One of the biggest worries cars buyers have is the fear of being stuck with a potentially dodgy deal.The good news is by taking your time to check the condition of the car, you can usually spot if something’s amiss.Auto Trader’s Stuart Milne shows you how to avoid buying a bad car.

The golden rule is – never view a car in the dark or in the rain, as weather can hide a multitude of sins. You’ll never spot scratches, dents or rust in the rain, and a lack of light means many other potential problems will go unnoticed.

• When you arrive at your viewing, take a look around the car before you ring the doorbell. This will give you a chance to look at it without being distracted by the seller.
Outside• Firstly, take a walk around the car and take it all in. Unless you’ve been told otherwise, the car should be in a driveable state.• You should always start the car with a cold engine, as this is when it’s easiest to spot starting problems or excessive smoke. Place a hand on the bonnet – if it’s warm, it’s been run recently, so let it cool for a few hours. If need be, come back later.• Let the seller show you the car, but don’t let them distract you from carrying out your own checks.• Crouch down in front of each front wheel and look along the length of the car. Both front wheels should be directly in front of the rear – if they’re not, it could mean the car has been in a crash with a slightly twisted chassis. This is known as crabbing.

• The wheels should sit neatly in the wheel arches, equally on both sides.

• Check the gaps between the panels are equal. Run your finger along each to feel if the gap is bigger at one end than the other. Uneven panel gaps occur if a car has been in a crash, or if panels have been refitted badly.

• Look carefully at each panel for ripples or overspray – where excess paint has flecked onto other trim, such as window seals or bumpers.

• Look closely at each tyre – including the spare. Watch for uneven wear, which could mean suspension damage, nicks and gouges. Tyres are expensive, so if they need replacing, use this as a bargaining tool.

• The minimum tread depth is 1.6mm for the whole way around the tyre. Use a tread depth gauge to see how much is left – the more, the better.

• Check under the car, particularly at the front and back, under the bonnet and under the carpet in the boot for signs of crash damage. Panels should be flat, and free from signs of welding or patching up – if they’re not, it’s probably had a shunt.

• Most shunts are minor, low-speed crashes, but you should take extra steps to be sure there aren’t any more serious problems.

• Obviously rust is a bad sign, so keep your eye out all the time, especially around the wheel arches where moisture, grime and winter road salt can increase the speed of deterioration.


There are plenty of things to check inside, as well, most of which can be a good indication of mileage and the amount of care and attention it’s had lavished on it.

• Look around the cabin – a 50,000 mile car shouldn’t have a worn or sagging seat or a steering wheel, gearknob or pedal covers which have been worn by lots of use.

• Make sure all the seatbelts work – they could indicate a previous crash or general neglect. They’re a legal requirement too – if the car is being sold with a new MOT certificate, alarm bells should be ringing as these should have been checked.

• Look closely at the dashboard binnacle (the bit which houses the speedometer and other dials). If the car has an older, mechanical-style milometer which turns as you drive, make sure all the barrels are aligned correctly – turning these back is the oldest trick in the book. If there are fingerprints in there, ask why – there could be an honest explanation.

• This is harder to check on more modern models which have electronic milometers – the miles can be turned back simply by connecting a laptop and entering a new mileage.

• Either way, make sure the mileage tallies with old MOT certificates and service history.

• Make sure all the dashboard and steering column panels are bolted on correctly – they could point to a clocked car, or one which has been stolen, particularly if there are glass fragments on the floor.

• Don’t be too quick to reject a car – it can be tricky to bolt a dash back together after changing a blown bulb in the instrument panel.

• Make sure all the switches work – including the heater or air-con – and check the front seats move about properly.

• Locate the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN). You’ll find this riveted in the engine bay. There are few reasons why this should have been removed, so be suspicious if there are signs of tampering, you could be looking at a clone – a stolen car given the identity of a write-off.

• The VIN number will also be stamped in the floor beside the driver or passenger seat. A clone will have another number welded on, and are usually quite easy to swap.

• Modern cars also have the VIN recorded at the base of the windscreen.

• Check all the numbers match the logbook and your Car History Check documents – if they don’t, walk away.

Under the hood

Next check under the hood – any problems you miss here could cost you a packet, so be thorough.

• Check for signs of oil leaks around the top of the engine, but don’t forget to check underneath as this will be where it’s most obvious. Road grime can stick to oil, making it even more noticeable.

• Remove the dipstick, wipe it with a cloth and replace for a couple of seconds. Pull it out again and look at the amount of oil – it should be near the top; if not, the owner hasn’t been looking after it.

• The oil should be a golden color – sludgy black oil is a sign the engine could be damaged.

• Look around the oil filler cap for a white mayonnaise-like substance – this is an indication of a damaged head gasket which can be very expensive to put right.