How to buy a used car

Over eight million used cars were sold in 2016, which suggests buying one can’t be all that difficult – can it?

The thing to know about a used car is that it’s unique. There may be thousands of the same model but only that one car with its unique history. Also, because it’s been owned and driven, it may have problems lurking, ready to strike.

Also, while a new car’s price is set by the manufacturer, the price of a used one is not set in stone but influenced by many things including the number of similar ones there are, its desirability, and its age and condition. Who’s selling it will affect its price, too.

Below, we answer the key questions that’ll help you buy a better used car.

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How to buy a used car 1

Which used car should I buy?

Just like buying a new car, the answer to this depends on many things, including how much money you have to spend, your personal circumstances and what you want the car for. Only you know the answers to those, but to help you narrow down your choice of car, ask friends and family for their opinions and experiences, and read the many car reviews published online.

You’ll also want to gauge how reliable the cars on your shortlist are, so check out their rankings in the Auto Express 2017 Driver Power ownership satisfaction survey and with warranty provider Motor Warranty Direct’s reliability index.

Then, armed with some ideas, visit car sales websites including AutoTrader (it’s packed with cars of all ages and at all budgets) and BuyaCar (it sells mainly cars no older than four years) to gauge prices. Slowly you’ll build a picture of what make, model and age of car you want and can afford.

Where should I buy a used car?

Main dealers tend to sell used cars no older than three years, which they can put a manufacturer warranty on. All operate so-called approved used car schemes that guarantee good standards of preparation, protection and presentation. They’re often regarded as being more expensive than other types of dealer but really, they operate under the same financial pressures and will do a deal if you press them hard enough.

Independent used car dealers are many and varied. Some will specialise in particular makes, models or budgets. They’re unfairly regarded as less scrupulous than main dealers. There are some rogues, of course, but you can glean much about a dealer in the way they present themselves and their cars and, of course, from word of mouth or online customer feedback. Some operate under the banner of the RAC’s Approved Dealer scheme, which provides some reassurance. Don’t believe their prices are necessarily lower than main dealers. They may have lower overheads but they’re competing for stock with other dealers and must pay competitive prices to succeed, which will be passed to you, the customer.

Used car supermarkets
are big, out-of-town used car dealerships that specialise in cars often no older than three or four years, and often less than six months with very low mileage. The cars are often ex-rental or ex-company fleet. The former need careful buying since they will have had multiple, uncaring users. Big car supermarkets have huge buying power. They often undercut other dealers but the price you pay is a low offer for your old car in part-exchange. Don’t worry about that. Instead, concentrate on the cost to change from your old car to the new one. That’s the figure you should compare with other dealers to check what kind of a deal you’re getting.

Private sellers
can often yield the best prices but not always, and there are significant risks buying from them. Some may in fact be used car traders in disguise, offering no legal recourse and trading in shoddy cars. Ask to see ‘the car’ and check if they reply, ‘which one?’. Arrange to meet them at their home address and not in a car park or at yours. Genuine private sellers are often trying to get a better price for their car than they can get from a dealer and many price their cars close to dealer prices without offering any of a dealer’s guarantees. However, if you know your used car prices and how to haggle, and if you know how to appraise a car, you can save a lot of money buying privately. Also, you can gauge a lot about the car’s condition from the person selling it.

Auctions are considered great places for a bargain, but there are pitfalls. There are few guarantees and no opportunity to drive the car, although you may be able to start the engine. The atmosphere can turn your head and you can easily find yourself paying over the odds for a car, especially when you’re competing with other private buyers. On the other hand, visit a few beforehand to get a feel for things, know exactly what you want and what to pay, and keep your cool, and you may just grab an honest bargain.  

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What are my rights when buying a used car?

Your rights are different depending on who you buy a used car from, so let’s break it down…

From a dealer: Whether they are selling you a new or used car, a dealer is bound by the Consumer Rights Act that says the car must be of satisfactory quality, as described and fit for purpose. If it turns out to be faulty, you have the right to reject it within the first 30 days of buying it. Between 30 days and six months the dealer must be allowed one attempt to repair it before you can return it for a sum that reflects the use you have had of the car. After six months you must prove the fault was present when you bought the car.

