Buying a used car: What you need to think about

General advice

Wherever you choose to buy, here are some general tips on buying a used car.

Budget carefully

Get insurance quotes and check car tax rates before signing on the bottom line, and remember to factor in the cost of any work that might be needed too.

If you’re going to borrow money to buy the car it’s a good idea to get loan quotes before you go out to view any cars.  That way you’ll know what you can afford and will be able to tell whether any finance a dealer offers you is good value or not.

Do your homework

Check price guides and compare similar cars in the classifieds so you know as much as you can about the value of different cars to avoid being overcharged.

Don’t view a car in the rain, in poor light or at night

You won’t be able to check the condition of the car properly if it’s wet – water hides scratches, dents and other problems. Make sure you can see the vehicle clearly and from all angles.

Ask about service history

Most cars require some work during the year so the owners of a car a few years old should have amassed quite a sheaf of garage bills for work or parts as well as previous MOT certificates, and records of regular servicing.

  • If there’s no history then ask why
  • Does it look like there might be a persistent fault that still may not have been fixed?
  • Does the history tell a consistent story

Buyer beware

Be wary of anything that seems like a real bargain, or has a very low mileage for its age.  There are bargains to be had but in general, if a deal looks too good to be true then it most likely is.

If you know what you’re doing then use our DIY inspection checklist to help make sure you look the car over thoroughly.

Cam belt

As well as regular (usually annual) servicing there are major items like brake fluid, antifreeze or cam belt renewal that car manufacturers specify should be done at a certain age or mileage.

If a cam belt breaks the resulting damage is likely to run into several thousand pounds and often a new engine is the most economical option.

Some engines have a chain instead of a belt and these normally last the life of the vehicle but if your car does have a belt you must make sure it’s replaced when due.

If a belt change was due but the service record doesn’t show clearly that it was done then the belt will have to be renewed as soon as possible for peace of mind.

Handbook

Make sure the handbook is in the car as they can be expensive to replace if not.

Look to see how the security system works – and check that it does – and find out what keys were provided when the car was new. Modern car keys can cost £100+ to replace so if you need more than one key and there’s only one available you’ll need to bear that cost in mind.

Coloured ‘master’ keys provided by some manufacturers to program new spare keys for the car are even more expensive to replace.

There’s no legal requirement but cars are generally sold new with at least one spare key.  If there’s not a spare now ask why not.

Test Drive

The test drive is your only opportunity to check the car’s general mechanical condition and to find our for sure that it meets all your needs:

  • Is the driving position comfortable?
  • Can you reach/operate all the controls easily?
  • Do the child seats fit?
  • Does the golf bag or pushchair fit in the boot?

Look carefully

Misaligned panels or mismatched colours on doors, bonnet and tailgate can indicate that the car has been repaired after a shunt.  Traces of spray paint on door handles, window seals and moldings can indicate repairs too.

If the engine bay looks like it has recently been power-washed clean the owner could be trying to remove evidence of fluid leaks.  A check under the bonnet after a lengthy test drive should reveal any problems.

Seats and carpets

Seats and carpets can always be cleaned, or even replaced, but stains on internal fabric head–linings are impossible to remove completely.

If seat covers have been fitted, check underneath them for signs of damage.  You can get seats replaced but this can be very expensive, particularly if they contain electric motors or airbags.

Locking wheel nuts

Adapters for locking wheel nuts have a habit of going missing. If locking wheel nuts are fitted, check to make sure that the special adapter required is included with the toolkit and that it fits the nuts.

Don’t be pressured into buying

There are always other vehicles out there so if this one doesn’t feel right in any way it’s time to walk away.

Be wary of and don’t be swayed by  ‘sob stories’  like change of job, break-up of relationship, moving aboard, new baby on the way and so on.  The bottom line is that you’re buying a car to help yourself, not anyone else.

Before you hand over any money

  • Agree collection/delivery arrangements
  • Confirm exactly what’s included in the price
  • Confirm any work that the seller has agreed to do
  • Make sure you get a receipt showing vehicle details, price, terms of sale and the seller’s details.