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The best websites for checking a van before you buy

If you're looking for a used van or pick-up for your business, how can you be sure the vehicle you’ve found is really as good as it looks?

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If you’re changing your work vehicle for something newer, you want reliability, value for money and peace of mind. But how can you be sure that the used van or pick-up you’ve found is as good as it looks?

Many small business owners look to maximise their budgets by buying used. There are big savings to be had in the used van market and, provided you get the right vehicle at the right price, there’s every opportunity to bag yourself a great vehicle that will provide you with years of faithful service.

But what is the right vehicle? Well, for starters, it’s one that has the full service history that it promises, hasn’t got outstanding finance owed on it, has no hidden or unreported damage and hasn’t been stolen or scrapped.

All of these scenarios can happen and you could easily fall into one of these many traps. That could (at best) end up costing you serious money or (at worst) see you lose your newly-acquired wheels altogether.

So that tempting-looking vehicle may appear pristine, particularly if a savvy seller has spent a little cash having it professionally valeted and touched-up, but the shiny metal could be hiding horrors underneath. There are a number of pitfalls that, as a serious buyer about to part with hard-earned cash, you should be aware of and make sure you avoid.

The most common of these is outstanding finance. Missed payments by a previous keeper could mean the van is actually owned by a finance company and not the person trying to sell it to you. 

And problems could be much worse than that: the van’s mileage could have been rolled back to reduce the number on the odometer so that it appears a better bargain than it is. It’s a practice known as ‘clocking’ – it’s fraudulent and can be dangerous.

Other issues: you could be looking at a previously stolen van, or one that has been in a major accident and written off by an insurance company because it was deemed too expensive to repair properly. Its vehicle data could even be cloned from another similar model to try and hide its past.

Any of these scenarios could result in you losing both the vehicle and your money. Equally as bad, you could be putting yourself and your work mates at risk travelling in an unsafe vehicle that shouldn’t be on the road.

But with a little effort and a small outlay of money, you can obtain an extensive picture of the history and condition of the van that’s caught your eye, making it far less likely that you’ll be caught out. Even better, almost all of this pre-purchase checking can be done online.

Where’s it from?

Just how extensively you check out your intended purchase really depends on where you are buying. If the van is a manufacturer’s Approved Used model on the forecourt of a franchised dealer, you can be pretty confident it won’t be hiding any real problems.

Manufacturer Approved Used vans also come with a warranty, which adds to the peace of mind but, as a result, they also cost more than buying something from an independent dealer or privately purchasing.

Most independent used van sales businesses also offer warranties, but more care is needed here – these guarantees vary enormously in their actual value, while the vans on offer are generally older, higher mileage examples and so more likely to have issues.

You will certainly want to make a vehicle history check described, wrongly, by many sellers as an ‘HPI check’. HPI is one of several companies offering, at a cost, a comprehensive report on the history of a used vehicle, particularly whether it has any finance outstanding, has ever been written off, or been reported stolen.

HPI has been around so long that that the term ‘HPI check’ has become generic for any kind of vehicle history record – just as like vacuum cleaners are usually referred to as ‘Hoovers’, or 4×4 cars are called ‘Jeeps’.

Ignore signs on forecourts proclaiming ‘free HPI checks’ – official HPI checks cost a fee and anyone claiming to offer a free one is probably only providing a vehicle history check. You have no way of knowing how extensive that check will be: in most cases it will be no more than you can do yourself on government websites.

A comprehensive vehicle history check is essential if you take the most risky option of buying privately. Don’t necessarily walk away from that van you’ve been seeking, sitting on someone’s driveway with a ‘For Sale’ sign on it, but you should certainly start off sceptical. If, after doing the research you are still tempted, it might be worth paying out for the most comprehensive, but also most expensive, pre-purchase check – a vehicle inspection.

Particularly useful if you are not mechanically savvy, full vehicle inspections cost £150-£200. They also need the permission of the seller, and if they refuse this you should ask yourself why. What are they hiding?

Inspections involve an expert crawling all over the van or pick-up and taking it on a road test, then providing a comprehensive report on its condition. They don’t take it to a workshop and dismantle anything, so this kind of check is not completely foolproof, but it does give you a much clearer picture of what you are buying,

So before we look at some of the best sites to get a vehicle checked, resign yourself to using a little money from your business’s van budget. Whether that’s £20 or £200 it’s a small price to pay when you plan to spend thousands on a used van, especially if the report went on to reveal a dark past…

Step 1: The basics

DVLA check

Checking a car history on the DVLA website

URL: gov.uk/get-vehicle-information-from-dvla

The first step to ensuring you don’t get caught out is quick – and free!

