Buying a used car - the ultimate checklist

When buying a used car it is important to understand the market and what to look out for. Our comprehensive guide will help you decide where to buy a used car, checks that should be performed, and potential risks to be aware of.


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Where to buy a used car


After you’ve made the decision to buy a second-hand car, the next question may be where to buy from. There are various options available depending on your requirements including buying from a dealer, a private seller, or at auction. Each of these options are discussed below.


Buying from a dealer

handing over car keys

Buying from a dealer could be a popular option as a buyer. There are various types of dealerships, ranging from franchised dealers, to car supermarkets and driveway sellers.

When buying from a dealer, you will be covered by the Consumer Rights Act. Due to this, dealerships usually take time to prepare the car before listing it for sale, which could provide peace of mind that you’re not buying a car that will break shortly after driving away. Some dealerships may also offer a warranty on cars they sell, which provides assurance for the buyer and means that potential problems within the specified period may be covered by the terms of the warranty.

When buying from a dealer, you may want to consider checking the online reviews from customers, which will enable you to get an indication of the level of service that you can expect should you choose to buy a car through them.


Buying from a private seller

people shaking hands agreeing to car sale

When buying a car from a private seller, you may be able to negotiate the price to your desired budget, especially if the seller has already bought a new car, or have a new one on the way.

Also, buying a car privately enables you to meet the previous owner, where you can question them and evaluate whether the car has been well looked after.

Whilst there may be benefits of buying from a private seller, you don’t get the same protection as buying from a dealer. Therefore, it is recommended that you perform your own inspection of the car by reviewing the documents, taking the car on a test drive, checking the car's history and ensuring the car matches with the buyer’s description. If you’re buying a used car that you’re expecting to drive for a number of years, it could be worth investing in a professional inspection to ensure there are no problems with the car that could be costly to repair in the future.


Buying at auction


There are car auctions that take place across the UK every week at auction houses, where there is a mix of trade and private buyers bidding for each lot.

The first step for buying at auction is taking a look at the catalogue to choose the car that you are potentially interested in purchasing. It is common for catalogues to include details such as a description and the car’s history, although this varies depending on the auction house. Some auctions also allow for you to personally inspect the cars prior to the auction beginning, which allows you to do some basic checks of the engine, bodywork, electrics, tyres and interior that will give you a better idea of the car’s overall condition. You may want to have a budget in mind before the auction begins to ensure you don’t overspend on the car, and consider the associated fees if you win the auction, such as the buyers fee.

When the auction begins, you will need to bid for the car you’re interested in buying by raising your hand. The highest bid at the end of the auction is the new owner of the car and the auction is finished when the hammer comes down.

If you are the highest bidder, the auction house will usually require you to pay a deposit for the vehicle to secure the purchase straightaway. After the auction has finished you will then need to sign the documents and pay the remainder of the sale price. At this point, the car is your responsibility, therefore you will need to ensure that it is taxed, insured and road legal before being driven. Auction houses may provide temporary insurance services, which allows you to drive the car home, but this isn’t always the case and should be checked by the buyer.


What should I check?

  • Documents

    When buying a used car you should always check that the documents match what you’d expect. The vehicle registration document (also known as the 5VC or logbook) contains information on the car and the registered owner - the car should match the description and the VIN number which can be found under the bonnet should be the same.

    If you are purchasing a car from a private seller, their name and address should be written on the certificate, and they must be the registered owner to be able to legally sell. If you’re buying from a trade seller, it will be the previous owner's details on the documents.

  • MOT certificate

    If you are purchasing a used car that is over 3 years old, the car must pass an MOT and have a valid certificate. You should check whether there are any advisory notes on the certificate that haven’t been fixed, which could be potentially costly to repair should you buy the vehicle.

    It is advisory that you buy a car which has recently had an MOT as you will be liable for the costs if it is due shortly after the purchase. Remember that the details on the certificate are only valid at the point of the test, therefore a car that hasn’t had an MOT for a number of months may not be in a roadworthy condition. You can check the MOT status of a vehicle on the government website here.

  • Car history

    The history of a car is important as it gives an indication of how well a car has been maintained, and if there are any recurring problems that could be expensive in the long term. You can conduct a vehicle history check to see if the car has been stolen, has any outstanding finance, has failed its MOT, if there are any mileage inconsistencies, or if there’s been a recent plate change. If you are purchasing a used car and want to check its history, you can do so for a fee using a website such as HPI Check.

  • Damage

    All damage to a car affects the value, whether there’s a few scratches or more significant damage to the body or mechanics. If a car has suffered significant damage in the past, it could’ve been declared a write-off by the insurance company. Depending on the type of damage, the car can still be repaired despite the insurance company deeming it uneconomical to do so.

    Buying a car that has been written-off can be cheaper than buying an identical vehicle that hasn’t been involved in an accident. If the car has been repaired to a high standard, there are no issues buying a Category S or Category N vehicle, however there are no guarantees the repairs have been carried out to the manufacturer’s standard. If a car has been declared as a write-off, the seller must abide by the law and inform the buyer. You may also want to have an independent inspection on a written-off car before committing to buying.


What questions should I ask?

car documents

Before buying a used car, you should find out everything you need to know about the vehicle. Whether you are buying from a dealership or a private seller, asking the necessary questions will ensure there are no hidden issues and will put you in a good position to achieve the best deal possible. Some common questions you could ask when buying a used car include:

  • Why are you selling the car?
  • How many previous owners has the car had?
  • Has the car been declared as a write-off?
  • Is there any outstanding finance on the vehicle?
  • Are you the registered owner of the car?
  • What’s the mileage? Has any of the bodywork been repaired or replaced?
  • Does the car have a valid MOT?
  • Is the car under warranty? Can I test drive the car?
  • Do you have all of the relevant documents?

