Last updated September 22nd, 2023
Buying a used car as opposed to a brand-new model can be a great option if value and economy sit high on your priority list.
If you’re hoping to buy a new car on a modest budget, you may find that your options are limited to entry-level models. However, extending your search to the second-hand market should put many more desirable and feature-packed options within your reach.
If you’re hoping to buy a new car on a modest budget, you may find that your options are limited to entry-level models. However, extending your search to the second-hand market should put many more desirable and feature-packed options within your reach. Of course, there are certain pitfalls that you should be aware of when buying a used motor. The older a vehicle is, the more likely it is to develop mechanical faults. What’s more, if you buy from a private seller, it is unlikely that you will be offered a car warranty (unless the vehicle is still covered under the original manufacturer warranty).
Although buying any vehicle carries an element of risk, a little knowledge of the used car market can go a long way in helping you make an informed decision.
In this guide, we will cover the various options available for buying a used car, the checks you should carry out before buying – and the risks you should be aware of. We’ll also explain your rights as a used car buyer.
We’ve summarised everything you need to know about the most popular used car buying avenues below to help you choose the right option for your specific needs.
When buying from a dealer (this includes franchised dealers, ‘car supermarkets and driveway sellers), you will be covered by the Consumer Rights Act.
As such, dealers will usually prepare a used car before displaying it to help ensure it meets with prospective buyers’ expectations. This might include running diagnostic tests to verify whether the vehicle is in good working order, fitting replacement parts (if necessary) – and giving it a wash and valet.
However, this is not always the case. Therefore, before purchasing a car from a dealership, we recommend reading their online reviews. Pay particular attention to how they deal with customers’ concerns and disputes. If you are not fully confident that a dealer is reputable, do not buy from them.
You could end up paying less for a particular car model if you buy from a private seller than you would at a dealership. What’s more, there is often more scope to negotiate when buying a car from a private seller, particularly if they have already bought a new car.
Therefore, you should prepare a list of questions to ask before buying a used car from a private seller. Asking the right questions will help you decide whether the vehicle is right for you. If you identify any minor faults, but are otherwise keen on the car, this may allow you to leverage a discount.
However, if you buy from a private seller, you may not get the same level of consumer protection as you would from a dealership. The only legal requirements for selling a car privately are as follows:
If after buying a car from a private seller you believe they have breached these terms, you have the option to raise the issue at a small claims court. Unfortunately, this can be a difficult and potentially expensive process – and there is no guarantee you will be successful.
Therefore, before committing to the sale, you should inspect the car by reviewing its documentation, taking the car for a test drive, researching its history and ensuring it matches the buyer’s description.
If you’re buying a used car as a long-term investment, paying for a professional inspection could prevent the need for costly repairs in the future.
You can buy a used car online by bidding - or in some cases, buying instantly. This can be a convenient option if you don’t have the time to attend an auction in person.
To reserve a car at an online auction, you will usually need to pay a deposit. You should avoid buying a car without seeing it first. (It is easier for a seller to conceal serious faults when presenting a vehicle online).
If you go to pick up a car but are unhappy with the vehicle, you have the right to walk away from the sale. You would be entitled to a full refund of your deposit in this case - as you have not seen the car in person, it would be classed as a ‘distance sale’.
There are numerous factors to consider when buying a used car, including:
For more tips and advice on this topic, please visit our guide ‘How to test drive a car’.
If you’re wondering what questions to ask when buying a used car, here are a few to consider:
It’s important to check a used car’s MOT and service history, as this will give you a good indication of how well the vehicle has been cared for.
Checking the MOT history can reassure you that the car is in good working order, whilst the service paperwork will tell you whether the car has been serviced at the recommended intervals.
You can find all MOT results from tests taken from 2005 onwards (from 2017 in Northern Ireland) using our free MOT check tool. Simply enter the car’s reg number to get started.
You should be able to find records of the vehicle’s service history in the service book. The owner should also have paper records of each service from the relevant garages and dealerships.
If the service history is absent or incomplete, please visit our guide to finding a car’s missing service history. Requesting a HPI check can also provide you with more detailed insights into the car’s history.
Although this might seem daunting, a little haggling can go a long way when it comes to getting a great price on a used car. Visit our guide ‘How to negotiate when buying a car’ for more advice on this topic.
The seller may offer you one or more of the following payment options:
If you are buying from an auction house, you will usually need to pay a deposit to secure the vehicle.
Please note: We advise against using PayPal to pay for a used car. (If you pay for a vehicle with PayPal, you will not be covered under their buyer protection.)
If you’re wondering ‘What is a good mileage on a used car’, simply divide the quoted mileage of a car by the number of years on the road. If this gives you a figure below 7,500, this can be considered a low mileage.
Anything above this figure can be considered a high mileage. However, don’t be hasty to write off a car just because it has a higher-than-average mileage. If the vehicle has been well cared for and is in good working order, it could be a wise purchase.
To determine whether a used car meets your requirements, you should inspect the vehicle in person. Check the engine, gearbox, clutch, bodywork, wheels, tyres and interior to make sure there are no major concerns.
Taking a test drive can give you a true indication of how the vehicle handles at various speeds. It will also help you decide whether the vehicle is suitable for your daily driving needs.
Entering the vehicle’s registration into our free car check tool will reveal key information such as its Co2 emissions level, tax status and past MOT results. Finally, you should also check that the seller has all the documents needed to sell the car.
To determine whether a car has been in an accident, you should look for: