When looking for a used car, you often see ‘service history’ or ‘full service history (FSH)’ advertised. What does this mean and what is important?
First of all, even if the proof that a car has been regularly serviced is good, it does not in itself increase the value of the car as far as price guides are concerned. It just makes it more likely that one buyer will choose it over the next, because they are reassured to buy a well-maintained car.
However, when you trade in any part of that car, it matters, says Jeremy Yea, reviews editor at Cap HPI. “Depending on the age of the vehicle, franchise dealers may offer more on a parts exchange appraisal if they see a history performed by an OEM [original equipment manufacturer] reseller/authorized partner. However, while a thorough service record can produce higher used car values to some degree, there are many other factors to consider.
Over the years, the cars have needed maintenance less often, but they all need regular checks. Services are generally due every 10,000 to 15,000 miles or every 12 months.
For petrol and diesel cars, this includes engine and sometimes gearbox oil changes, oil, water and fuel filters, coolant, replacement of belts that drive different parts of the engine and spark plugs. That’s aside from things that wear out with use like tires and brakes. Even with electric cars you will want to know if the battery coolant and especially the tires and brakes have been looked at and the software is up to date. They also have air conditioners with the associated filters.
“Everything under the hood, like everything in a grocery store, has an expiration date,” says Jamie Willis, Autodata’s technical support manager, who provides technical advice and instructions on repair of vehicles at independent and franchised garages. “Oil has an expiration date, belts have an expiration date – filters may not be so much, but they become brittle and lose their ability to filter.”
What to look for
If a car is advertised with a full or partial service history, you should expect to receive proof. The traditional proof of every service used to be a date stamp and a note of the mileage in the service book that came with the manual, but that is slowly disappearing. “If they’re there, don’t take them as the only evidence,” Willis said.
“If someone just presents me with a book of stamps, each of which I could have made tomorrow on Ebay for any dealer for £10. What I’m looking for is a record that the service was made, along with supporting documentation (a VAT registered invoice that details the parts and where they obtained them from).
Data privacy rules (GDPR) don’t prevent you from asking the garage that previously serviced the car you’re looking at to print out a simple list of what was done and when. Only personal data is deleted.
Some used car retailers now specify in advance when the car was last serviced. For example, our business partner Cazoo displays previous service mileage and intervals on all its cars and if one is due, it will carry it out before handover. Used car retailer Big Motoring World also provides an online service report to anyone browsing.
With older prestige or sports cars (e.g. many older Porsches) you can see ‘main dealer then specialist service history’. This is common as these cars lose value and new owners are not willing to pay the high prices of an official dealership. This shouldn’t be a problem and many specialists are gaining more knowledge of the quirks of these cars as they age. Specialist garages may be happy to confirm work they have done over the phone (they may want your new business).
How to read evidence
You want to see a regular series of entries from a year after the car was registered. The main thing is to see a regular inspection by a garage even if few or many kilometers have been driven. In the latter case, no work may have been needed for cars with flexible service intervals.
Some brands such as BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and Audi, which are often sold to high-mileage professional drivers, offered flexible or condition-based maintenance.
Modern engine oils in cars with regular daily highway miles (where the engine is fully warmed up and under less stress) do not need an annual oil change. As part of flexible maintenance, Audis, for example, only need to be serviced at least every 18,600 miles or every two years.
The pandemic added to service gaps where people weren’t using their cars and/or unable to find an open garage anyway. Some owners will have had service when it became possible, others will not, covering thousands of miles in the original interval.
If you’re looking at a BMW or a Mercedes, since the 2010s they have a feature where you can sit in the car and use the rotary controller in the center console to scroll through menu settings to see the service history after a BMW/Mercedes dealer or specialist has entered the date and type of service.
You can check oil and brake pad changes individually, whether the brake fluid has been changed and also what needs to be changed next and when.
The rubber on the belts that drive the alternator (electric) and the air conditioning pump will become brittle over time and will therefore need to be replaced at some point, but the most important belt is the cam belt.
Since the 1970s, the valves at the top of the engine (which let in fuel and air and exhaust gases) have been opened and closed in sequence by camshafts which are driven by a rubber toothed belt and synthetic at the front of the engine. . The same belt usually drives the water pump which circulates the cooling water.
All you need to know about a cam belt is that if it’s worn so badly it breaks, the valves stick and your engine needs to be rebuilt or scrapped.
Manufacturers generally recommend changing timing belts based on time or mileage. This could vary from 40,000 to 100,000 miles and between four and six years. An online search may reveal the exact mileage/time of the car you have chosen.
That said, some cars have metal or chain cams (also called timing chains), which last much longer, typically 150,000 miles, but you can’t really tell if the car you’re looking at has one by searching on Google or get the owner’s manual.
Not all petrol or diesel car owners will need to have a cam belt they own changed. “A lot of people actually don’t put 60,000 miles on their own vehicle,” Willis says.
“They tend to move them a little faster. What that means is I may have put $40,000 on it and you as the new owner are going to have to pick up that cambelt bill, or people move them right before they’re due. We insist a lot on that. Yes, it’s a big ticket – five or six hundred pounds – and if it works you’re in for a world of pain. For me, prevention is better than cure. »
So if a cam belt has just been changed, that’s a bonus, but if the mileage shows the car you’re buying is due for it, bargain hard if you can or put some cash aside.