How to check paperwork when buying a used car

James Mills
Written by: James Mills
Posted on: 29 October 2015

A used car’s history can stretch back for years. And with some owners not as considerate or organised as others, it’s important that buyers carry out a thorough check of a used car’s paperwork and background.

That can be a daunting task for those who work in the motor trade, let alone drivers who may not have bought a car for years and aren’t sure where to begin.

By following these essential checks when buying a used car, drivers can ensure all the paperwork is present and correct and not lose sleep over whether or not a vehicle has a hidden history.

1. The vehicle registration certification (V5C)

Once you’ve test driven the car, ask to see its accompanying paperwork, starting with the V5C vehicle registration document.

Typically a red and blue piece of paper, it shouldn’t be a photocopy or computer print out. And the document serial number needs to be checked in case it’s a fake - follow these steps.

Ensure the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) and engine number on the V5C matches the ones stamped on the car – the car’s handbook tells you how to locate these - and that the recorded keeper’s information is the same as the person selling the car.

2. Examine the car’s service history

Ideally the previous owners of the car will have had the vehicle’s service book stamped by a garage each time it has been serviced.

Better still, there should be accompanying invoices that tally with the stamps and detail the work carried out. Even better still, the service book will have been filled out with the car’s VIN and engine numbers when it was first sold.

It’s a good idea to ask to see current and past MOT certificates. Every car over three years-old must have an MOT to help maintain its roadworthiness, and every certificate will show the car’s mileage when it was inspected, helping verify that it’s reliable.

Beware of fake MOT certificates and remember you can quickly check a car’s MOT and road tax status here.

3. Read the ad carefully

If you’re buying a car privately, the only protection you have is if the seller has described it incorrectly in the advertisement.

Check that everything about the car conforms to the ad and that if the words say air-conditioning and electric windows, the car really does have both.

Equally, if it’s listed as having had two previous owners, check the V5C backs that information up.

A data check costs just £20 and can reveal if a car has been declared a write-off

4. Carry out a data check

A data check costs just £20 and can reveal if a car has been declared a write-off following accident or mechanical damage, or is owned by a finance company rather than the vendor.

Around one in four cars checked is flagged up as being sold with outstanding finance on it. Drivers who buy such a car unwittingly face it being rightfully repossessed by the finance company.

These checks should also show up whether the car has been stolen and is possibly being passed off as another vehicle – known as cloning.

5. Pay for a used car inspection

If you aren’t comfortable inspecting a second-hand car, ask an expert to do it for you. You could arrange to take the car to a local garage and pay a modest fee to have it inspected professionally.

Most sellers will gladly deduct the cost of the inspection from the price of the car - should you go ahead with the purchase.

6. Get a receipt

Any reputable garage will provide a receipt for a used car but private sellers may not think to do so. Insist they do give you a receipt. It should list the make and model of car, registration number and VIN, mileage at the time of sale, agreed fee and dated signatures of both the vendor and purchaser.

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