How to check a car’s history

Motoring advice

30 November 2020

New cars lose up to 20% of their value the moment they leave the showroom, so it’s no surprise that second-hand shopping is so popular. But if you’re buying a used vehicle – especially from a private seller – it’s vital that you do your due diligence. Running a car history check is cheap, quick, and the green flag you need to go ahead.

Viewing the car in person

With the advent of sites such as GumTree, Craigslist and CarGurus, ‘blind-buying’ is increasingly the norm. But viewing a car in person – even if it means travelling cross-country - can save you heartache and money down the road. Not only can you verify photos (ever heard of catfishing? yep, car-fishing is a thing, too), you’ll get a 360° appraisal of the vehicle’s condition. Here’s what to look out for on the day:

  • Do the registration and chassis numbers match? A sure sign of cloning is when they don’t.
  • Check the tyre tread: the legal minimum depth is 1.20mm (equivalent to a 20p coin). If they need to be replaced, has this been factored into the cost?
  • Compare the advertised mileage with the actual mileage – a sure sign of ‘car-fishing’ is when they don’t match.
  • Ask to see service history. Any reputable seller will have this info to hand, and amongst other things, it’ll flag when the cam belt was last changed. Faulty cam belts can cost thousands to repair, and may even necessitate a new engine.
  • Does the car have its original handbook? If present, the previous owners have likely taken good care of the vehicle, and you’ll have the necessary instructions should you need them.
  • Can you take it for a spin? A road-test will give you a feel for comfort, as well as personal requirements, such as space for luggage, child seats, or your mountain bike.

Once you’re happy, it’s time to run a car history check. Any seller worth their salt should let you mull the decision over, so before money changes hands, find a quiet spot and a decent internet speed.

Why should you check a car’s history?

So you’ve found your dream car, taken it for test run, and fallen in love - why not go ahead and purchase it? While it’s tempting to skip the admin, checking a vehicle’s insurance history can flag unforeseen financial – or even legal - costs. Here’s what a check should show up:

  • Whether the car has outstanding finance. If it has, you could be responsible for the debt and the car might be seized.
  • If the seller’s description of the car is accurate.
  • Whether the car’s been stolen. If it has, your insurance will be invalidated and you could have your new vehicle seized.
  • The car’s true mileage. Sadly, clocked-back odometers are still pretty common, particularly with unregistered dealers.

Checking to see if it’s been in an accident

Another thing you’ll want to know is: “has my car been in an accident?” While you’d hope that a seller would be upfront, bodywork and paint jobs can gloss over a multitude of sins. Internal complications are even less obvious, and if the car has been written off, driving it is actually illegal. Fortunately, a history check will flag any historical crashes, regardless of the car’s current sheen.

    Checking a car’s history online

    You can check your car’s history for free on the DVLA's website. You’ll need the following information from the seller:

    • The registration number (on the number plate)
    • The MOT test number
    • The mileage
    • The make and model

    The vehicle information checker will verify whether the seller’s information matches the DVLA’s records. If some minor details don’t match, ask for clarity - it may be an honest mistake. But if you suspect you’ve been duped, cut your losses and walk away.

    Still not sure?

    If something’s still niggling, it’s probably time to seek out another car. However, you can always run an independent report for extra peace-of-mind. These are conducted by motoring organisations and specialist companies, and will set you back around £100 to £200. Contact the Motor Ombudsman for advice on where to get an independent report in your area.

    Next steps

    Run the history check? Taken your new car for a spin? At this stage, you can feel confident in going ahead. When it comes to getting your car insured, we have a range of packages to suit your needs, from essential cover, to extras like courtesy cars and breakdown assistance. Get a quote today.