Buying a Vehicle

How To Check A Vehicle Is Reliable Before Buying

Amelia Scholey, Brand and Content Specialist
Tuesday, 16 March 2021

Whether you are buying a car, van or motorbike there are a few things you can do to make sure you get a vehicle that is worth every penny you pay for it. Budget should never be a factor on whether or not you buy a reliable vehicle, as you should only ever pay what the vehicle is worth.  

If you follow these checks you will get to know the vehicle inside and out. It will help you to understand what exactly the vehicle is offering and whether it’s worth what its being sold for.

Without getting a mechanic to give the vehicle a full service, it is difficult to know if it’s reliable for certain, but these few things can give you a pretty good idea!

1. Advert

Before you even book a test drive, make sure you do your research. We have several guides to help you with researching for a used vehicle.

The most important things to check at this stage are things you can find on the advert, including:

Price – Can you afford it? The next steps to the checks will help you see if it’s worth what it’s being sold for.

Mileage – What is a good mileage for a used vehicle? Well, it depends on how you are intending on using the vehicle once you’ve bought it, but on average people tend to drive 8,000 – 12,000 miles a year, so you can figure if the vehicle has been driven a lot based on it’s age and how many miles its done. 

Diesel or Petrol – We’ve explored which fuel is best in our guide on the topic, but ultimately it comes down to what sort of driving you will be doing in your new vehicle.

Extras – Make sure it has everything you are looking for in your next vehicle. This could be things such as cruise control, parking sensors, leather seats, Bluetooth, or aircon. The list is endless.

What is great is that most online tools helping you find a car, such as Auto Trader will be able to tell you if the price and mileage of a used vehicle is slightly higher than the average. You can use this information to barter on the price, or at least find out why this might be the case.

These tools will also give you a wealth of information to understand the running costs of the vehicle including tax, fuel, and insurance. This will help you know if you can afford the vehicle in the long run or how much you will need to spend each month on these costs.

A lady looking at a vehicle advert on her phone

2. The vehicle's history

All used vehicles have a past, and it’s important for you to understand it. If the vehicle has a lot of previous owners it might be a good idea to ask the dealership or seller ‘why?’. If a vehicle has had one or two owners for its lifetime, then it’s likely to have been looked after and maintained consistently.

Used vehicle selling and buying sites, will also be able to tell you if in the past the vehicle was involved in an insurance write-off or ever recorded as stolen. In fact, HPI checks conducted on used vehicles identify that 1 in 29 cars are an insurance write-off.

To have a reliable vehicle you are wanting the vehicle to never have been in an accident, stolen or be an insurance write-off. If you are wanting to be extra safe then you can get a full vehicle check done by Experian from £16.95

A couple sat in a car dealership

3. Bodywork

You’ve checked the advert, and everything ticks your boxes, but now you need to see the vehicle for yourself before you buy it. The first thing to check is the bodywork, here is what you should be looking out for:

  • Check all panels look the same and are aligned
  • Are there dents or scratches?
  • Are there differences in the paint work?
  • Check the entire vehicle, including under it, for any rust
  • Are the lights filled up with water or are misty
  • Check the brake pads, if you can see less than 3mm of brake pad then they need replacing.
a lady touching a car

4. Electrics 

Before you take the vehicle out for a test drive check all the electrics work.

Make sure all the warning lights light up as you turn the vehicle on. They should then go away once the engine is up and running. 

Check that the following are all working:

  • Headlights
  • Rear lights
  • Daytime running lights
  • Fog lights
  • Indicators
  • Brake lights
  • Hazard lights
  • Number plate lights
  • Driving lamps – the ones inside the vehicle
  • Spot light (for motorbikes only)

Also make sure that all the functionalities that are sold as part of the vehicle work. For example, heated seats or handlebars for motorbikes, windows, aircon and heating are things that spring to mind.

It’s also important that you take note that when car starts, it starts smoothly.If it struggles, ask the seller when the battery last got replaced, they usually have a lifespan of anywhere between 3-5 years so the battery may need replacing.

Vehicle headlights

5. Tyres

Tyres with a low tyre tread are an accident waiting to happen but replacing all tyres at once can also be extremely costly. This is why its extremely important to check the tyres of a vehicle before deciding to buy it.

According to the law, the minimum tread tyres can have is 1.6mm across the central 3/4 of the tyre.

You can check this by using a 20p pence. Place the 20p coin into the main tread grooves of your tyre, if the inner bit of the 20p coin is slightly hidden (the section that has the queens head) then your tread is fine. If not then that vehicle will need new tyres soon and you should try and haggle the price based on this.

What is the cost of a new tyre?

The cost of tyres varies from vehicle to vehicle but below gives you a rough idea of how much it would cost to change just one worn tyre:

  • All season car tyres, on a ford fiesta, range from £63.50 – £153
  • Van tyres, on a VW Caddy, range from £70 – £104
  • Motorbike tyres on a sports motorbike can range from £56.70 – £120.68

The costs above are just an estimate and do not include labour cost. The price will differ depending on where you buy the tyres from, but the above gives you a rough idea. 

It’s important that you get tyres suitable for your vehicle type as they are designed to tackle the road, weight and speed differently.

Whilst you are checking the tyres on the used vehicle, also check the date stamp as older tyres can crack and wear more easily. You can also check for punctures, cracks and for any damage to the valve.

checking a van tyre

6. Documents

Make sure you have the following before buying a used vehicle:

  • V5c – this is the registration document but is not proof of ownership. It shows who the car is registered to and who is responsible for looking after the vehicle including tax and MOT.
  • MOT certificate – if the vehicle is over 3 years old then legally it will need an MOT to be carried out every year. If the MOT is close to expiration, then you could ask the current owner or dealership to get it re-tested before you buy it. You can check to see a vehicles MOT status here.
  • Any service or maintenance history – to look after a vehicle it should be serviced every year or 10,000 miles whatever comes first. If the vehicle has a full service history then the previous owners have taken care of the vehicle, meaning it’s most likely in a good condition. Better still if something has been recently fixed on the vehicle then this is one less thing that’s likely to needing to be fixed in the near future. 

Once you have the V5c we would suggest checking the Vehicle Identification Numbers (VIN), engine size and colour of the car to make sure that everything matches up. If the document doesn’t match up to the vehicle then the V5c might be a counterfeit and fraudulent. 

If documents have been forged it could mean the vehicle has been cloned. This is where fraudsters change the number plates and falsify the VIN to make it look like the car has a clean history. To make sure this isn’t the case, when buying from a private seller, meet up at the seller’s house so that you can make sure the addresses match.


And there are a few extra things to check on a motorbike before you buy…

  • Check the safety latch to make sure it’s working correctly
  • Check the safety side stand switch
  • Start the engine 3 times to tell if the battery is working as it should. If it struggles to turn on the 3rd time then the battery might soon need changing
  • Check the brake discs for cracks and ridges as this could mean they will soon need replacing
  • Make sure the pegs and leavers are straight and haven’t been bent out of shape
  • From the back look down towards the handlebars and make sure the bike is straight. If it’s slightly bent one way, this could be a sign that the motorbike has been in an accident previously.
a man checking a motorbike

Regardless of what type of vehicle you are buying, it’s always going to be tricky to know exactly what you are buying unless you are a mechanic and you can give the vehicle a thorough check. But if you follow these 6 points then you will have a good idea of how reliable your new vehicle will be, as well as knowing you paid a good price for or it.

Amelia Scholey, Brand and Content Specialist
Bringing you information on how to look after your vehicle, save money and enjoy your life on the road.