Our guide to your car’s annual check-up will help you avoid an irritating and expensive MOT failure
The MOT test can make many car owners nervous. A failure could cost hundreds of pounds in repair bills, or, in some cases, take your pride and joy off the road for good.
But there’s no need to stress about it; once you’re familiar with how vehicles are tested, it’s easy to tell if your car’s likely to pass or fail before you head to the test centre, and get any potential faults rectified.
- What is an MOT?
- How much does it cost?
- How can I check if my car is MOT’d?
- How do I check my MOT history?
- Is my car exempt from MOT?
- MOT checklist
- Most common reasons for MOT failure
What is an MOT?
The MOT is your car’s annual roadworthiness examination, and is carried out in accordance with the latest regulations issued by the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA).
All vehicles more than three years old must have a valid MOT before being driven on public roads, and you can be fined up to £1000 for driving a vehicle after its certificate has expired. Insurance companies are also within their rights to invalidate a damage claim if the policyholder cannot produce proof of their vehicle’s roadworthiness.
To pass, a vehicle must conform to a strict set of safety and emissions criteria, with precise requirements varying according to its size, age and class. If any faults are identified as dangerous or illegal, the vehicle will automatically fail, but less significant shortcomings – such as a nearly worn-out tyre or rusty exhaust – will be listed as an ‘advisory’ and will likely need to be rectified before the next test.
Drivers can visit any one of around 20,000 licenced MOT stations in Britain, with the average test lasting around 45 minutes.
How much does it cost?
As of 2010, the maximum fee a garage can charge for an MOT test is £54.85 for cars and light vans. This price covers all aspects of the procedure including admin charges, material costs and labour.
If a vehicle fails its test, it can remain at the garage for repair and be submitted for a free partial re-test within 10 working days. When this time has elapsed, however, it will need to undergo the whole test again wherever it is taken. If an owner chooses to repair the vehicle themselves or take it to a different garage, it can be re-tested within the 10-day period for half the original cost.
Drivers should note that a re-test discount is only applicable once. If your vehicle fails twice, you have to pay the full cost of the next MOT test.
How can I check if my car is MOT’d?
Most garages will offer to send you a free reminder text in the run-up to your scheduled MOT date, but running a vehicle’s numberplate through https://www.gov.uk/check-mot-history will tell you when its current certificate expires.
How to check your MOT history online
The gov.uk MOT checker can also be used to review previous MOT tests, with comprehensive information available on past advisories and failures. This is useful if you need to remind yourself of what needs fixing before heading to the garage, or if you’re deciding whether or not to buy a second-hand car.
Particular attention should be paid to the history of non-consumable parts like the suspension mounts, chassis and lower body as failure in these areas will be costly to repair, and likely fatal for older cars. It’s worth remembering that items such as tyres, ball joints, headlights and brake pads wear out anyway, and should be replaced as recommended.
Is my car exempt from MOT?
Cars less than three years old do not need to be put through an MOT test, as it’s assumed their condition will not dangerously deteriorate while they’re still ‘new’. Any areas of concern will likely be pointed out to an owner and repaired during a dealership check-up or service anyway.
Similarly, vehicles manufactured over 40 years ago are classed as ‘historic’ and are not officially required to be tested, but can still be deemed unsafe by the police and taken off the road.
To claim historic exemption, a vehicle must be largely in original condition, with no substantial modifications made to the bodywork, suspension or powertrain. Many classic car owners choose to have their car tested anyway, just for peace of mind, which is generally accepted to be the best course of action.
Often overlooked, your car’s number plate is one of the easiest things you can check to avoid a failure or advisory. To pass, it must be the right colour (usually black/yellow at the rear, black/white at the front), be fully legible (no significant cracks, scrapes or fading) and display the correct registration format for your car’s year.
The DVSA also advises that the characters on your number plate must be in the correct font, and that the plate itself must be sized appropriately.
Lights and indicators
Every test will include a test of your car’s headlights, which should be aimed properly, switch correctly between dipped and full beam and have clear, unmarked lenses.
The indicators will also be tested at this stage, with a failure issued for any non-flashing bulbs. The number plate light, reversing lights and any fog lamps will also be checked.
Any vehicle with improperly functioning brake lights is dangerous, so they should illuminate clearly when pressure is applied to the brake pedal during the test.
The ‘presence, operation, condition’ rule comes into play here, as well; if your car has a centrally mounted third brake light (which it doesn’t legally need), it has to work. The basic rule is: if it’s there, it needs to function.
Tyre tread depth is integral to a vehicle’s safety, and can be one of the most costly failures to fix. It doesn’t take much to check beforehand, though – the minimum average tread depth allowed on UK roads is 1.6mm – or roughly the same as the border of a 20p coin – so if you’ve got one in your pocket, run it down every groove and you’ll see how much life’s left in your rubber.
While you’re there, check the sidewalls for bulges and cracks, as these are not only MOT failures, but highly dangerous at any speed.
Your front wipers should be in good working order, and be capable of effectively clearing dirt from the windscreen. This means the blades themselves must not have any tears or cracks that leave smears across the glass in rainy conditions.
Rear wipers aren’t tested, but if your car has one and it isn’t working, it’s best to get it fixed in any case, for peace of mind.
Windscreen washer jets must be angled and pressured correctly. It might surprise you to know that even showing up with an empty screen wash tank can result in a fail, so raid your garage shelves for a bottle of screenwash!
Seats and seatbelts
Seatbelts save lives, which is why they’re thoroughly checked during an MOT test. The belts themselves must extend and retract as intended, be in good usable condition (ie not about to rip) and clip securely into the fastener.
An older car might fail its test if the seatbelt anchorage points (usually the top and bottom of the B-pillar) are excessively damaged or corroded, as this significantly reduces the device’s ability to keep the occupant in place during an impact.
Fuel and engine oil
It might seem obvious, but it’s a good idea to make sure your car has enough fuel for the MOT test to be carried out. The tester will run the car for a few minutes during the emissions test, and will likely move it around the workshop for different parts of the process.
The same goes for oil; check your car’s dipstick before heading to the garage to make sure the engine’s not in any danger of running dry. An MOT tester is within their rights to refuse to test any car with low fluids.
What are the most common reasons for MOT failure?
It might surprise you to learn that the most common reason for MOT failure is also one of the cheapest faults to rectify. Official data from the DVSA shows that around 19% of vehicles fail for a lighting issue, which can usually be attributed to nothing more than a blown bulb. Best practice is to check that the indicators, headlights, brake lights and reverse lights all function correctly before the MOT test.
Suspension faults are the second most common, but can be much more expensive to fix. Testers won’t like leaky shock absorbers, cracked springs or corroded mounting points, so get underneath with a torch and look for any signs of imminent failure. Also, keep an ear out over potholes and speedbumps, as worn bushings and loose top mounts will make a loud knocking noise.
Brakes and tyres are another area where your car can let you down, but luckily it should be quite obvious if you’ve got a problem here. Running a 20p coin around the tyres will give an idea of their life expectancy, and checking the inner and outer sidewalls will reveal any dangerous bulges or cracks. You can usually tell the condition of your brakes by their performance and any sound they make, but it doesn’t take too long to remove the wheel for a close inspection of the discs, drums, pads or shoes.
Finally, making sure you can see while driving is an absolute must. Get rid of anything that could obstruct your view of the road ahead – phone holders, air fresheners, sat navs and stickers – and ensure there are no chips or cracks in the windscreen itself.