched on their windows, headlamps or mounted behind the windscreen at the passenger side of the dashboard. Make sure they haven’t been tampered with.

Engine number, stamped on a prominent part of the engine. These numbers on the car should be the same as those on the V5C. Even if they match, have the numbers been tampered with?

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