Tricks to cut costs including DIY checks and hidden council test centres
It's not the MOT test fee but repairing 'fails' that can cost a fortune. But did you know you can get cheap MOTs done by hidden council test centres? We run through what the test is, how best to book a test cheaply and what to do if you need repairs done.
MOTs: the key rules
Originally called the 'Ministry of Transport' test, it's now just an MOT. Either way, it's a safety and legal must for cars, motorbikes or any other vehicle.
You could be fined up to £1,000 for driving without an MOT, and if your vehicle isn't roadworthy, the penalties are even steeper.
Ensure you know the rules to give your car the best chance of passing – and to give you the best chance of staying safe – for less.
It's the owner's responsibility to ensure the vehicle has a valid MOT
The test information is held on a central database as well as on a paper certificate. It's the owner's responsibility to ensure their vehicle's certificate is valid, not for authorities to chase.
It's crucial to know when you should get your MOT
You need a test when the car's three years old (four years in Northern Ireland), then annually after that. Timing is crucial, though. Get a test in the month before the current certificate ends and the new one will expire exactly a year from the original's end date (the earliest date you can do this is printed on your test certificate).
But get it tested more than a month before the MOT's due, and it'll expire exactly a year later, meaning you lose out. Be aware that there are slightly different rules and processes for MOTs in Northern Ireland.
If you're not sure when your MOT is due, there's a simple MOT checker tool at Gov.uk. All you need to enter is the vehicle's registration number.
You can also get a free MOT reminder one month before your test's due via Gov.uk. You'll need to give an email address or phone number and the registration of a vehicle registered in England, Wales or Scotland. In Northern Ireland, you get a postal reminder seven weeks before it's due.
If your MOT's run out, you can still drive your car to a test centre provided the test's been booked in advance. And previously, if it failed the test you were still usually able to drive from the test station to a repair centre to get the problems that caused it to fail fixed, provided it still met the full requirements for road vehicles.
Yet under the rule changes that came into force in 2018, you can't drive away if a 'dangerous' fault is found when your car's being tested, regardless of whether your existing MOT is still valid. A dangerous fault means your car has failed the MOT and is deemed to be a risk to road safety or the environment, and mustn't be driven until it's repaired. If you do, you could be fined up to £2,500, get three penalty points and be banned from driving.
If a 'major' fault is found, you car will have failed the MOT, but you can drive away provided it's to get the fault repaired immediately.
If your car fails its MOT, you'll be given a 'refusal of an MOT' certificate and the vehicle will be logged on the MOT database. If you don't think it should have failed, you can appeal the result via the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA).
Companies can only charge up to the official maximum for an MOT, but as we show below, you can get them much cheaper. This isn't surprising when you consider that often this guarantees they get the repair business too. The maximum test costs are £54.85 for cars, motor caravans or quads and £29.65 for motorbikes. For a full list, see Gov.uk.
First do a DIY MOT of most common fails
According to DVSA data for the year up to March 2022 analysed by the RAC, a third of cars, vans and small passenger vehicles failed their MOTs first time, and often due to simple, avoidable reasons. Don't worry, checking for these requires common sense, not mechanical sense, though while some of the fails you can sort yourself, others will need professional assistance. Either way, sorting them before the test is usually cheaper than after.
Over a quarter of MOT failures are due to lights, reflectors and indicators. So walk around to check your car's, front and back.
The table below lists the most common reasons for failing an MOT based on data from the DVSA, and what to do about them. Of course, we're MoneySavingExperts, not motoring experts, so the info below on how to carry out checks has come from the DVSA and RAC.
|Lights, reflectors, electrics (11%)||Are all lights fully working? Have someone sit in the car while you walk around checking every light – front, rear, headlights and dipped, hazards and indicators and number plates.
You need to check front fog lights too – plus if your car was first used on or after 1 Sept 2009, check the reverse lights, and if first used on or after 1 Mar 2018, the daytime lights.
If any aren't working, buy a new bulb for a few quid and replace it. It's easy in most cars, though a few do make it more complex.
|Suspension (9%)||Check suspension. While a full suspension check is difficult, to see if the shock absorbers have gone, quickly apply your weight to each corner of the car then release. It should quickly settle back.|
|Brakes (7%)||Is there tension on the handbrake? Not easy to test yourself, and it'll need a proper mechanic to fix it. But if your brakes feel loose and unresponsive, or the handbrake slides up without resistance and can't be ratcheted at a set level, it's likely there's a problem.
