Used car paperwork checklist

  • What documents to check when looking at a used car
  • Avoid buying a neglected vehicle with a dubious history
  • Know what paperwork to look for before you buy
  • What documents to check when looking at a used car
  • Avoid buying a neglected vehicle with a dubious history
  • Know what paperwork to look for before you buy

What paperwork do you need when you buy a used car? Often you’ll be faced with a folder full of documents, invoices and receipts.

All of these are important, but which bits of paper do you really need to look out for when you're buying a used car?

To make sure that you don't buy a car that's been stolen, written off, or unloved, follow our guide on how to check the key pieces of paperwork. 

V5C registration document

This shows you the details of the car and who it's registered to. Make sure that the car you're looking at correlates with the V5C in terms of registration, colour, chassis numbers - usually displayed on the car on a metal plate under the bonnet - and specification.

Check that the owner's name and address matches that on the V5C - if it doesn't, why not? Some people move and forget to update their V5C, in which case all you need to do is ask for some proof of previous address.

If the owner's details don't match that on the V5C however, and they're not a trader, then the car might not be theirs to sell. In this case your best bet is to walk away.

If the owner doesn't have a V5C document, walk away.

MOT history

Used car paperwork

When you're looking at a car's MOT, check that the details, such as the make and model, are correct so you know that the MOT certificate applies to the car you're looking at.

See if there are any advisories, which will give you an idea as to what might need doing in the future. A car with lots of outstanding advisories implies a lack of care and it could be due some expensive bills soon.

Also check to see if it failed the MOT the first time around. If it did, look at what was needed to repair it and whether it was done properly.

The mileage of a car is recorded at every MOT so make sure that there are no odd gaps or points where the mileage for one year is lower than previously.

Keep an eye out for any odd changes in usage too - if the car was previously doing 20,000 miles a year for five years, why did it suddenly only do 1,000 the next? This will help you avoid buying a clocked car.

If an owner doesn't have much in the way of MOT history with the car then you can check it online with a few simple details. This'll allow you to validate the mileage, and make sure that the current MOT is genuine, and it'll also show if the car failed on anything major previously.

This is important to look for because it's not unknown for a car to fail an MOT catastrophically and then have a re-test by a 'friendly' garage to nurse it through another MOT - unless invoices show that work was carried out to properly correct the faults. 

If you're still not sure, don't be afraid to ring the garages that tested the car to see if they have any more information about the car you're looking at.

Service history

You're looking for a full and comprehensive service history, ensuring the service book is fully stamped and that the services have been done at the correct points. 

Don't be worried about cars that have history or stamps from independent garages, especially when you're looking at older cars - but do be concerned if someone has simply written in the book that it's been serviced, and not properly stamped or backed up with an invoice. This usually means that the owner's done it themselves and there's no way you can guarantee what's been done.

The mileage should be listed at each service in the service book or paperwork. As well as showing how well it's been looked after, you'll be able to see whether the mileage rises correctly over time - and whether it’s a clocked car. Don't take the service history at face value though, as it's easily falsified. Check further by ringing the garages that performed the services, if you suspect something's amiss.

You can also compare any receipt for work done with advisories on previous MOTs. For example, if it had an advisory for corroded brake lines, were they replaced the next time the car was serviced or are the rusty ones still fitted to the car?

If a car is missing its service history then it's generally not worth buying unless it's something rare or you can negotiate a heavy discount. Some main dealers keep records that will allow you to see if it's ever been serviced, however, so it can be worth contacting them to see if they can fill in any blanks.

The handbooks

It's a small detail - but a car that's still replete with its original books, binders and manuals means that the previous owners have usually taken good care of it.

Make sure that they're all present and for the correct car. Having these will not only mean that you have a proper set of instructions on how the car's systems work, and when it needs servicing, but it'll also make it easier to sell. 

The car history check

It's vital you carry out a Car History Check. This will show the recorded mileages and it will flag any issues if they exist - as well as telling you whether there's any outstanding finance, previous crash damage or theft warnings. Some of these checks also offer insurance so if you do later discover that it's been clocked or damaged you can get compensation.

Don't take a history check from the owner as a guarantee of anything - it could be out of date or simply forged.

Used car warranty details

Used car paperwork

If you're buying a second-hand car from a dealer, or in some cases a private individual, you might find that it comes with a warranty. These can have a multitude of get-out clauses that allow the warranty company to avoid paying for repairs, so read the warranty need-to-knows here.

If you're looking to buy a cheap second-hand runabout, check out our guide here. You can also find used cars for sale in our Used Cars for Sale section. Find out what you should aim to pay with a Used Car Valuation and read our extensive car reviews to research your next car.

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