How to check a car's history

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Make sure you know everything there is to know about your potential new car before handing over your cash


Buying a car privately can come with more risk and less protection than if you choose to purchase from a used car dealer. However, this is often the cheaper option.

But how can you make sure the car you’re about to buy is what it claims to be?

There are lots of reasons why you need to run a vehicle history check before you buy it. Follow these steps to make sure you’re doing a thorough check on a car's history before you hand over your money.

1. Run a car history check online

First of all, it's useful to run the car through the DVLA’s Vehicle Information Checker.

For this, you will need a vehicle’s registration number which you can request from the seller. This online data check can verify:

  • when its current vehicle tax expires
  • when its MOT expires
  • the date it was first registered
  • SORN status
  • colour
  • engine size
  • year of manufacture
  • CO2 emissions
  • current vehicle tax rate

This is a great tool that you can use when you first find a car advertised, to check if everything seems above board.

As well as this, the DVLA are able to provide you with information on the vehicle’s previous or registered keeper. This is extremely important to ensure that the seller legally able to sell the vehicle.

The DVLA also provides a service where you can find out more details about the car’s MOT history.

If you are concerned that the seller may be operating dishonestly, ask them to verify the details that you have found online. If any of the specifications do not match up, it is best to avoid the seller and find your new car elsewhere.

2. Find out if the car has ever been involved in an accident

This is often at the forefront of buyers’ minds, as failure to mention a historical incident involving the car could mean there are undisclosed internal or external complications with the vehicle that the seller has tried to hide.

If a car has previously been written off, it's illegal for it to be driven on the roads. Check which insurance category the car falls into – A, B, S or N. You should only consider buying cars which fall in categories S and N (formerly C and D respectively). Check out Admiral’s guide to Category S and N cars for more information.

3. Check if the car has outstanding finance

Remember, it’s illegal for someone to sell you a car with money owed on it without telling the finance company.

If this happens to you, you may become responsible for the debt and the car may also be seized. It pays to do your homework, and companies such as HPI have tools that let you check this. 

4. Ask to view the car before buying it

Sometimes, it's not enough to simply assess a car’s condition online or just take the seller’s word for it. If safe to do so, consider going to view the car yourself.

The Money Advice Service suggest double checking the details before you agree to meet:

“Check the address is the same as the one on the V5C registration certificate. If the seller isn’t the registered keeper, walk away. They probably aren’t legally entitled to sell the vehicle. Make sure you ask to take the car for a test drive with the seller. If you suspect the seller isn’t insured, ask to see proof of their insurance.”

Clarify whether the car comes with the V5C Registration Certificate, or logbook, a full service history and the original handbook – these can be expensive to replace. Compare the details in the logbook with the advertised specifications.

Things to consider when viewing a car

There are a number of internal and external checks you should make on the vehicle to check it's in good working order:

Check the mileage

Compare the advertised mileage with the actual mileage, as you don’t want a car that’s been driven far more than you’ve been told.

Has the car been in an accident?

Look for indications that the vehicle has been involved in an accident – the AA recommend looking for “signs of inconsistent gaps between panels or mismatched colours that could be a sign of extensive repairs”, “traces of paint spray on handles, window seals or plastic mouldings” or “any unusual looking welding under the bonnet or in the boot”.

Check the cam belt

Query the last time the car’s cam belt was changed or when it’s due to be changed on the service history. Repairs to cam belts can cost thousands and will often require the installation of a whole new engine.

Do the numbers match?

Make sure the registration and chassis numbers match those on the car to remove the possibility that the car has been cloned.

Look over the tyres

Check that the tyres are in good condition. If they’re not, these can be replaced, but remember they'll cost yet more money which you should add onto the prospective price tag.

The minimum legal tread depth should be 1.6mm across the width of the tyre, which you can test using a 20p coin.

Getting a professional to do a full car check

If you’re still unsure if the car you’re interested in is above board, you can get a company to look over the vehicle history and do all the appropriate checks. The best option could be to go to company such as HPI or the AA, who charge approximately £30 for a full car check.

These tests are comprehensive, and flag up any problems with the vehicle, such as if the car has been stolen or if it has any outstanding finance or loans attached to it.

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