The checks are essentially in 2 phases, the first is checking the documents against the car itself, while doing this you can make your own judgment of the honesty of the seller. Phase 2 is a methodical and detailed check of the car's condition which is unlikely to take less than 30 minutes to complete.

When inspecting the car don't do so in the dark or the rain, try to see it undercover with some light - a garage or car park is ideal where you can look into and under everything. If it has to be at night try for a well lit area, perhaps a multi-storey car park or a garage forecourt. 

For phase 1 find the VIN plate. This is a unique identifier of each car which will list the make, model, date and batch of manufacture, body type and every detail down to the paint colour, a guide to the commonest locations is shown. The VIN plate will carry most of this information in the form of numeric codes which you will need a copy of the handbook to decipher but, most importantly, the chassis and engine numbers will be clearly listed and it is these which must cross check with the registration document and the MOT certificate.

Check that the VIN plate looks genuine and consistent with the age of the car.
Does it look newer and shinier than the body work that it is attached to - it shouldn't - do the rivets look new they shouldn't - do the numbers seem fresher than the surrounding metal - they shouldn't. If they do be very suspicious.

Check the engine number, it will take some finding but is usually in a visible position on the upper half of the engine. It must match both the VIN plate and registration document. If the number shows any sign of being tampered with - too shiny, file marks, cleaner than the rest of engine - walk away.

On modern cars, up to say 5 years old, window etching may have been carried out, this is done for added security. Check that the window numbers tally with the registration number.

Check the mileage showing on the mileometer against any service records or  MOTs that are available for inspection. Note that servicing stickers can sometimes be found on door edges and in door openings.

Is the mileage showing likely to be genuine ? Typically privately owned cars tend to drive about 8-10, 000 miles on average each year, business vehicles perhaps 10-15, 000.

Is that mileage consistent with the age and overall condition of the car, for example if the driver's carpet and pedal rubbers are heavily worn the claimed 30, 000 miles is unlikely to be genuine whereas 130, 000 might be.

Always check the mileometer for evenness of display, when running the numbers backwards it's very difficult to get them to line up properly, don't worry about the last number on the right but if any of the the first 3 numbers from the left are uneven be deeply suspicious. Look at the speedo binnacle carefully, if it is scratched, chipped or the screws have been freshly moved, it's been got at.

It's often worth phoning the last owner on the registration document to check their memory of the vehicle's mileage. You should be able to get the last owner's number from Directory Enquiries unless they are ex-Directory.

Ask if  the car has been involved in an accident. You may get an answer... or not so check for yourself.

Are there any variations in paint colour and texture between adjoining panels. Visually check all the body panels and the doors are straight not rippled. Don't ignore the roof, if the car has had a big shunt it will always be visible on the roof which is the most expensive panel to replace or repair.

Check all of the lower half of the body with a small pocket magnet this will show the presence of lots of body filler which will mean the car has been damaged and poorly repaired. Look for paint overspray on and under window rubbers where masking has been poor. If you find signs of a big shunt and poor repair walk away.

Having now satisfied yourself that all is well so far now you can start to assess the car's condition and hunt down all those defects, start sleuthing.

Walk around the car at least 3 times to get a general feel for it's condition before looking at it in detail.

Does the car have a current MOT certificate and is it taxed for a reasonable period, either of these could add considerably to the "on the road" cost of the car

Don't assume that a new MOT certificate implies that the car is all OK and doesn't need checking, roadworthiness is not guaranteed for the test car after it has left the testing station, it is, in that sense, rather ephemeral.

Abstracted from the book “Buying a Used Car” © G Benge 1997-2007

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