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A Mechanic's Guide to Checking a Used Car

By: Scott McBride - Updated: 3 Oct 2010 | comments*Discuss
Used Car Mechanic Garage Bodywork

No-one wants to buy a dud when choosing a used car, but most people have a fairly limited knowledge of cars and so find it difficult to differentiate between the good, the bad and the mediocre. Mechanic Trevor Jenkins has worked in a London garage for over a decade and has fixed just about every fault imaginable. He offers valuable advice that can help buyers avoid disappointment.

Question: What are your top tips for those buying a used car?

Answer: “This might sound as if I’m blowing my own trumpet, but the best way to ensure a second-hand car is worth the asking price is to let a mechanic have a look at it for you. Yes, it will probably cost a few quid, but it could save you a fortune. If you can’t get a mechanic to the car, take the car to a mechanic. You’ll have to check this is okay with the seller, obviously, but a seller who has nothing to hide is not likely to have a problem with it.”

Question: If, for whatever reason, a mechanic isn’t available, what can a buyer with a limited knowledge of cars look out for?

Answer: “Start with the obvious. For example, does the bodywork have any rust, dents or scratches? It’s better to avoid viewing a car when it’s dark or raining, because it’s easier to miss potential problems. Open the bonnet and boot to make sure the metal work is in good condition. If there are any signs of buckling or ill-matching colours in the exposed metal, it could be the result of an accident.”

Question: What are other checks can show the car may have been in an accident?

Answer: “Have a close look for signs of badly matched spray marks or extra layers of paint. If the finish isn’t right, it could indicate an accident repair. Squat down to examine the sides of the car, as this can reveal mild dents. Also, check under the rubber seals around the windows for any over-spray or signs of a repair.”

Question: And what about inside the car?

Answer: “Make sure the seats and carpets are dry. If they’re not, there may be a leak. All the displays, switches and controls should work properly, and so should the lights.”

Question: What about the engine?

Answer: “There are warning signs the average man in the street can spot. For instance, a smoking exhaust when the engine is warm may mean a problem. There should be plenty of clean oil in the engine and the coolant reservoir should be full of brightly-coloured coolant. If it’s empty or if the liquid is brown, it may mean trouble.”

Question: How can the test drive help?

Answer: “Check that the car pulls away and brakes easily, without any judders or noises, and drives in a straight line, even with a loose grip on the steering wheel. The steering has to be accurate, free from play and shouldn't judder.”

Question: Any final words of wisdom?

Answer: “Use common sense, and if the car doesn’t feel right for any reason, walk away. Remember too that every make and model of car has specific faults that crop up again and again. Find out what these faults are for the car you’re interested in – the internet is the best way to do this – and then pay particular attention to those areas when viewing the car.”

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