From an online dealer:
You have the same right as if you were buying from a physical dealer with the added protection of the distance selling regulations which allow you to cancel your order within seven days. The same applies if it is an online auction site such as eBay. All the details about the car and delivery arrangements and costs must be clearly communicated.  

From an auction: Generally you’re buying ‘sold as seen’ with few consumer rights. Check the details of any warranties and guarantees the auction house offers before you bid.

From a private seller: You have far fewer rights in this situation but you can expect the car to be roadworthy and as described by the seller. The same applies if you are buying the used car online. Basically, it’s buyer beware.

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How to buy a used car 2

How do you inspect a used car?

Always take a dispassionate friend with you to give you confidence but more importantly, a much-needed reality check. Take a methodical approach and work through everything calmly and patiently.

V5C: Check the V5C (the logbook) for the number of previous keepers and any information relating to past recorded mileages (this is provided voluntarily by owners). Check the car’s registration number and year of registration correspond with the car’s description and numberplate. Check with the dealer that they have paperwork relating to any finance, mileage and provenance checks they have done on the car, most likely through a company called HPI Experian. If the car has outstanding finance owing on it, you could be liable as the new keeper.

Service history: Most cars require servicing every year or 12 months, and services are generally alternate between major and minor (also called intermediate). Check the service book is stamped to show these services and ask to see workshop invoices supporting the dates and detailing the work that has been done.

MoT: Check the car has a valid MoT and when it’s due to expire. Check any mileages declared  the certificate add up and also for any so-called ‘advisories’ (non-fail faults) noted at the time of the last test.

Checking the car
If the paperwork stacks up, now you can check the car’s bodywork and interior.

Ensure the car’s bodywork is clean and dry, and that there’s sufficient daylight. Check panel gaps are even and crouch down looking along the length of the car at an angle to check the panels are true. Check behind window rubbers and underneath the edges of wheelarches for rust. Check for paint overspray under door handles and inside door shuts.

Tyres: Check these for condition and unusual wear indicating misaligned wheels, possibly resulting from a crash or kerbing. Check the alloy wheels for serious kerb damage (a useful haggling point).

Brake discs: If you can, stick a screwdriver through the alloy wheel spokes to feel for a lip on the outer edge of the brake discs indicating how much they’re worn.

Suspension: Ask your friend to help you push down on the corners of the car and check the car settle its suspension without bouncing.

VIN plate: Locate the car’s vehicle identification plate (check the handbook) which has the chassis number stamped on it. Compare the number with the one on the V5C. Check the plate hasn’t been tampered with.

Engine: Release the bonnet catch and prop open the bonnet securely. Find the oil dipstick and check the level. Unscrew the oil filler cap and check it’s clear of any mayonnaise-like substance caused by engine oil and coolant mixing. Check the level of coolant in the coolant expansion bottle is correct. Check where the wings are joined to the body – you’re looking for fresh screws indicating they’ve been replaced. Check the front cross-member for signs it has been replaced or damaged.

Interior: Check all the controls work, that the seats and trim are clean and undamaged, and lift the carpets checking for damp, especially around the front footwells where some cars have their vital electrical systems. If the mileage is low, check the condition of the pedal rubbers and steering wheel support that. If it has a trip computer, check the average fuel consumption reading.

The test drive
First, start the engine and check the warning lights on the instrument display light up before going out. Query any that remain on. Get out of the car and still with the engine running, listen for any unusual noises. Go to the back of the car and check for smoke from the exhaust.

All being well, get back into the driving seat and set up a driving position to suit you. Check there’s sufficient fuel in the tank for a reasonable journey on different roads involving a mix of urban and open. Use the rearview mirror to check for blindspots and turn your head to check your rear quarter vision at both corners is clear. Turn the steering wheel from full lock to full lock, listening for unusual noises from the driveshafts.

