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Tips on buying a used car

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Looking to buy a used car? Well you’re certainly spoilt for choice.

Woman holding car keys 

Although every driver appreciates that new-car smell, going for a used car can be much cheaper.

But what should you look out for when you find a car you’re interested in? Here are some basic pointers for the not-so car savvy.

Inspect the car

  • Check tyres to make sure they’re road legal.

  • Check the suspension - push down hard at each corner and let go. The car should spring straight back up and immediately settle at the original level.

  • Check that the bodywork panels line up correctly and look out for mismatched paint. Either could indicate a crash.

  • Doors that don’t close properly and signs of a repaint around rubber door seals are two more signs of a possible crash.

  • Check under the rug between the front and back doors for welding. This could indicate a ‘cut and shut’ car. This is where the front and back halves from two cars are welded together to make a ‘new’ one.

  • Stickers can hide damage so take a peek underneath.

  • Check the exhaust. If it needs replacing, mention this when negotiating.

  • While underneath the car, check the ground for oil leaks.

  • Ensure that the gears operate smoothly and the clutch engages correctly.

  • If the car shows low mileage, yet the pedals and seats are worn, the car may have been ‘clocked’ i.e. the car’s mileage has been altered.

  • Start the car and check that the oil light goes out straight away.

  • Check the steering wheel moves smoothly and silently from lock to lock.

  • Check the electrics - windows, lights, wipers, radio etc.

  • Check for exhaust smoke. Excessive smoke of any colour is a sign of trouble.

  • Once the car’s warmed up, check that the engine idles smoothly.

  • Walk away from a car with an engine that makes rattling or knocking sounds.

  • Check the dipstick and inside the oil filler cap. A ‘mayonnaise’ type residue could mean an expensive repair bill.

Tip: Always view a car in daylight when it’s dry. Raindrops or poor light can hide all manner of superficial, or sometimes serious, problems.

Take it for a spin

Always test drive before buying. Try the car out in various conditions if possible e.g. slow through town and fast on a dual carriageway.

Listen for unusual engine sounds, ensure gauges and dials work and use all gears including reverse. Also, listen for suspension knocks, test the breaks and check whether the steering drifts to the left or right.

Useful documents

  • A full service history (FSH) indicates a well-maintained car. Check last service mileage looks appropriate to the car’s current mileage.

  • If the seller doesn’t have the registration document – walk away! Check that the car number plate matches what’s on the document. Also, ensure the vehicle identification number (VIN) matches what’s stamped on the small plaque under the bonnet.

  • Every car over three years old must have a valid MOT certificate. If the MOT’s due to expire, ask the seller to get it re-tested. Note: An MOT certificate does not guarantee that a car is roadworthy. It merely means that the car was roadworthy enough to pass the test on the day it was submitted.

  • You don’t have to worry about it being taxed as Vehicle Excise Duty (VED) tax can no longer be transferred. You’ll have to tax it yourself if you buy it.

  • Car insurance is legally required for any car on the road. You may also want to purchase breakdown cover or a car warranty for further peace of mind.

  • It's also worth checking the car's value beforehand. We've got a free car valuation tool for this - you just need to know the car's registration and its mileage. The actual value may differ, due to the car's condition, any improvements etc. But this should give you a good indication.

  • If you buy a car that is stolen, illegal e.g. a ‘cut and shut’, or has outstanding credit, you have no legal right of ownership and it can be confiscated or returned to the rightful owner. If buying from a dealer, ask what checks they’ve performed. You could also get a vehicle history check to see if the car was previously written off, or has outstanding finance.

Tip: If buying privately, always view the car at the seller’s home to be sure of their address.

Paying for a car

When haggling, stay firm and don’t be intimidated, keep negotiations calm, and know what you’re talking about. This is why it’s so important to check the car thoroughly beforehand. Faults uncovered or any imminent expiry of MOT can be used to lower the price.

Paying cash is one of the strongest bargaining chips when negotiating on price. Sellers get their money straight away and dealers avoid paying card transaction fees, so it’s a handy card to play.

Credit cards are a safe and convenient way to buy. However, you may not get the best price from a dealer because they’ll have to pay a card transaction fee.

If paying by cheque, you’ll probably have to wait for funds to clear before picking up the car keys.

Note: If buying privately, see as much of the seller’s ID and proof of address as you can before leaving. Don’t hand over the cheque until you’re satisfied the seller will still be there when you return to collect the car.

Banker’s drafts are welcomed by dealers, though a bank will charge a fee for issuing one.

The bottom line is – no matter how you pay, always get a receipt.

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