Buying a used car: Documents checklist

One of the top questions from first time used car buyers is ‘what documents should I get when buying a used car?’ The good news is that if you’re buying from a dealership they will have a streamlined process to ensure everything is in order before you even see the car. However, it can be a bit more tricky if you’re buying privately and it’s essential that you get it right to ensure that you are driving the car away legally. Either way, it’s important to know what to look out for.


The V5C is also known as the log book or registration document for the car. This document is essential as it is issued by the DVLA to confirm specific details about the vehicle and is used to confirm proof of ownership. 

If you’re getting serious about wanting to buy a used car that’s on offer privately, ask to see the registration document. If you spot any inconsistencies on the document, for example, some of the car’s details don’t match up or the current owner’s details aren’t those of the person showing you the car, ask why. If you’ve met at the seller’s house and the address doesn’t match the V5C, ask why. The seller should be the registered keeper of the vehicle and it’s perfectly reasonable to ask them for some proof of identity before you make such a big purchase with them. 

The V5C is also where any Vehicle Identity Check (VIC) markers are recorded which indicates that the vehicle has been written off. You can also check the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) on the V5C document. When you’re looking to buy a used car, make sure that all VIN numbers on the car match up and match with the V5C. If they don’t, you may be looking at a stolen car. The most common places to find the VIN number on a car are the interior dash on the driver’s side, the driver’s side door pillar and on the front of the engine. 

If you’re buying from a dealership, these sorts of details will be well in hand already.

MOT Certificate

If the car is over three years old, which is likely when you’re buying a used car, it will need to have a valid MOT certificate. Make sure all the details on the document are correct, such as the make and model of the vehicle. Milage will also be recorded, so make sure this all matches up and that there are no strange gaps.

You’ll also want to check whether there are any advisory notes left by a mechanic which will indicate if there are any outstanding issues with the car. These kinds of issues won’t be major enough to prevent the car passing its MOT but should still be rectified in order to keep the car in top working order. You’ll want to note these when you consider how much you want to pay for the car as you may be paying for these fixes soon. If there are lots of advisory notes, you may want to be cautious as it could indicate a lack of care.

Check the MOT expiry date. If it’s coming up, it’s wise to ask the seller to get the vehicle re-tested before you commit. If they are unwilling to do this, there may be a problem. The last thing you want is to buy a car that needs an MOT straight away which unveils a whole host of expensive issues that need sorting out. 

If there are some gaps in the paperwork, you can use the government’s online service to check things like vehicle tax and MOT history.

Dealerships should provide vehicles MOT’d and serviced as standard. To give our customers an extra bit of peace of mind, we get all our servicing and MOTs carried out by trusted external business rather than in house to ensure all results are completely impartial.

Service History

A good way to check whether or not the car has been well maintained is to see its servicing history. If the owner has kept all servicing documents and receipts, that’s usually a good sign and you can check through these to see what work has been done on the car. Another good sign is that the original handbook and manuals are still with the car.

Make sure that any work carried out on the car matches up with what you know and that details like the garage’s name and location make sense.

Sometimes, paperwork does get lost and this doesn’t always mean the owner has something to hide. If you find gaps that you find suspicious in the vehicle’s history, you can move on to the next step to put your mind at rest.

Detailed Vehicle History

If you’re not entirely happy with the details you’ve been provided concerning the MOT and servicing history, you can always pay for a detailed vehicle history. This should cost in the region of £10 and could well be worth it. This will tell you if the car has been stolen, has any outstanding finance or if it has failed an MOT. This will also help confirm details like a number plate change.

This could be an important step if you’re buying privately. Dealerships should be fully confident before they advertise a vehicle that it has no issues, has never been stolen, has not been an insurance loss and that there is no outstanding finance from the previous owner. For example, at South Downs Car Sales we carry out HPI Checks on all of our cars and offer a minimum of a six month RAC warranty. 

Before you drive away

There are a couple of details you’ll need to sort out before you can drive the car away. Of course, you’ll need a valid driving licence along with a valid insurance policy for the car. However, you’ll also need to sort out car tax and make sure you have a receipt for the transaction. 

Car Tax

Before you drive away, you’ll need to make sure the vehicle is taxed. Road tax is not transferable when a car gets a new registered owner so it’s crucial that you remember to do this. The DVLA has an online service which is quick and easy to use or you can call their automated 24/7 phone service. 

Here at South Downs Car Sales, we are more than happy to set this up for you or you can always choose to do this yourself when you come to collect the car. This gives you the option to pay monthly by direct debit if this suits you better.


If you’re buying your used car from a dealership, then this will all be taken care of for you. If you’re buying through a private seller, make sure a receipt is drawn up with copies for you and the seller. As well as including details of both parties and the price you’ve agreed, add details such as the car’s registration number, make, model and mileage. 

For more information on buying a used car, see our detailed guide.

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