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What the MOT history check can’t tell you about a car

What the MOT history check can’t tell you about a car

19 January 2020 Concept Car

MOT checks won’t win any popularity contests any time soon. However, they can be incredibly useful. If you’re a driver, it can alert you of potential dangers for your own safety. As a buyer, the free MOT history check sheds a light on possible weaknesses and issues the car may have. In this article, we sum up everything you need to know to reap the biggest benefit from it.

Overview/Summary [If you don’t want to read the entire article]

An MOT check is an annual test to verify if your car is fit for UK roads. It is valid for twelve months and can be renewed up to a month before it expires.

It mainly serves to check two important areas: Whether your automobile is safe and whether it meets environmental standards.

An MOT usually takes between three quarters of an hour to sixty minutes. You will often be able to have the car checked while you wait. However, if the mechanic detects serious concerns, she will have to repair the vehicle. Depending on the seriousness of those issues, you may need to find a replacement car.

Underlying problems

An MOT check can reveal many underlying problems. Among others, it can give you valuable information on the following:

  • Issues with the lights of your car. They need to be perfectly aligned and have the right colour.
  • Steering and suspension.
  • Safety: This is to protect both you and other traffic participants from harm.
  • Emission levels: Your car needs to meet all applicable environmental standards.

After an extensive overhaul, the MOT check has recently become even stricter. Mostly, the new MOT test checks the same areas, but it does so more thoroughly.

There can be many different reasons for failing an MOT. These do not need to be major issues. The garage will be able to take care of most of them within a few hours. Sometimes, you will even be able to deal with them yourself.

Essential information for buyers

If you’re looking to buy a car, the free MOT history check can provide you with essential information. It can indicate how often the car has failed an MOT in the past, what the reasons for failing were and how committed the previous owner was to getting things in order again. It can thus contribute to your decision whether or not to buy the car.

Vehicle history checks by other providers, such as the AA or RAC can add yet more information to the equation:

  • Outstanding finance: Does the car still have debt on it? If so, this is a reason not to buy it.
  • Stolen vehicle: Are you possibly about to buy a car which is reported as stolen?
  • Write-Offs: Another reason not to buy is if the vehicle has already been written off.
  • Import-Export: Some cars are okay to drive overseas but not in the UK. These import vehicles are a definite no-no.


Having your car checked every year can be annoying to say the least.

But we can all agree that MOT testing is incredibly useful.

For one, it protects both you and your car. The annual MOT test is one of several important components to make sure your vehicle is safe to drive. It may not be the most in-depth check that’s out there. But it does contribute to your overall security.

Secondly, it provides valuable information if you intend to buy a used car. Verifying whether the vehicle has consistently passed its MOT checks will help you make the right decision. Some buyers, in fact, are perfectly content to rely on a test drive and MOT checks alone.

That may be a mistake. As we’ll point out in this article, an MOT can tell you quite a lot about the quality of a car. But it it can’t tell you everything you need to know.

Table of Contents

What an MOT can tell you

Before we go into what the MOT check won’t tell you – let’s first take a look at what it can.

This, as you’ll quickly discover, is quite a lot. You can gather all of the following data directly on the government website. It’s free of charge, so it won’t cost you a penny.

Fails and Passes

An MOT check will, first of all, reveal how often a particular car has passed or failed the inspection. This is revelatory information and tells you quite a bit about how well the vehicle has been maintained.

Frequent fails need not be a major issue per se, as long as the car is in a good condition. Some of the most typical reasons for not passing your MOT include a failure to clean up waste near the pedals, or faulty windscreen wipers. Neither of these are entirely irrelevant. But none of them qualifies as a reason not to buy a car.

But if a previous owner can simply not seem to get it right at the first (or second) try, it does make you wonder. Even more so, if the reasons for not passing are more serious.

So what are possible reasons for flunking your MOT?

The greatest thing about the government’s MOT history website is that it will allow you to view every single test and the reasons why a car did not pass. Simply visit the website of the vehicle enquiry service and enter the license plate of the car in question.