Basic vehicle information is listed on the Driver & Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) website. All you need is the make and model of the vehicle, its registration number and the mileage shown on the dashboard. Try to see the mileage yourself – don’t rely on the seller to tell you.

Entering the registration on the DVLA website reveals a lot of information on the van which can immediately show if it is what it appears to be. One click then links to the government’s MOT database, proving whether the vehicle actually has a valid MOT certificate, when it expires, and crucially, a history of past tests – these include advisories, so you can compare with any ‘full service history’ that might be offered by the buyer.

Each MOT test also records the mileage, so you can check if what the clock reads now tallies with previous readings. If looking at this information throws up any questions, at least ask the seller to explain them. And if you are not fully satisfied with the answer, walk away.

Step 2: History checks

HPI Check

HPI check | The Car Expert

URL: hpicheck.com

They say: Not all history checks are created equal

As we’ve already mentioned, HPI is the granddaddy of used vehicle checking services, but you might initially be put off by the firm’s ‘Basic’ check costing £10, the same as some agencies’ comprehensive option.

However your tenner does buy the most important info – insurance write-offs and stolen vehicles. To get features such as the MOT history requires HPI’s £20 more comprehensive check, but this includes whether the vehicle has been cloned from an identical model, shows up discrepancies in the recorded and apparent mileage and reveals whether the logbook has been stolen.

The best-selling comprehensive check also provides a host of extra information, such as what the model commonly fails MOT tests on, how much it should be worth and what it will cost to own, down to the cost of fuel.

HPI also offers a multi-service – three different vehicles for £30 and is so confident of its data that all full checks include a £30,000 guarantee. Perhaps when you’ve been doing this for 84 years, as HPI has, you can afford to be that self-assured.

carVertical*

The best websites for checking a car before you buy – CarVertical

URL: carvertical.com/gb

They say: Trusted by over 1,000,000 people

Finding just a few facts missing from a van’s history can save you thousands of pounds in repairs down the road, or save your life if you were driving an unsafe vehicle without knowing it. That’s the warning carVertical give on the home page of their website, followed by descriptions of the four short steps to take, to get your report.

It has a huge database of seven billion data points from across the globe, compiled using information about individual vehicles, records from national and private registries, insurance company databases and stolen vehicle records internationally.

There’s no free check level offered but, for £19, potential used van buyers will get research from the stolen database, information about previous ownership, mileage history, accident reports, service history and notes on common faults with a particular model. Photos are also provided were they’re available.

A two-vehicle multiple check – the most popular offer – is available for £24 (£12 per report), while three checks costs £30 (£10 each, so nearly half the price of a single check).

CarVertical also offers larger ‘bulk’ numbers of vehicle checks for businesses such as workshops and fleets, at attractive rates.

Car Guide*

CarGuide vehicle history check and servicing information

URL: carguide.co.uk

Car Guide is slightly different from a traditional vehicle history check. Its range of services include all the vehicle history elements of rivals, but it also cleverly predicts the likely cost of future services and repairs.

There is a free option that includes the same MOT history you can get from the DVLA, although it also includes whether your chosen van has ever been listed as salvage, and it predicts likely failure points for future MOTs.

For £8 you can check out two vans and get a ‘Buyers Report’ on one of them, which includes revealing whether the van has outstanding finance, has been written off, is stolen or scrapped, plus likely service schedules and their costs.

Hard to beat for value is Car Guide’s £11 30-day access, allowing you to check as many vans as you want, shortlisting and comparing them, and producing buyer’s reports on two of them.   

MotorCheck*

URL: motorcheck.co.uk

They say: Don’t regret it, Motorcheck it!

MotorCheck promises wide coverage because it’s the only history check provider with a presence in the UK and Ireland. This, it says, ensures the best coverage and expertise in both of these markets.

It also says its relationship with organisations in the industry means its depth of write-off and mileage dates knowledge is unsurpassed, and backs all that up with a guarantee of up to £30,000 on every report it does.

The agency offers a free basic check, which includes confirmation of make and model, number of doors, fuel type and colour, but if you need a bit more information than that (and most people do), it’s worth opting for one of the paid-for services.

This starts at £10 for one check and for that you get a long list of inspections including finance, mileage and write-off checks, whether the van has been scrapped or stolen, the number of keepers, whether its number plate or colour has changed, MOT history, a list of recalls, a valuation and more.

If you have more than one van to put under the microscope, look for MotorCheck’s bundles: three for £15 or five for £20. There’s a chance to see a sample report before you buy, and its busy website contains lots of useful information and tips which make good reading.

