Mechanical condition and safety

Assess the car in daylight. Take it for a test drive. Our checklist gives an idea of what to look for, but take someone with you if you don't know much about cars.

If a car has been in an accident, it may be unsafe. Sometimes, two damaged cars are welded together to create a new one. These are known as 'cut and shuts' and are almost certainly unsafe.

There are companies that can tell you whether a car is an insurance company write-off - you can usually find details of these companies in motoring magazines.

Stolen cars

If you buy a stolen car, the police can take it from you to return it to the original owner or the insurance company. You will not get any compensation even though you bought the car in good faith. You can sue the seller for your losses but this might be difficult if you bought privately and the seller has disappeared.

And if you bought the car on credit, you may still have to pay off the loan – it depends on the type of agreement you have.

It can be hard to tell whether a car is stolen. Its identity may have been changed. For example, the identity number and number plate of a legitimate car may be transferred to a stolen one. Vehicle registration documents can be forged or obtained by fraud.

But there are tell-tale signs to look out for.

Warning signs:

  1. the seller can't produce the vehicle registration document (V5) - a common excuse is that it has been sent to the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) for updating. This may be true – for example, the seller may have changed address recently. But be wary: it means you cannot check the car's ownership and identity details;
  2. if the seller claims the car was bought very recently and the V5 is with the DVLA for the change of ownership to be recorded, the seller should have a green slip (this applies only to cars issued with V5s from March 1997);
  3. there are spelling mistakes or alterations to the V5, or it does not have a watermark;
  4. the name and address on the V5 are different to those on the seller's driving licence, passport, or recent gas or electricity bill;
  5. the three main identifying numbers listed below don't match the numbers on the V5: the vehicle registration mark (the number plate)the vehicle identification number (VIN) -
  6. this can be found on a metal VIN plate, usually in the engine compartment, and stamped into the bodywork under the bonnet and the driver's seat. As a security measure some cars have the VIN etched on their windows or lamps the engine number;
  7. the engine and VIN numbers have been tampered with areas of glass may have been scratched off the windows, or stickers may cover up etching which has been altered; the seller cannot show you the insurance policy for the car.

Cars still owned by a credit company

A car bought on hire purchase or conditional sale belongs to the finance company until the payments have been completed. If you buy such a car, the lender can take it back. You can sue whoever sold you the car, but only if you can find them.

There are only a few exceptions to this. If you were not aware the car was subject to an outstanding credit agreement and bought it in good faith, you may be allowed to keep it. This does not apply to stolen cars or cars which are subject to a hire agreement. You will need professional advice on this.

There are companies that can tell you if a car is clear of any outstanding finance deals -you can usually find details of such companies in motoring magazines. If you are buying from a dealer, ask whether this check has already been carried out.

Clocked cars

Low mileage can be a selling point, but the clock can be turned back to reduce the number of miles shown. Sellers sometimes protect themselves by covering up the mileometer or issuing a disclaimer saying that the mileage may be wrong. To be valid, such a disclaimer must be at least as noticeable as the mileage reading and as effectively brought to your attention.

If the mileage is low but wear and tear on the car looks heavy, the car could have been 'clocked'. Clockers sometimes change pedal rubbers, steering wheels and gear knobs to hide this. Another sign is that the mileometer numbers don't line up correctly.

There are several ways you can find out about the history of the car:

  1. check MOT certificates and service documentation for mileage readings taken by mechanics;
  2. contact previous owners named on the V5 and ask what the mileage was when they sold the car;
  3. get mileage information from companies that research the car's history (you can find these in motoring magazines);
  4. if buying from a dealer, ask whether the dealer has used trade-only database companies such as IMVA and VMC to check mileage.

Sellers sometimes protect themselves by covering up the mileage reading or issuing a disclaimer saying the mileage may be wrong. To be valid, the disclaimer must be at least as noticeable as the mileage reading and as effectively brought to your attention. Cars/