You should check the brake wear warning light too if you have one – it's a light on the dashboard of some cars which comes on when the brake pads have been worn down. If your car's got one and it's lit, it could fail an MOT, so get it looked into first.
|Tyres (6%)||Check tyre pressure. To check tyre pressure, look up what they should be, and fill 'em up if needed.
Check tyre tread. This is the depth of grooves for road grip. The legal minimum's 1.6mm for a car tyre (enough to let surface water slip through). To measure, use the quick 20p tyre test detailed on the TyreSafe website. Pop a 20p coin on its edge into the main grooves of the tyre tread. If the outer rim of the coin is hidden, your tyres should be legal. If you can see it, get them checked.
|Windscreen, wipers, washers (5%)||Is the driver's windscreen damaged? Damage in the driver's central view should be no larger than 10mm. In the whole of the swept area, it should be no larger than 40mm. If it is, get it fixed pre-test (often this is included with fully-comprehensive car insurance policies).
Windscreen wipers? Front wipers are in the check. They need to clear the windscreen in conjunction with the washers. If your car was first used on or after 1 Sept 2009 and it has headlight washers, check they're working too.
|Exhaust, noise and leaks (3%)||Is the exhaust leaking? To check, start the engine (in a well-ventilated place, at normal temperature) and from the rear of the car listen for any unusual noises or abnormal smoke. These indicate a leak, which you should fix before the MOT.
If you've a diesel car with a diesel particulate filter (DPF), and there's smoke of any colour coming from the exhaust, it'll fail, so check it out before you take it to be tested.
Are all fluids topped up and staying put? Check the brake fluid, windscreen washer and oil reserves. You'll need to check for fluid leaks too.
|Steering (2%)||Is your steering working properly? Again this isn't really easy to check for yourself, so if you think the steering is less responsive than it could be, or have noticed any other issues, it's likely you need to get it looked at. Also check for a warning light.|
|The rest (N/A)||An all-over once-over. Make sure the fuel cap is secure and mirrors are in good condition, and doors, horn, seatbelts, speedo, etc, are all fully functional. Also check no other warning lights are on, and that bumpers and floors are in good condition.|
Next choose the right MOT test centre
For cars with faults, the MOT test fee is usually dwarfed by repair costs. While an 'MOT for £20' promotion sounds good, it's irrelevant if you're shelling out £1,500 to get problems fixed. Therefore what type of MOT you should opt for is largely dictated by your car's condition – and all the more so after new MOT rules came into force in 2018.
Is your car in tip-top condition? Find the cheapest MOT centre
If your car's in perfect condition and you'd be surprised if it failed, look for offers to get it as cheap as possible. It's worth checking local garages to see if they'll match a decent deal for a test fee you spot. Some colleges also offer cut-price MOT tests as well as repairs and servicing to the public. If you've used a college MOT centre, let us know in the MOT cost cutting discussion on the MSE Forum.
Here's what some of the biggest UK service and repair chains were charging for MOTs when we checked in July 2023:
- ATS Euromaster – £39.99
- Halfords* – £34.99 with free Halfords Motoring Club membership (£44.99 without)
- Kwik Fit – £39-£48 (depends on location and appointment time)
- Mr Clutch Autocentres – £39.99 at participating branches – £42.99-£43.99 at other branches
- National Tyres and Autocare – £44.99
Is your car in moderate condition and likely to need only minor repairs?
If it's likely or possible that only minor repairs will be needed, council-run centres come into their own – see the section below on council MOT test centres.
If it spots something minor, you'll still pass the MOT and be given your certificate, but it'll issue an advisory for recommended work – though it won't do the work for you. As the fault was minor, you have time to decide if it needs fixing. If you choose to get it fixed, you can then get quotes for the best price at a garage of your choice.
If you're pretty sure your car will need substantial repairs, the best solution is to do your research, find a garage you'd be happy to carry out the repairs and then get the MOT test done there. Ask family and friends for recommendations and call around – tell the garages the likely problems, then ask for quotes.
Remember, under MOT rules, a fail means you might not be able to drive away. Under the previous system, if your car needed major repairs there was a balance to be struck – while going direct to a garage that did repairs was convenient, getting a council MOT could sometimes mean your car would fail on fewer points and you could then drive it elsewhere to get it fixed.
However, under the changes that came into force in 2018, if a 'dangerous' fault – for example, insufficient tyre tread or contaminated brake fluid – is found, you won't be able to drive it away until it's been fixed. If you go to a council test centre which doesn't do repairs, your only option will be to have it towed.
