Tips on buying a car

Car buying guide

Buying a car can be a confusing business, particularly if it’s your first time doing so.

With people trying to sell you things every step of the journey, it’s important to know exactly what you’re doing – something that’s often easier said than done. Our handy step-by-step guide to making that big purchase is crammed full of all the little things you need to remember.

We tackle everything from budgeting and choosing the right car to negotiating the best deal possible.

Step 1: Budgeting

It might sound obvious, but budgeting for your car is probably the most important step of the lot.

  • The maths bit – Think about exactly how much you can afford to spend on a car. Take into account all your expenses, such as your mortgage or rent, bills, and any other reoccurring costs.
  • Be sensible – Always allow more left over than you think you’ll need. While you might be on top of your budget and you find it easy to stay within your means, there’s always a chance of facing unexpected expenses.
  • Consider the running costs – How much will you be able to afford on top of insurance, fuel bills and servicing?
  • Buying used or brand new? – Although buying a shimmering car fresh from the production line can be tempting, you’re likely to save a lot of money by going for a used car. The biggest depreciation in the value of a car comes in the first year, so even buying a one-year old model will save you a bundle. Plus, the car will still have some manufacturer warranty left.
  • Have an old car? Trade it in! – You can get a free car valuation and you’ll immediately see roughly how much you can get for your old car. You can also use the tool to see if the seller is trying to rip you off when buying a used car.

Financing your car

Not all of us have major savings stored up, and you may well need a loan to finance your purchase.

Here’s a full rundown of the major financing options available to you:

Hire purchase

With hire purchase (HP) you put down a deposit which is followed by a fixed period of repayments to a separate finance company. The problem with this method is that you don’t actually own the car until you make the final payment.

You won’t be able to sell on or modify the car until you’ve cleared your debt. If you fail to keep up with repayments, you could face hefty charges or even have the vehicle repossessed.

Sometimes there may be a fee at the end of the period of instalments to allow you to own the vehicle outright, so check this with your lender.

Conditional purchase

This is similar to hire purchase, with the major difference being that you commit to becoming the legal owner of the vehicle once all repayments have been made.

Personal contract purchase

A personal contract purchase (PCP) creates a contract term and monthly repayments. However, it differs to a hire purchase in that the final purchase is optional.

This makes it appealing to drivers who like changing their cars regularly. You can either make one large payment at the end of your contract (usually between two and four years) to own the vehicle outright, or can return it to the provider and find a new car.

With the biggest depreciation of vehicles usually coming in the first three years of a car’s life, this might be a good way of banking against the loss in value of your vehicle. That’s only if you’re happy never to own it.

Personal loan

A loan is the traditional option and possibly the most cost effective, all depending on what rates are available to you at the time.


Step 2: What car to choose?

With the money bits out of the way, you’ll want to think about what car best suits you at a price you can afford. Of course, as you were running through what you could afford, you no doubt had some ideas about the key features you’re looking for.

Before you go to see a car it’s worth deciding what you want out of it.

We’ve got some useful pages to help you choose the right motor at the right price:

  • Find the best car for your needs – With so many makes, models, trim levels, and types of cars, it’s hard to find the best one. We’ve explored what the best and worst of the lot are. It’s a good starting point before reading our in-depth reviews.
  • Read in-depth car reviews – Our expert road tests go over everything from interior comfort and performance to running costs and common faults.
  • Tips on buying a car – This is packed full of information on every single aspect of buying a car. Need tips to reduce your fuel consumption? Want to learn about latest scams? Or learn how to haggle when buying a used car? It’s all here. 
  • European New Car Assessment Programme – If you’ve got a family, or if safety’s just your thing, check out how your car of choice did in a variety of different crash tests. (TIP: The safer a car is, the better chance there is of reducing your car insurance.)
  • Free car valuation – Our free tool can give you a car's value in a matter of seconds. You just need to know its registration. For more accurate valuation you can submit mileage as well, but that’s optional.

Then there’s the bit you can’t do online - test-driving.

Remember, taking a test drive with a dealership doesn’t mean you’re tied in to buying through them. Even if you’re planning to buy online, it’s well worth taking the car for a spin first.

This also applies to buying from a private seller. Don’t be afraid to ask to take it for a test drive, and equally don’t worry about saying no.


Step 3: Buying the car

Stepping into the showroom

Here’s where it really begins to hot up. Visiting a dealership can be a pretty dizzying experience, particularly if it’s your first time buying a car.

However, if you follow a few very simple steps, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t come out feeling very pleased with your day’s work.

  • Stay calm – Remember that you don’t have to buy the car today. Simply ask any questions you have and listen to the advice. But don’t be talked into anything you don’t want or don’t feel comfortable with. If you’re really worried, it might be a good idea to take a more clued-up friend or family member with you.
  • Keep in mind what you came in for – If you’ve done your research, it’s likely that you’ll have a good idea of what you’re looking for. Whatever a salesman says, make sure you remember exactly what you’re aiming to use the car for and how much you’re prepared to pay.
  • Use your research – Showing that you know what you’re talking about can be a powerful tool when talking to the seller, and could save you a lot of money.
  • Extras and add-ons – The chances are you’ll be offered a glamorous array of extra features when you do choose your car. Don’t let yourself be swayed - think about your budget.
  • Haggle – Not everyone is comfortable with negotiating a price, but sometimes it’s worth the extra effort. Be forceful, but don’t be aggressive, as this may backfire. Remember what you want, and remember you can leave at any time if you’re not getting it.

Buying a used car

If you’re going for a secondhand car, there are a few more things to consider. It’s usually the cheapest option, but if you’re not careful you may end up with a banger.

Here are a few useful guides:

  • Questions to ask when buying a used car – Asking the right questions can reveal things the seller might be trying to hide.
  • How to spot a scam – Not everyone is a decent seller. Read our guide and keep your eyes open.

Buying a pre-registered car

Shopping for a pre-registered car is a somewhat uncommon method of getting a good deal on nearly-new cars. New cars aren’t always the best option, as they tend to be expensive and lose value quite quickly. Some models can lose up to 35% in the first 12 months.

Pre-registered cars are new cars self-registered by dealerships. Dealers do that to hit their sales targets. Learn about how and when’s the best time to buy a pre-registered car.

Buying a car online

Finding a good deal online on used and new cars is pretty easy these days.

Sometimes you might find that searching online can result in a major saving. In most cases you’ll find the car you want, book a test drive and then, provided you’re happy, drive home with it.

Some dealerships may deliver cars in your local area, and others may deliver nationwide. Although it’s very convenient and saves you the hassle of driving hundreds of miles, it means you’ll be buying a car without seeing it. And this can be risky.

However, if you’re buying a new car, you’ll be the first owner – so there’s hardly any risk of things going wrong.

If you’re going for a delivery, ask these questions before buying:

  • Can I return the car if it has already been shipped?
  • Are there any costs involved in transportation?
  • How long will it take for the car to arrive?

It’s worth ticking these boxes in case the cost of returning the car is far greater than if you’re simply buying from your local dealership.