Read more: Questions to ask when buying a used car.


Can I test drive a used car?


It is strongly advised that you test drive a car before buying so you can see if you are comfortable with how the car drives and discover any faults which aren’t apparent when the car is stationary. When test driving a car here are some of the things that should be checked:

  • Before we check your oil, it's important to make sure your car is parked on a flat surface and has had the engine switched off for at least 10 minutes. This will give the engine time to cool down, and allow the oil to settle.

  • Starting the car: if a car struggles to start there may be a problem with the battery or alternator.

  • Temperature gauge: the temperature gauge should slowly rise as the car warms up. If the temperature gauge rises quickly, there could either be a problem with the gauge or a more serious problem with the cars cooling system.

  • Clutch: replacing a clutch can be one of the most costly repairs on a car, therefore ensuring it’s in good condition is important when buying used. You should check that it is easy to find the biting point and check for juddering when you accelerate, as this could indicate a problem.

  • Transmission: you should be able to easily change gears without any slips or noises. If you are test driving a car with an automatic transmission, you should check that the car is changing gear at the right times and that gear changes are smooth.

  • Brakes: brakes are essential to stopping quickly and your safety on the road. You should try to hit the brakes hard where safe to do so to ensure they work well and ensure the car doesn’t pull to one side. The handbrake should also be tested on a hill if possible to ensure the car doesn’t roll and that it isn’t loose.

  • Engine: the engine should be running smoothly with no unexpected or rough noises. Any unexpected noises could be a costly repair and should be inspected before committing to purchase.

  • Suspension: all suspensions have a different firmness, but you should be able to establish whether there are any unusual jolts and clunks if you drive over a bumpy surface.


Buyers rights

  • Dealership

    If you buy a used car from a dealership, you have the same rights as if you were buying any other product. If the car has a fault shortly after purchasing, you can get it repaired, replaced or get your money back from the dealer. Where the car needs to be repaired, the dealer must carry out the necessary work in a reasonable time with limited inconvenience to the buyer. However, this depends upon timescales and how much mileage has been added.

    If you have purchased a car from a dealership that’s signed up to the Motor Ombudsman then they have agreed to abide by a Trading Standards code of practice. This means that if you feel you’re being treated unfairly, or you aren’t getting anywhere with your dispute, you can make a complaint.

  • Private sale

    Buying a car from a private seller gives you fewer rights than using a dealership as you aren’t covered by the Consumer Rights Act. Nevertheless, all of the information that is provided by the seller must be accurate and important information, such as the car being an insurance write-off, mustn’t be missed.

    Due to there not being a specific law that protects private sales, it may be difficult to get your money back if the seller isn’t willing to co-operate. Therefore, if you do have an issue that needs to be escalated, the only way to resolve the problem could be to take the case to the civil claims court.

  • Auction

    Buying a car at auction gives a consumer limited rights, which is why it is recommended to carry out a thorough inspection of a vehicle before bidding. When buying a used car at auction, it is important that you read and understand the auction house’s terms and conditions before the auction begins.


How to get the best price


When you have decided on the car that you want to buy, you will want to get the best price possible. At an auction, it is a case of being strict with your budget and not getting carried away, whereas with trade and private sellers, it’s a case of negotiating with the seller to drive down the price. Here are some of our tips for getting the best deal:

  • Know your budget

    Being strict with your budget is important for getting the best deal on a car as this will allow you to slowly negotiate to your desired price. If the seller is unwilling to match your expectations, you may want to consider walking away and searching for another vehicle.

  • Research the market

    The demand for different cars is lower at certain times of the year, therefore if you’re buying a car that is in low demand you could have more bargaining power. You should also look at other advertisements for similar cars online - if the seller is advertising above market value there may be room for negotiation.

  • Understand the seller’s situation

    If you are able to find out the seller’s situation, you may be able to use it to your advantage. For example, if the car salesperson is nearing the end of a quarter, they may need your sale to hit their targets, or if you are buying from a private seller that has already bought a new car, they may want to sell quickly.

  • Faults

    If there are faults with a car, the resale value will be affected. Therefore if there are issues such as scratches, dents or mechanical faults with the car you’re looking to purchase, you may be able to use them to negotiate a better price with the seller.


How to pay

paying for a car

How you pay for a car will depend on the type of seller. If you have bought the vehicle from a dealership, the most common way to pay is via card if you’re paying in full, or by signing a car finance agreement if you’re purchasing the car on finance. Some dealerships may not accept credit cards, but if possible, you may consider using one as it could provide additional protection. You should consider that credit cards are generally better suited to shorter term borrowing, and you’ll need to ensure you can pay off the balance relatively quickly to ensure you minimise the amount that needs to be paid back.

If you are buying a car from a private seller, it is unlikely that they will have access to a card machine, meaning that card payment isn’t possible. In this case, you have a number of options; bank transfer, cash or cheque.

If you are paying with cash, it is recommended that you complete the transaction in a bank for safety reasons, and to provide reassurance to the seller that the notes are genuine. Bank transfers are a safer way to complete a transaction, with most major banks offering instant transactions through mobile banking. Cheque’s are generally less likely to be accepted due to the potential risk of fraud and the payment taking a number of days to clear.


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