If your car fails: MOT retest fees
If your vehicle does fail its MOT, then once the repairs have been completed it needs to be retested. Retests can be free or discounted, depending on where you had your vehicle tested in the first place.
Retest info's printed on the refusal certificate – and you can get full details on retests at Gov.uk – what you'll need to do depends on what the defects are, but generally:
Retests are free when repaired at a test centre and retested within 10 days...
Retests are free when the repairs are done at the test centre and the car's retested within 10 days. If repairs are done elsewhere, it's free if returned to the test centre by the end of the next working day. But to qualify for this all the failure points must be on the list below.
Access panels, battery, bonnet, boot lid, brake pedal anti-slip, doors (including hinges, catches and pillars), drop-sides, electrical wiring, fuel filler cap, headlamp cleaning and levelling devices (that don't need a headlamp aim check), horn, lamps (excluding headlamp aim), loading door, main beam 'tell-tale', mirrors, rear reflectors, registration plates, seatbelts (but not anchorages), seatbelt load limiter, seatbealt pre-tensioner, seats, sharp edges or projections, steering wheel, tailboard, tailgate, towbars (excluding body around anchorage points), tyre pressure monitoring system, vehicle identification number (VIN), windscreen glass, wipers and washers, wheels and tyres (excluding motorbikes and sidecars).
Test done at a council centre? Get up to half off retests when...
... the repairs are done elsewhere, provided the vehicle's brought back to the original test centre for a partial retest within 10 working days (applies to any test centre, but primarily relevant for council test centres). One partial retest's allowed per full test.
How the MOT rules changed in 2018
As we've mentioned a few times above, in May 2018, the way the MOT test works in England, Scotland and Wales changed.
Crucially, the current rules could mean your car gets stuck at the garage if it's found to have a 'dangerous' fault, as you won't be allowed to drive it away – you'll have to get it repaired at the garage or towed elsewhere. This could happen under the previous rules if a car was deemed 'not roadworthy', but the current rules have brought in specific checks which can take your car off the road.
Here's a round-up of what changed:
New defect categories – if you get a 'dangerous' fault you won't be able to drive away. Problems are now categorised as 'minor', 'major' or 'dangerous' – previously, you simply passed or failed.
- Your car will still pass if a minor fault's found, though repairs should be made as soon as possible.
- A major fault means a fail, but you'll be able to drive your car to another garage to get it fixed if it can't be repaired where it's been tested.
- If you get a dangerous fault, you won't be able to drive it away – you'll have to get it fixed on the spot or towed elsewhere.
It's worth noting you've always been forbidden from driving your car away from an MOT if it fails to meet a minimum standard of roadworthiness, so this isn't a complete change. But there are some possible 'dangerous' fails under the new rules which weren't tested for previously, such as if you have contaminated brake fluid or the floor is dangerously "deteriorated or insecure".
Unfortunately there's no easy-to-use list showing the new defect categories, but you can check how individual faults are categorised in the MOT inspection manual.
- Stricter rules for diesel cars. Stricter emissions limits for diesel cars with diesel particulate filters (DPFs) now apply – check your car's handbook to find out if it has one. Your car will get a major fault if the MOT test finds there's smoke coming from the exhaust or any evidence that the DPF's been tampered with.
- New checks as part of the test. These include whether the tyres are obviously underinflated, if the brake fluid is contaminated, if there are any fluid leaks that pose an environmental risk, brake-pad warning lights, if brake pads or discs are missing, engine malfunction indicator lamps, if cars have reverse lights and headlight washers, and if 'first used' from 1 September 2009 ('first used date' in most means when a vehicle's first driven out of the factory).
A few elements that previously resulted in a fail have been reclassified as minor faults, such as the brake fluid level being below the minimum mark. See the full list of changes.
- New-look MOT certificate. The MOT certificate now lists any defects found under the new categories, ie, as dangerous, major or minor faults. The Government service that allows you to check MOT history has been updated to include them.
- Some cars over 40 years old won't need an MOT. If your car's over 40 years old (check online with the DVLA) it no longer needs an MOT, unless it's been modified substantially.
For full details of the changes, go to Gov.uk.
In Northern Ireland, all MOTs are Government-run and carried out at Driver & Vehicle Agency (DVA) test centres. None of these carry out repairs, and there's a fixed fee as well as some other requirements (for example, your first MOT's needed after four years), so MoneySaving opportunities are limited. See the NI Direct website for full info and to find your nearest test centre.
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