Assessing the condition of a used vehicle

The price you may agree to pay for a used vehicle is dependent on a number of factors, including mileage, colour and condition of the vehicle, promotions currently on offer and the location. This original list price may assist in determining value but it is more common to use a published price guide. Optional equipment does not necessarily increase the used vehicle valuation.

Figure 1 VW Golf

There are a number of steps that you should take to reach a final opinion and therefore a value on a used vehicle:

  1. Documentation
  2. Mileage
  3. Accident damage
  4. Safety
  5. Test drive
  6. Engine
  7. Locks, windows and general controls

Each of these steps involve getting answers to a number of questions. These are presented over the next few screens.

Figure 2 Checking a car means following a number of steps even if it looks good to start with!


  • Can the seller show you the registration document?
  • Is the seller the registered keeper shown on the registration document? If not, why are they selling it for someone else?
  • Does the registration document have a watermark?
  • Are there any spelling mistakes on the registration document?
  • Do the vehicle identification number, engine number and colour match the documentation?
  • Does the registration/number plate match the documentation?
  • Has the vehicle identification number plate been tampered with?
  • Do vehicle identification numbers etched on glass or lights match the vehicle identification number plate and documentation?
  • Are there any sign of scratches on glass to remove etched-in marks?
  • Does the fuel filler look as if it has been forced or replaced?
  • Does the seller have a current annual test inspection certificate?
  • Is the handbook available? Also check service records.

Figure 3 Documentation


  • Does the mileage, age and appearance of the car look consistent?
  • Are there any signs like worn screws to indicate that the instruments might have been tampered with? (Digital odometers can be tampered with electronically so clues like this won’t exist)
  • Check recorded mileage on service records, test certificates and other documents.
  • Does it look consistent with current mileage/condition and increase steadily year on year?
  • Check annual test status and history online if you have access to this facility.

Figure 4 Mileage

Accident Damage

  • Are there any signs of inconsistent gaps between panels or mismatched colours that could be a sign of extensive repairs?
  • Is the paint finish even across the car?
  • Are there any traces of paint spray on handles, window seals or plastic mouldings?
  • Could the car’s colour have been changed? (Look under carpets and in other hidden areas in particular.)
  • Any unusual looking welding under the bonnet or in the boot?

Figure 5 Look for damage


  • Are the tyres in good condition and are the specifications and dimensions correct? Tyres with less than 3mm of tread will have to be replaced soon.
  • Is the spare wheel or tyre inflator/sealant kit in serviceable condition?
  • Are the jack and other tools present?
  • Do all the seatbelts operate correctly? Check there are no cuts or fraying that could affect the way they work.
  • If airbags are fitted, check that warning lights operate as described in the handbook – normally they will come on with the ignition and then go out?
  • Do all lights and windscreen wipers/washers work correctly?

Figure 6 Check for the correct tyres

Figure 7 Make sure the wheels are not damaged

Test Drive

  • Do all warning lights operate normally? Lights will generally come on to test and then go out – unless there’s a fault.
  • Are the brakes effective or does it take a long time or a lot of effort to stop?
  • Is braking even or does the car pull to one side?
  • Are there any unusual noises when you brake?
  • Is the handbrake effective?
  • Can you feel any steering vibration or does the vehicle pull to one side?
  • If ABS is fitted, does the warning light go out after the engine is started?

Figure 8 Headlights

Figure 9 Rear lights


  • Can you hear any abnormal noises when the engine is started from cold?
  • Does the oil warning light go out as soon as the engine starts?
  • Are there any signs of excessive visible exhaust emissions?
    • White water vapour from the exhaust is normal while the engine is cold
    • Blue smoke isn’t normal – it indicates that oil is burning
    • Faint blue smoke from diesels is OK but black smoke is serious
  • Does the clutch operate normally? A noise when you press the pedal or a high biting point could mean that repairs will be required soon.
  • Is the catalytic converter in good condition? Look for a recent emissions test, either alone or as part of an annual test. This will confirm that emissions are within the limits applied to modern cars.
  • Is there sludge on the underside of the oil filler cap? This could indicate poor servicing or predominantly short journey use.
  • Is the oil level correct? Too low shows neglect; too high could be a clue that the engine is using oil but it could just have been over filled in error.
  • Has the cam belt been replaced according to the service schedule?

Figure 10 Engine bay

Figure 11 Oil filler

Figure 12 General check for leaks

Figure 13 Battery

Locks, windows and general controls

  • Do all the locks, including central locking and remote control, work properly?
  • Do all windows, including the sunroof if fitted, open and close normally?
  • Can you see any signs of forced entry, damaged or different locks, suggesting they’ve been replaced?
  • Are all the correct keys available? Check the handbook to see which keys were provided when the car was new. Modern keys are expensive to replace, particularly the coloured ‘master’ key provided by some manufacturers to programme new spare keys to the car.
  • Are locking wheel nuts fitted? Check that the special adapter required is included with the tool kit. Make sure it fits too.
  • Do all the minor controls operate correctly – heating, ventilation, air-conditioning, radio/CD/USB, navigation etc.?

Figure 14 All controls should work

Summary The key to assessing the condition and value of a used vehicle is being thorough and consistent. Work your way through all the steps outlined previously and use a current price guide – but remember that the price guide is just that – a guide! The final value you agree can also be determined by other factors, for example, the value of the new car a customer may be buying from you. Watch this video and see if you can list all the points the technician is checking.

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