How to check out a car
Buying a car is a big expense, and many people find the process a challenge. If you buy a second-hand car from a dealer you have rights under consumer law. The car should be of merchantable quality – this means that it should be of reasonable, acceptable quality given the age, cost and history of the car; it should be fit for the purpose intended and roadworthy. It should also match the description of the car given verbally or in the advertisement.
It is very important to know however that if you bought the car from a private seller, you do not have the same consumer rights because the person selling the car is not selling it as a trader. When buying from another consumer you should always get the car independently checked by a mechanic as you may not be able to rely on the answers provided by a private seller.
As well as knowing you have these rights, it is important that you satisfy yourself about the condition of the car by asking certain questions and carrying out important checks before you buy.
Have you carried out the appropriate checks on the car and are you satisfied that the car has no major faults?
Has the car ever been crashed?
Is the mileage for this vehicle accurate?
Is there any outstanding finance on the vehicle?
Has any bodywork been done to the vehicle (by you or by others)? This may have been done to cover up serious issues such as rust or damage from a previous crash.
Has any major mechanical work been done on the vehicle (by you or by others)? For example has the engine been replaced ? Ask if this is this unusual given the age and mileage of the car.
Does the car belong to the person selling it or are they selling it for someone else? If it is someone else’s then you need the name, address and contact details of that person to contact them to ensure everything is in order
Was the car first registered in Ireland or has it been imported? If it has been imported ask for the vehicles UK registration number and do an online check. You can check the MOT history through the UK’s Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency’s site using the registration number.
Our car buyer's checklist will give you more information on the important questions to ask.
- For complete peace of mind, get the vehicle independently checked by a mechanic to avoid any nasty surprises in the future.
- Use our car purchase checklist to help you know exactly what you should be looking for. It will also help you keep track and compare different cars easily.
- If you are buying from a garage, you should get a warranty for the car. However, this is dependent on the age and price of the car. If the car is reasonable new and the garage is not willing to give you a warranty, this should immediately raise concerns regarding the condition of the car.
Checks you can do yourself: outside the car:
- Look for visible signs of damage - dents, scrapes and panels or doors not matching up evenly Broken or cracked lights and marks on bumpers. If light clusters are not the same make, they may have been damaged and replaced after a crash.
- Other signs of damage, wear and tear such as rust under the sills or wheel arches.
- Ask about any signs of leaks on the ground around the car. There could be a simple explanation for this but you should always ask.
- Check the spare wheel and full wheel replacement kit. If the car has alloy wheels, make sure you get a “key" to release and secure them.
- Always examine a car during daylight hours and try to view it when it's dry as rain can hide scrapes or scratches.
Check the oil
- There’s an oil dip stick and an oil filler cap. Pull out the oil dip stick, wipe it and put it back in again. And now pull it back out and see where the oil comes to. At the end of the stick about an inch up you should see two markings, one for min. and one for max. The oil should be up near the max, not very low and not over filled (both are as equally damaging).
- If there’s no oil, don’t buy the car.
- The oil filler cap may have this creamy residue on it but that’s normally due to condensation in the engine and is fine.
- If the oil is:
- black it will indicate the car hasn’t been serviced in a while.
- golden it normally indicates clear oil and it’s just after being serviced (Most diesel oils will be darker, and the colour may not indicate recent servicing).
- creamy or coffee colour, this normally indicates that the oil is mixing with the water and the head gasket is gone. If this happens, don’t buy the car.
Check inside the car
- Check the reading displayed on the odometer. It will be displayed in miles or kilometres. If you think this has been tampered with or ‘clocked’, don’t buy the car. The average annual mileage of petrol cars is about 17,000 kilometres (10,500 miles). Diesel cars, if they have been used for business purposes, could have an average of about 24,000 kilometres (15,000 miles). Ask the seller to confirm in writing the correct mileage reading before you buy the car.
- Turn the ignition onto the first click and all the warning lights should flicker on. Make sure all these lights come on (airbag etc.) and they go back off again. If they don’t come on it could mean the bulb has been removed to try and hide an existing, problem.
- Check the wear and tear inside the car on the seat covers, pedal rubbers, gear knob or steering wheel to see if it is consistent with the displayed odometer reading.
Test drive the car
- Take the car for a test drive before you buy it. This may not be possible if you buy the car at an auction. During the test drive, turn off the radio and air-conditioning and make sure:
- There are no strange noises or rattling
- There is no strong smell of oil, petrol or diesel
- It accelerates comfortably and the brakes don’t squeak or squeal
- The gears shift comfortably and smoothly
- You drive over a reasonable distance on different road surfaces to fully test it
Remember that it can be easy to hide damage to a car so either get an independent mechanic to check it for you or get a guarantee or warranty from the garage before you hand over your money.
- There are a number of companies who can check the history of a car for you for a fee, you can search online to find the right service provider.
- This check may uncover details which the seller is trying to hide such as whether or not the vehicle was ever written-off, the true mileage of the vehicle or if there is outstanding finance on the vehicle.
- You should be looking to at least get the previous recorded odometer readings, details of any insurance claims or if the car has been used as a taxi and details of any crashes
Check the registration
- You can check if someone else has just bought this car, realised it has a fault and tried to sell it before it costs them any more money. Motortax.ie offer a service by which you can see if the car has changed hands within the last three months.
- Check that the car is not under any existing finance agreement. If it is, the person trying to sell the car does not actually own it and does not have the right to sell it to you. There are companies that keep records of cars subject to hire purchase and PCP agreements, so check if they have details of the car you are looking at. You will be charged a small fee for this service.
- All SIMI (Society of Irish Motor Industry) dealers have access to a car history check service and they cannot sell a car which has outstanding finance on it.
- Legal ownership of a car cannot be transferred until the final repayment has been made. If you buy a car with outstanding finance on it, the car could be repossessed by the lender even if you have already paid the previous owner for it.
How to check the Vehicle Registration Certificate
- Ask the seller to show you the Vehicle Registration Certificate (VRC) if the car is Irish. If the car is an import from the UK ask to see the V5C. These documents are the ownership documents for the car. The person selling the car must correspond to the name on the V5C or VRC, and you should ask for proof of identity if buying privately.
- The VRC has a 10 digit number on the top right hand corner of the first page. It should look like C061234567. For 2009 this would be C091234567 and so on. Take down these numbers and match them when getting your car history check. If the number does not match the document could be forged and the car may be stolen.
- The engine size, fuel type, date of registration and colour will be detailed on the VRC. You should check this against the car. Sometimes the seller will try to gain more value by pretending the car is of a higher power etc. The correct specification will be detailed on your car history check.
Other paperwork checks
- Make sure that all other documentation, including NCT, VRT, motor tax disc and car handbook relate to that car.
- The NCT Certificate now shows the vehicle’s mileage history. Where available the mileage history comprises of the reading associated with the most recent and three prior NCTs. As this is a new system, it will only show mileage recorded during tests conducted from July 2014 onwards. Also, since July 2014, the most recent reading is recorded on the NCT disc which should be displayed on the windscreen.
- Make sure all documents are originals- not photocopies.
We have had a number of car recalls recently, for more information see our product recalls page.