So what is actually checked in an MOT test? Up until last year, the following points were verified:

  • VIN and registration plate: The tester will verify that your vehicle identification number and registration plate are where they should be. They will also check that everything is legible and correct.
  • Lights: Are the lights functioning? Are they bright enough? Are the headlights aiming in the right direction? All these questions are part of the MOT check.
  • Steering and suspension: This is easily one of the most important aspects of each test. The MOT mechanic will verify if your steering and suspension are working properly and are fit for driving.
  • Safety: A few elements pertaining to traffic safety are routinely checked during each MOT test. These include windscreen wipers, safety belts, seats and horn.
  • Emission levels: Your car needs to be up to current emission standards. One reason is, obviously, the environment. The other is to ensure you’re paying the right amount of taxes.
  • Vehicle structure and stability: The MOT verifies various aspects of a car’s structural integrity. This ranges from the bodywork and the doors to the tyres and brakes.

And there’s more!

This is quite an extensive list already. Still, the MOT test pales in comparison to check-ups by the AAA or RCA. To bridge that gap, last year saw an expansion of the MOT test. A plethora of new items have been added to it. This will make it considerably more comprehensive.

We’re not talking exotic or overly pedantic details here. In fact, you’ll be surprised that some of the new points were not part of the MOT check before. The way we see it, these changes will significantly improve the informative value of these inspections. They bridge the big gap between an MOT and an HPI check, which we’ll get into later.

The more detailed check-up may result in you flunking your MOT more often. Then again, they also allow you to more easily identify potential flaws when looking for a suitable used vehicle. In the end, everyone should benefit from the new rules.

The new and improved MOT check

Here, then, is an overview of the most important additions to the MOT criteria for passing:

  • All tyres need to be properly inflated. The older version of the MOT did already control the tyres. But it was more concerned with their general condition. So the new check expands the old one, making it even safer.
  • There will also be a closer look at fluids. Brake fluids need to be ‘clean’ (i.e. not contaminated). Headlight washers need to be topped up. And there may not be any leaks posing a threat to the environment or the safety of the passengers.
  • Brakes and brake pads will be checked even more thoroughly. They need to work smoothly and the car should not “pull to one side“.
  • All lights need to work perfectly. It is not enough for them to just ‘work’. They also need to be exactly the right colour.
  • There is no tolerance for all the ‘funny’ little items that some drivers collect in front of or on their front screen. Stickers, air fresheners or that cheery nodding dog are fine only as long as they don’t obstruct your view of the road.

The limits of the MOT

We already hinted at one important thing: An MOT test is merely intended to verify whether a car is safe to drive on UK roads and meets local guidelines.

As the Ministry of Transport write on their website:

“The MOT test checks that your vehicle meets road safety and environmental standards.”

The MOT can not tell you anything whatsoever about the quality of the car in question. Some of its points do overlap with, say, an AAA or RCA car inspection. But it is not intended to give you buying advice.

Importantly, neither does an HPI check. This is something many potential buyers still do not understand. Both an MOT and HPI check a variety of important points. What they don’t do is provide you with any indications about whether a car is likely to last for many years or if it’s going to break down within weeks of purchase.

What an MOT test does not check

Not only does an MOT check not provide you with any concrete buying advice. There are also quite a few essential pieces of information that are not addressed in it.

Here are some of the points that an HPI check will verify, but an MOT won’t:

Outstanding finance

When someone sells you a used car, you expect it to be fully paid off. This, however, is anything but certain. It is perfectly legal to sell items which still have outstanding finance on them, cars included.

This represents a burden in two respects. Firstly, as the new owner, you are now responsible for paying off the loan. And secondly, you’re actually not yet the current owner until you’ve met your obligations.

Now, technically speaking, not mentioning any outstanding debt on a vehicle constitutes fraud. In theory, you should be able to reverse the purchase. Unfortunately, this won’t always be possible, especially if the seller is a hardened criminal and has long since disappeared from sight.

