The best way to buy a used car

The best way to buy a used car


Buying a used car is a great way to save money. Do your homework and you might just trade-up to one that would have been financially out of reach if new. Unless your tastes or needs are very specific, there are loads of quality used cars out there to choose from 

Best of all, in most cases you’ll be behind the wheel as soon as the deal is done.  

But there are also risks to manage. Not every seller is 100% honest and others might not know a car’s full history. What you don’t want is to be stuck with something that’s going to need expensive repairs.

In this blog post we’ll show what to watch out for and the questions you need to ask when considering a used car purchase.

Buying from a user car dealer

If you’re buying from a used car dealer, it's important to spend some time finding out if the company is well established and has a good reputation locally. As well as the actual car you're interested in, is it a car known for its reliability?

If you’re on the lot, look for a sign indicating the dealer is part of a trade association like the Retail Motor Industry Federation (RMIF) or Scottish Motor Trade Association (SMTA). You might also look for a framed certificate or signage committing to the Motor Ombudsman's code of practice. In both cases you’ll have the option of making a complaint through the trade association if you're not happy with the purchase.

Buying from an auction

Because they move around, auctions can be the least safe way to buy a used car. While most auctioneers are squeaky clean, if you do decide to cancel the sale, seek a refund or return the vehicle, you probably won’t have the legal protections a dealer could provide or the option to seek redress through an industry body's complaints procedure.

At minimum, read the small print. Look at the auction house’s terms and conditions carefully before placing your bid.

Related Reading: Check out our list of top cars in 2023

Research the car’s history

Going through a few simple checks will minimise the chances of buying a car that’s undergone major repairs or is being sold illegally. You should also try and find out if the current owner has an outstanding lien or still owes money on the car.

Here’s how you do it: 

Check the car’s history with the DVLA

Use the DVLA’s free online vehicle information search to be certain that what the seller has told you matches the DVLA’s records. Ask for the car’s registration number, MOT test number, mileage, and confirm the make and model. 

If minor details don’t match up, ask the seller for clarification as it may just be an error.  But if you discover something that makes you suspicious of the whole transaction, trust your instincts and walk away from the deal. 

Check the car’s MOT and inspection history

Every car has to undergo a regular MOT test to ensure its road safe. Check the MOT history of a car on GOV.UK. When looking at a used car, check that MOT inspections have taken place regularly throughout the car’s lifespan. If a car is more than three years old, for example, an MOT test has to be conducted every year.

If there are any gaps, ask the seller what happened.  If you aren't happy with the answer, then walk away from the deal.

Invest in a private history check

As a final step its worth paying the £20 fee for a private history check or data check on the car. It can uncover valuable information about any serious problems the car might have. For example, you’ll find out if the seller still owes money on the car, if the car has been reported stolen, if it's been written off and then repaired, and if the mileage reading on the odometer is correct.

Car history checks are available online.

Take a test drive and do an inspection

Always schedule your first viewing so you can see the car in daylight and not after a rainstorm. It’s harder to see any scratches or other damage to a car’s exterior if its wet. It’s buying from a private seller, try and meet at the seller’s house so you have an accurate record of their address.

That done, always take a used car for a test drive before buying. Listen for rattles and squeaks, and be aware of any resistance when you're steering. Let the car ‘glide’ from time to time to see if tends to veer to the left or right.

To do a test drive you need to be sure you have the correct insurance cover. Check with your insurance provider to see if your policy covers driving someone else’s car.

Still not sure? Get an independent report

If, after all that, you're still not convinced, the best thing to do is probably walk away and look elsewhere.

However, if the car really feels like it might be the one, you can wipe away your lingering doubts by having an independent report done on the car. For between £100 and £200 you’ll gain an even more detailed look at the car’s history and condition.

To find a company that does independent reports, contact the UK's Motor Ombudsman for the nearest provider in your area.

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