Learning to inspect a car is a skill that takes practice. Although a test drive is a good way to gain an overview of mechanical condition, when you’re not able to (at an auction preview for example) you’ll need to rely on your powers of observation and deduction. Fortunately there are a few tricks of the trade that help you spot potential weaknesses, and work out what a car is worth to you.

Mindset

Keep two questions in mind when performing a car inspection. The first is simply about the outward appearance of the car. Does it match what you’re expecting from the seller’s advert?

The second is more complicated – it’s to do with spotting visual clues which reveal something about the previous owner’s attitude to their car. Do they have a tendency to overlook minor ongoing problems? Become skilled at spotting discrete signs of neglect, and you could save yourself a lot of money. These clues aren’t obvious to most novice buyers. Sadly it’s these people who end up making expensive purchases that they later regret.

Now let’s look at some essential visual checks when you come to inspect a car.

Presentation

This might seem superficial, but the care gone into a car’s presentation may tell you how well it’s been cared for. People who care about cars usually look after them mechanically as well a cosmetically – but not always. Also beware those dealers that buy an ordinary car on the cheap, give it a valet and a quick paint job and expect its value to be doubled. Buyers fall for this too often.

MoT history

You can discover a car’s MoT test results since 2005 for free using the DVLA’s website (here). In particular, look out for recurring advisories; minor corrosion for example, or ongoing oil leaks in the same places. Ongoing issues like these suggest that preventative maintenance hasn’t ranked highly on the seller’s priorities. This could mean that more significant problems are around the corner. Oil leaks are a classic example; although a minor leak can be ignored short-term, eventually it’s going to lead to some serious (and expensive) mechanical wear.

 

Tyres

Check the tread depth on all four tyres. You need to assess the complete width of the tyre, which will mean getting on your hands and knees. If any tyre is wearing faster on its inner or outer edges, there’s a tracking or alignment problem. Usually these problems aren’t expensive to put right, but ask yourself why the seller hasn’t bothered fixing it sooner. A scrupulous owner wouldn’t let problems like this persist. They’re not hard to spot after all.

The tyres’ age and brand too. A matching set of premium tyres is a statement that the seller cares about the car. Budget tyres, especially if they’re un-matching, old or worn, tells you the seller has been watching the pennies. What other costs have they been avoiding?

Brakes

Brake discs are usually easy to see as you inspect a car. They should be shiny, without much lip around the edge. If the lip feels about as thick as a coin, the disc is getting old and will need replacing soon. Rust soon builds up on the discs if the car has been sitting still; a little bit isn’t a problem, but thicker rust means the calipers aren’t working, and may mean the car has been sitting in a wet environment (in long grass perhaps). If that’s true, you’re more likely to find structural corrosion underneath (which you’ll need to budget for carefully).

Oil and fluids

When you focus on the clever things as you inspect a car, it’s easy to forget the basic stuff… which isn’t too clever! Don’t forget to lift the bonnet and perform standard checks that you should be doing regularly on your own car. Make sure the engine oil isn’t too thick and black; fresh oil in a clean engine should still be translucent. Find out how old the hydraulic fluids are, remembering that older fluid can cause corrosion inside brake and power steering systems, because the fluid absorbs moisture, causing rust. Also look for signs emulsion (a dirty-white cream) on the underside of the radiator cap, and the oil filler and/or rocker breather; a little bit is usually okay, but if there’s a significant amount, the best-case scenario is a failed head gasket, potentially much worse.

Paperwork

Inspect the service history. A thorough record of mechanical maintenance is an indication that the owner has cared about the long-term health of their car. Check which garages have been looking after the car; hopefully they’re garages which specialise in this particular car. Non-specialist back-street garages are more likely to overlook developing faults, or carry out work quick fixes rather than proper cures, meaning big bills could be lurking round the corner. In particular, dodgy clutch replacements and slapdash welding often cause further problems down the line.

Hopefully this guidance will help you to inspect a car with more confidence.