Car checks

Buying a car, even a second-hand one, can be a big expense. If you buy a used car from a dealer you have rights under consumer law. It should be of reasonable, acceptable quality given the age, cost and history of the car; it should be fit for purpose and roadworthy. It should also match the description of the car given verbally, in an advert or on a website.

However, if you buy a car from a private seller, you do not have consumer rights, because the person selling the car is not selling it as a trader. When buying from another consumer you should always get the car independently checked by a mechanic as you will have very limited options if something goes wrong later on.

Therefore it is important that you understand who you are buying from. Is it a trader or a private seller? Disguised traders are people who pose as private sellers but in fact make a living from selling cars, usually online. Some marketplace websites give a certain amount of information about the seller, for example, how many ads they have placed on that site. If they are selling a number of cars at once, this could indicate they are a disguised trader and not a private seller. The difference is important when it comes to your consumer rights, if something later goes wrong.

There are a number of questions you should ask the seller before you buy a car and a number of checks you should carry out.


Important questions to ask the seller
Has the car ever been crashed?
Is the mileage correct?
Is there any outstanding finance on the car?
Have you carried out the appropriate checks on the car and are you satisfied that the car has no major faults?
Has any bodywork been done to it (by you or by others)? This may have been done to cover up serious issues such as rust or damage from a previous crash.
Has any major mechanical work been done on the car (by you or by others)? For example, has the engine been replaced? Ask if this is unusual given the age and mileage of the car.
If it’s a private sale, ask if the car belongs to the person selling it or if they are selling it for someone else. If it is someone else’s then you need the name, address and contact details of that person so you can contact them to ensure everything is in order.
Is it an import? If so, ask for the original registration number and do an online check.

Our car buyers checklist has a list of important questions to ask the seller, which you can then ask them to sign.

Check the history
There are a number of companies who can check the history of a car for you for a fee, you can search online to find one.
These checks can give you details that the seller may be trying to hide. For example, if the car was ever written off, the true mileage or if there is outstanding finance on the car.
You should get the previous recorded odometer readings, details of any insurance claims, if the car has been used as a taxi and details of any crashes.
You can find out if someone else has just bought the car, realised it has a fault and sold it again quickly. You can check and see if a car has changed hands within the last three months on
Check if there is outstanding finance
Check that the car is not under an existing finance agreement. This means there is still money owed on it and you could find yourself liable for the outstanding amount, even after you have handed money over to the seller. In addition, the person selling you the car does not actually own it and may not have the right to sell it to you. There are companies that keep records of cars subject to hire purchase and PCP agreements; check if they have details of the car you are looking at. You will be charged a small fee for this service.
If you buy a car with outstanding finance on it, the car could be repossessed by the lender even if you have already paid the previous owner for it.
All SIMI (Society of Irish Motor Industry) dealers have access to a car history check service and they cannot sell a car which has outstanding finance on it.
Check the paperwork
Ask the seller to show you the Vehicle Registration Certificate (VRC) if the car is Irish. If the car is an import from the UK ask to see the V5C.  These show the current owner so the name should correspond to the person selling the car, and you should ask for proof of identity if you are buying privately.
The VRC has a 10 digit number on the top right hand corner of the first page. It should look like C061234567. Take a note of this and use it when getting your car history check. If the number does not match the car, the document could be forged and the car may be stolen.
The engine size, fuel type, date of registration and colour will be detailed on the VRC. Make sure the specification matches what the seller has told you about the car.
Make sure that all other documents, including NCT, VRT, motor tax disc and car handbook, relate to that car.
The NCT Certificate now shows a car’s mileage history. Where available, it will show the mileage reading for the most recent and three prior NCTs carried out since July 2014. The most recent reading is also recorded on the NCT disc which should be displayed on the windscreen.
Make sure all documents are originals, not photocopies.
Check the condition
You should always try to examine a car and take it for a test drive before you buy it.
For complete peace of mind, get the car independently checked by a mechanic.
If you are buying from a garage, you should ask for a warranty. However, this will depend on the age and price of the car. If the car is reasonably new and the garage is not willing to give you a warranty, this could be a cause for concern.
Check the odometer. It will display the mileage in miles or kilometres. If you think this has been tampered with or ‘clocked’, don’t buy the car.  Ask the seller to confirm in writing the correct mileage before you buy the car.
Turn the ignition onto the first click and all the warning lights should flicker on. Make sure all these lights come on (airbag etc.) and they go back off again. If they don’t come on it could mean the bulb has been removed to try and hide an existing problem.
Take the car for a test drive before you buy it. This may not be possible if you buy a car at an auction. During the test drive, turn off the radio and air-conditioning so you can hear any sounds that might indicate a problem.
Checks if you are importing a UK car
Do a complete history check before you go to view any car. This can all be done online. The history check will show if there is outstanding finance on it. It will also indicate if the car has ever been involved in an accident and was an insurance write off, if it has had one or more change of plates and the mileage of the car.
You can check the MOT history through the UK’s Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency’s site using the registration number.
For complete peace of mind, get the vehicle independently checked by a mechanic.

We have had a number of car recalls recently, for more information see our product recalls page.

Last updated on 28 June 2021