During the test drive, feel for smooth gearchanges and a light clutch. If it’s an automatic, check changes are smooth. Check the engine pulls strongly and smoothly at all speeds without any unusual noises. Check the brakes pull the car up easily and in a straight line. Check the position of the steering wheel corresponds to the direction of the front wheels. Check the wheel turns smoothly and that the suspension is quiet over bumps.

At the end of the drive and with the engine still running, and if they are displayed, check the engine and oil temperature are correct (anywhere from 90-110deg C). Now get out of the car and look for exhaust smoke and, with the bonnet propped open, listen for any unusual noises from the engine.

Now do the most important check of all…

Best practice when buying a used car is to pay for a vehicle history check to establish whether it’s the subject of an outstanding finance agreement, is stolen, is a write-off or has been clocked. There are many companies offering this service including the one that collects most of the data, HPI Experian.

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How to buy a used car 4

How do I negotiate the price of a used car?

You’ve checked the paperwork, its history and the car itself, and you think you’d like to buy it. Now it’s time to agree a price. We’ll assume you don’t have a part-exchange, because that’s a whole fresh can of worms. Briefly, though, if you do, get an idea of its value using one of the many online valuation guides including Parkers (note: you want to know the trade value and not the part-exchange or forecourt value).

To negotiate the price of the used car you want to buy, get an idea of its trade value from the online guides just mentioned. Remember, it’s a guide only, not holy writ. Too arrive at a forecourt price the dealer has to add his costs (stocking, preparation, salaries and commissions), and his profit margin and the VAT charged on it. If it’s a particularly good example, he may add a small premium, too.

Keep things friendly, although remember, dealers are good at being matey and lowering your guard. Have none of it; you’ve come to buy a car, not make a friend. Give no clue you’re emotionally attached to the car. Be cool and politely aloof. Don’t wander around picking holes in it; that’ll just annoy the dealer. However, if there are genuine shortcomings such as badly kerbed alloy wheels, a torn seat, excessive tyre or brake wear, then you can quite legitimately bring these to the table. That said, if this kind of damage exists, you have to question his standards.

Be wary of any premium the dealer charges to reflect the options the car has. Few are genuinely worth anything and you can be sure he thought the same when he bought the car for stock or took it in part-exchange.

Emphasise that if you can agree a price, you’ll deal today – and mean it. Let the dealer be in no doubt that you’ll walk away if you’re unhappy with the price.

The dealer won’t budge? He probably knows he has an in-demand car, so negotiate extras such as car tax, light repairs (for example, dent removal, a free service). These will cost the dealer less to fix or supply than they will you.

Above all, be confident and assertive. You have the upper hand. A used car may be unique but in truth there are many more like it and there’s always another dealer waiting to sell you one.

What are Cat C and Cat D used cars?

They are write-offs but not the kind of heaps you might imagine, although you do need to be careful. The cost of repairing modern cars is rising all the time. All the safety and driver assist technologies they contain, as well as the advanced materials they are made from, means even a light impact can make a car uneconomic to repair.

Such cars are classified by insurers as Category C and Category D write-offs. In simple terms, a Category C car is repairable but the cost of repairing it would exceed the car’s pre-accident value so it’s written-off and sold to the trade in its unrepaired state. A Category D car is also repairable but the costs of doing so are significant compared to the vehicle’s value so it, too, is sold to the trade for repair. Both are driveable and do not have to be crushed or stripped for their parts as the more severe Categories A and B require.

Can I buy a Cat C or D car?

You can, and people do because they’re up to 50% cheaper than their undamaged equivalents. The problem is that you won’t ever know what the damage was and if it has been put right properly. A repaired wing is one thing, but a replacement airbag? Is it wired in? Will it work? And remember, a car’s cat C or D status stays with it for life, meaning the car will always be a liability and hard to sell. The best advice is to have such a car professionally inspected before you buy.

What’s the situation with car tax on used cars?

Under new rules, remaining car tax cannot be transferred to a car’s next owner, so a used car won’t be taxed. The previous keeper has to apply for a refund and the new one must buy road tax before they can drive the car on the road. Camera enforcement means there’s every chance you’ll be spotted if you don’t.

Got any extra advice on buying used cars? Let us know in the comments below.

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