Investing in an HPI check is therefore usually worth the money.

Stolen vehicle

What could be worse than buying a car which still has debt on it? Buying a stolen vehicle!

Admittedly, this is not a very common event. But it is not quite as rare as one might expect or indeed hope. Buying a stolen car is the very worst thing that can happen to you. Not only will you have lost the money paid for financing it. You’ll also have to return the car to its true owner as soon as it’s found by the police.

Don’t expect this information to be part of the MOT data on the official website. Somewhat surprisingly, it isn’t. Which makes for another reason to pay for a more comprehensive test.


Even if you’re careful, accidents happen and cars can get damaged. If this happens, either of the following things can happen:

  • The car needs to be repaired.
  • The car’s so badly damaged that it’s written off. In this case, it is deemed unfit to ever be driven again.

When you buy a car that’s been involved in an accident, both cases present you with a problem. If a car hasn’t been properly repaired, you will need to shell out even more cash to have it fixed. Usually, an MOT check up won’t protect you against this risk. Instead, this is something that only a personal inspection by an expert can detect.

Best intentions are not enough

If the car has been written-off, on the other hand, it should never again be driven in the UK. Nonetheless, cars which fall in this category are unfortunately sometimes sold to unsuspecting customers. If you’re one of them, you’re about to have a rude awakening. Even if you bought the car with the best intentions and plan to have it repaired, you won’t be allowed to use it.

To prevent such a disaster, you will need to pay for an HPI check. MOTs don’t check this.

Import / Export

Finally, an MOT can not tell you if a car was possibly manufactured for a different market.

With everything becoming more global, we often expect regulations to be the same everywhere. This is far from being the case, however. If you’re buying a car which was originally intended for the South African market, you may hardly notice a difference. But it may not meet UK regulations.

To avoid problems, only buy and drive cars explicitly produced for use here.

As you can see, there are quite a few things that an MOT test can not tell you. Which is why we strongly recommend an HPI check and inspecting a car in person or with an expert friend. It may cost you a few Pounds more. But failing to do so could cause a great deal of regret.


What, essentially, does an MOT check?

An MOT verifies if your car meets all required safety and environmental standards.

What did the recent MOT update change?

The new MOT check doesn’t look very different from the old one. It has mainly become more detailed and allows for even less leeway. For you as a driver, very little has changed. As long as you take good care of your car and follow relevant regulations, you should be okay.

Specifically, tyres need to be inflated, all fluids need to be clean and topped up. Inspectors will minutely verify all brakes and also make sure the lights don’t just ‘work’, but are perfect in every regard.

What can you do to avoid flunking an MOT?

If you’re worried you might flunk the MOT car check, here are a few links to websites offering advice:

  • The Gazette Herald recommends targeting the three areas which cause most failures: Lights (simply check each light before driving to the garage), tyres (put a 20p coin in the tread to see if the tyres still come up to the mark) and fluids (top up steering fluid, water and oil).
  • Who Can Fix My Car adds another important area of the car: Washers, wipers and mirrors. If the washer jets don’t release the water but you can hear a deep humming sound, this could indicate clogging. You can easily clean all mirrors yourself and replace a worn-out windscreen wiper.
  • Confused.com offers a long list of points you can check at home.

Are negative MOT reports a reason not to buy a car?

It depends. In some cases, an MOT history can uncover troubling problems. They can also confirm suspicions you may have about the car’s safety.

However, in many cases, you can simply buy the vehicle and take care of the issues you found.

Make sure to use problematic MOT data as a tool to haggle down the price.

Can an MOT replace a full car history check?

No, the two are two entirely different things. If you want to be absolutely sure, always get a history check as well. You can get a cheap version of these tests for just a few Pounds. Even a more in-depth version won’t cost the world and can protect you from making costly mistakes.

Where can I find official information on MOT checks?v

Everything you need to know is available freely from the government’s MOT website.

19 January 2020 Concept Car