row of cars - How to check the history of a car in 6 easy steps

How to check the history of a car in 6 easy steps

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Row of cars

Before you buy a used car, carry out a few essential checks to find out as much as you can about its history.

It’s usually cheaper to buy a used car privately than from a car dealer, but there’s also a much higher risk that the vehicle isn’t quite what it claims to be. Follow our tips, with six really important checks to make on any used car you’re thinking of buying.

The UK government’s website has several free tools to help you check your car’s history. Before you start, ask the seller for the registration number, make and model, and MOT test number.

1. Check DVLA information

Firstly, check that the details you’ve been given match the vehicle information held by the DVLA. This online government tool is free – you’ll just need to know the car’s registration number to find out:

  • when its current vehicle tax expires
  • when its MOT expires
  • the date it was first registered
  • SORN status
  • colour
  • engine size
  • year of manufacture
  • CO2 emissions
  • current vehicle tax rate


2. Check the vehicle’s MOT history

Another free UK government tool lets you check that the MOT status and history of the car you’re thinking of buying, matches the details you’ve been given. All you need to know in advance is the car’s registration number. You’ll be able to find out:

  • if the car passed or failed its various tests over the years
  • the mileage recorded when it was tested
  • where each test was done
  • what parts failed at each test, and if any parts had minor problems
  • when its next MOT is due

3. Check it’s not stolen

If you unwittingly buy a stolen car, you’re not its legal owner. You’ll lose both the car and whatever money you’ve paid for it when it’s recovered by the police.

To avoid this situation, there are some free basic checks you can carry out to guard against buying a stolen vehicle.

  • Ask to see the vehicle’s “log book”, officially called the V5C vehicle registration certificate. Make sure it has a ‘DVL’ watermark, and the serial number is not between BG8229501 to BG9999030, or BI2305501 to BI2800000. If it is, the V5C might be stolen – call the police as soon as it’s safe to.
  • Check that the details in the log book match the details you’ve been given.
  • Check the vehicle identification number (VIN) and engine number. Make sure these match the details in the log book. The VIN can usually be found on the driver’s side door jamb, in the engine compartment or on the dashboard near the bottom of the windscreen on the passenger side.

Paid services also exist that will check the vehicle against the Police National Computer and insurance databases for vehicles registered as stolen. HPI has a well-known service for stolen vehicle checks, but there are many others.

4. Check it’s not unsafe

You should also check to be sure the vehicle hasn’t been recalled because of a serious safety issue. If it has, the car needs to be fixed or replaced by the manufacturer (you shouldn’t have to pay).

The UK government provides another free tool to check for recalls on a vehicle, part or accessory – you’ll just need to know the car’s registration number and the check takes just a few seconds.

Fifty pounds sterling

5. Check there’s no outstanding finance

More and more cars these days are bought with some kind of finance or credit arrangement. Unsurprisingly, finance companies expect any outstanding loans to be settled before the car is sold on, but if they aren’t, you need to be on your guard.

Legally, a car with outstanding finance still belongs to the finance company, so if you’re the new registered keeper, they might ask you to repay the outstanding sum…regardless of what you’ve already paid the previous “owner”!

If you bought the car in good faith, you might have a defence in the Hire Purchase Act (1964), but it’s probably better to avoid the hassle and get an outstanding finance check before you buy the car.

Reputable checks for outstanding finance are normally only available as a paid service, but the cost is reasonable – we found fees as low as £13.49 with RAC, which also includes a number of other used vehicle checks.

6. Check it’s not been written off

If a vehicle has been written off, it may not be safe to drive, or it may have underlying issues that will involve hefty repair costs. In particular, if it’s been categorised as a Category A or Category B write-off, the vehicle should never go back on the road.

You can check if a vehicle you’re thinking of buying has been written off – this is usually a paid service but there are various reputable providers available.

If it seems too good to be true…

…It probably is! Hopefully these used car checks will steer you away from trouble, and coupled with good sense will help guide you to a safe, reliable and hassle-free car.

Complete Cover Group does not endorse, or receive payment from any of the paid services linked to within this article.

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