Problems to look out for when buying second-hand cars

Buying a car second-hand can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, you might be able to find a great deal for what you’re paying, a bargain with plenty of miles left on the clock or even a hidden gem of a classic car you’ve always wanted.

On the other hand, if you don’t do your research and know what to look for, buying a car second-hand can be a risky business. The last thing you want is to buy a second-hand car and find out two weeks later that it’s going to need a clutch replacement, for example, or a new cambelt fitting; depending on how much you spent, replacing these could be more expensive than the car itself!

Fortunately, if you know what to look out for when buying a second-hand car you can greatly reduce the chances of needing to pay out for expensive repairs. If you’re in the market for a second-hand vehicle yourself, here’s what you need to be on the lookout for.

Test drive

The first thing you should do before you purchase any car second-hand? Take it for a thorough test drive of at least 45 minutes, and make sure to drive both on normal streets and on motorways/dual carriageways so you know how the drives at all speeds. This will really allow you to get an overall feel for how well the car performs, and will give you a real idea of how well the car’s brakes, power steering, gears and clutch are working.

It’s also the only way to find out if the car’s tracking is off; if you find the car drifting to one side when you’re driving, then this should be an instant red flag! A test drive will also give you a chance to get a proper look at the interior and make sure the inside of your (potential) new car is in a good enough condition.

Use your test drive as an opportunity to check other parts of the car are working and in good condition too, such as dials, pedals and switches. If you do notice any irregularities whilst driving, be sure to check your tyres for any wear and tear (although ideally you’ll do this before you get in the vehicle anyway).


When you started the car for your test-drive, were there any abnormal noises coming from the engine? This, obviously, should be an early red flag and something to ask about. Similarly, does the car’s clutch operate normally, or have a high biting point when you’re moving off? Both are signs that repairs to the engine may need to be made soon, so be sure to look out for them.

You should also keep your eyes peeled for things like excessive exhaust emissions (this may indicate oil leakage) or sludge on the underside of the oil filler – a tell-tale sign of poor servicing that means you’re likely going to have to pay out a hefty sum for repairs next time you go for a service. Make sure to watch out for rattling noises or strong sulphur smells coming from the exhaust too, as these are symptoms of a failing catalytic converter and, ultimately, a hefty bill for a new one.


All cars have a shelf life, and the easiest way to get an indication of this is by looking at a car’s mileage. Most cars average around 12,000 miles per year, although this can increase to around 30,000 a year for people who commute to work every day. This should give you a fair indication of how many miles the car has left on the clock, as well as a general clue as to how many repairs might need to be made in the future.

Accidental damage

Accidents happen, but ideally not to the second-hand car you want to buy. If the car you’re looking at has any dents or signs that it’s been in a crash (scrapes, scratches, uneven paint etc.) then be sure to ask the owner about these. If the car has been damaged in the past it may not be a significant problem now, but may result in costly repairs down the line if you don’t get them fixed, so remember to bear this in mind.


Some of the most important things to look out for when buying a car second-hand is its documents. You need to make sure that the car comes with:

  • VC5 document (you’ll need this to tax the car in future)
  • Vehicle Identification Number (VIN)
  • Registration plate
  • Service and full car history
  • Written-off car checks
  • Logbook
  • MOT certificate (if older than three years old)
  • HPI clear check – this is generally considered as the final seal of approval you need when buying a new car, and will guarantee the car doesn’t have any finance agreements secured against it. A clear HPI check will also show that the car hasn’t been stolen or classified as a loss/write-off by any insurance companies.

If the seller doesn’t have any of the above documents, you need to find out why before buying the vehicle. Not having any of the above documentation could leave you liable to problems or even fines further down the line, so be careful!

We’re sure that you’ll make the right choice when purchasing your second-hand car, but the fact is that breakdowns sometimes happen even if your car is in pristine condition; you never know what’s around the corner! To make sure you’re protected, why not find out about the range of breakdown options available through Cover My?  

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