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Buying a car: making sense of the paperwork

Buying second-hand can save you serious money, but it can have risks.

You need to be able to pick up on warning signs that indicate underlying issues with the car, or suggest the current owner might be twisting the truth. And scrutinising the paperwork is a great place to start. When you hand over cash in return for a used car, you want to be 100% sure you've made the right choice.

Here are our top tips on making sense of the paperwork:


The V5C is more commonly known as the registration document or log book. The first thing to do is check the car's make, model and number plate matches what's written in the book. The same goes for the car's Vehicle Identification Number (VIN), found on the lower part of the windscreen.

The V5C will tell you how long the current owner has had the car, as well as the details of all former owners. Alarm bells should ring if the car's changed hands many times in a short space of time; there might be a valid reason for this, but more often than not it's because there are issues with it.

If a private seller asks to meet in a public area, refuse. Always go to their home so you can be sure the address pairs up with the one written on the V5 keeper's document.

Service history and MOT

Generally speaking, a comprehensive service history is a sign the current owner has taken care of their car. This is more important if you're forking out lots of money on the car, as you'll want to be sure all the parts are in top working order.

It's really easy to check the car's MOT status on the website. The page will flag up any advisories the last tester recommended to make – it's worth checking if the work has been carried out.

The online history will also have a recording of the car's mileage at each MOT, so look out for any discrepancies.

Car manual/handbook

The owner's manual won't tell you if the car you're looking at is problematic, but still, it's a good thing to have. The handbook's basically an encyclopaedia of the car – in it you'll find everything from part descriptions to service tips and advice for carrying out work. If the car's perfect but the manual isn't intact, you may be able to buy or access one online.

Tax and insurance

Before you can drive off in your new, used car, you're required by law to have insurance and car tax in place. Bear in mind tax is no longer transferred when you buy a car, so you'll need to arrange it by filling out the new keeper's slip on the DVLA's website . In terms of insurance, it's worth lining up cover with a reputable provider beforehand, so all you need to do is call them on the day to proceed.

Learn what to look out for in the paperwork, inspect the right parts and ask the right questions, and there's no reason why you won't end up with a quality used car.

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