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Tips on buying a used car


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

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With around 27 million cars on UK roads and numbers increasing, the market has never been more stuffed with affordable used motors.

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 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 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 (where front and back halves from two different cars of the same model are welded together to make a ‘new’ one).

  • Stickers can hide damage so peek underneath.

  • Check the exhaust. If it needs replacing, barter the cost off the asking price.

  • 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 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, as raindrops or poor light can hide all manner of superficial, or sometimes serious, problems.

Test drive

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

Listen for unusual engine sounds; ensure gauges and dials work; use all gears including reverse; listen for suspension knocks when going over speed bumps; test breaks; check whether steering drifts to the left or right when going in a straight line.

Also check…

  • 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 documentwalk away! Check car number plate matches what’s on the document, and ensure the vehicle identification (VIN) number 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, merely that the car was roadworthy enough to pass the test on the day it was submitted.

  • Look at the tax disc to see when the tax runs out – you’ll need a valid one before even parking it on the road, let alone driving it. Also check the registration shown on the disc matches the car’s number plate, and if there’s little or no tax left, ask for its renewal cost to be lopped off the asking price

  • 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, or you could pay for a ‘history report’ from companies such as HPI to check whether a car was previously written off, damaged, stolen, or has any 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 tax or MOT can be used to lower the price.

Paying cash is one of the strongest bargaining chips when negotiating on price as sellers get their money straight away and dealers avoid paying credit card transaction fees.

Credit cards are a safe and convenient way to buy, but you may not get the best price from a car 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 their home – basically, don’t hand over the cheque until you’re satisfied the seller will still be there when you return to collect the car.

Bankers Drafts are welcomed by dealers, though a bank will charge a fee for issuing one.

Important: No matter how you pay, always get a receipt.


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