Car Analytics

URL: caranalytics.co.uk

They say: The most comprehensive in the UK market

Car Analytics offers a free van history report to check details of vehicle tax and MOT status, but, as with similar services, you’re probably going to want more than that – which you’ll have to pay for.

The basic check, at just £2, gives reasonable peace of mind and is ideal as a first port of call. It includes the number of previous owners, whether the number plate or vehicle colour has been changed, whether the vehicle has been scrapped, if its VIN number matches official records, plus there’s a valuation.

Upgrading the check to a full report, for £10, will get you information such as outstanding finance, police stolen status, whether the van has been an insurance write-off or whether it has had a certificate of destruction, which means it has been destroyed. There’s also a ‘high-risk’ check regarding any financial disputes and a mileage anomaly check.

The site includes some interesting reading in the form of useful guides.

Freecarcheck

URL: freecarcheck.co.uk

They say: Our free reports are detailed

Any organisation that calls itself Freecarcheck has, at least, to offer one thing: a free vehicle check, and it does. Like some other agencies, Freecarcheck offers the option of a free report and then encourage you to upgrade to a fuller check.

Freecarcheck’s free van check is quite detailed. For a start you get a picture of the van you’re checking (not the exact vehicle) along with tax and MOT details, whether it’s an import, the engine size, power, engine number, colour, number of colour changes, year of manufacture and date of registration.

Upgrading is still advisable if you are serious about spending serious money though and the company’s premium report, for £10, gives greater peace of mind, including outstanding finance, whether it has been stolen, number of keepers, mileage anomalies, number plate charges, whether it has been a write-off and much more.

As well as vans, Freecarcheck also runs checks on coaches, motorcycles, trucks and even, it says, tractors!

Mycarcheck

Mycarcheck vehicle history check

URL: mycarcheck.com

They say: The vehicle data experts

If your budget is tight this is a good option. MyCarCheck does offer a free check, called a Factsheet, but all it provides is a valuation of how much the van should be worth and its MOT status and history – information you can get from the DVLA.

More useful is the £4 ‘Basic Check’ which is useful if you’re compiling a short list of vans to view. This will reveal if the vehicle has ever been stolen, exported, scrapped or written off by an insurance company, as well as providing the valuation and MOT status.

Crucially, the basic check does not include outstanding debt or finance. Adding just that essential information will raise the price to £10, and that ‘Comprehensive Check’ means you’re getting everything MyCarCheck has to offer.

The site does have one major plus – its extensive multi-vehicle service. Five comprehensive checks cost £25, 12 checks are £45 and you can even get 20 checks for £70. Hopefully you’ll find something you like before using all those up!

Step 3: Vehicle inspection

The AA

AA pre-purchase vehicle inspection

URL: www.theaa.com/vehicle-inspection

They say: Learn about hidden problems before you buy

The AA’s vehicle inspection is typical of the most extensive pre-purchase checking you can carry out and offers two options beginning with the ‘Basic’, costing from £142 and only available for vehicles up to 10 years old.

The engineer provides a report, with photos, focusing on up to 155 check points, plus a road test of up to five miles. Included are the body, engine compartment, electrics, suspension, steering, clutch, gearing, exhaust, fuel system, brakes, wheels and tyres.

A Comprehensive inspection costs from £191 and extends the areas covered up to 206 points, checks the bodywork for accident damage and extends the road test for up to 10 miles. If you’re an AA member, you’ll get 10% off the cost.

The RAC

The best websites for checking a car before you buy – RAC

URL: rac.co.uk/buying-a-car/vehicle-inspections

They say: The peace of mind you need

The RAC runs a similar series of vehicle checks to their main rivals. The ‘Basic’ test costs £99 and is a 218 point mechanical and structural inspection and three mile road test. Move up to the £189 ‘Comprehensive’ and you’ll get a 307 point check with 10 mile run out.

At £239, the ‘Advanced’ test includes diagnostic testing of key parts of the vehicle, analysing brake fluid and extending the road test up to 20 miles. The engineer’s report will also include photo evidence.

All prices correct as of May 2022 but have been rounded up to the nearest pound (for example, £10 instead of £9.99).

*The Van Expert has commercial partnerships with carVertical, Car Guide and MotorCheck. If you click through to their website and proceed to purchase a used van history check, we may receive a small commission. This does not affect the price you pay.

Tom Johnston
Tom Johnstonhttp://johnstonmedia.com/
Tom Johnston was the first-ever reporter on national motoring magazine Auto Express. He went on to become that magazine’s News Editor and Assistant Editor, and has also been Motoring Correspondent for the Daily Star and contributor to the Daily and Sunday Express. Today, as a freelance writer, content creator and copy editor, Tom works with exciting and interesting websites and magazines on varied projects.

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