How to Buy A Second-Hand Car: An Idiot’s Guide

cars on the road

Apart from a house, buying a car is the second biggest purchase that you will ever make. With used cars being far better value than buying new, sadly it also means that there are more potential problems, confirmed by the Citizen’s Advice Bureau’s statistics that over 80,000 complaints are made every year about second-hand car purchases. With the problems usually being a fault that needs some form of essential repair, shockingly in about 7% of cases, the car has to be scrapped altogether.

If you’re looking to buy a second-hand car, here are some simple steps to take to help ensure that you get a car that isn’t going to give you a nasty surprise.

What car do you want?

You’ve probably already got a good idea of what car you want, but take a look at your budget and be realistic about what you can afford and what you can get for that price. Make sure that your choice is practical. As fantastic as a small two seat convertible sports car may be, if you travel hundreds of miles a day for work, you’re going to have crippling back pain within a week. The same goes for a big 4×4. If you’re only knocking about town, you’re going to be a regular at your local petrol station. Make sure your choice suits your lifestyle.

Websites such as Parkers will enable you to really do your research and ensure that your shortlist of cars is practical and affordable.

Buying from a used car dealer

Buying from a used car dealer is often the most expensive way of purchasing a used car. However, it does come with the legal protection of the Sale of Goods Act, which means that by law, their description of the car must be fair and accurate and, as well, they are required by law to sell cars that are roadworthy and fit for purpose. You’ll get a warranty with a dealer and if there are any problems whilst the warranty is running you can return the car for your money back or for repair.

There are good used car dealers and there are bad ones. Ask around and see if you can get any recommendations. If they’ve been established for many years is always a good sign, as are good reviews on the Internet – although be wary, as often these are not verified.

Buying privately

You can buy a car privately a number of ways, whether it’s online at sites such as Autotrader, in a newspaper or at an auction. Private sales are often cheaper, but the downside is that you don’t get the legal protection you do if buying from a used car dealer. However, the car does still have to be ‘as described’ so ask plenty of questions by email if possible. That way you will have a written record of the answers given should you ever need to resort to legal action if the car was not ‘as described’. Cars sold as seen are bought as they are, so that means it’s up to you to do your own due diligence and ensure the car is up-to-scratch.

What to look for when viewing the car

Examining car

If you are buying privately, you should always view the car at the seller’s home. If they are unwilling to do this and ask you to view it elsewhere or even bring it to your home, be very wary. It could mean it is stolen or simply that they don’t want you to know where they live, something you need to know if something goes wrong with the car.

Other checks

DVLA – By going to the DVLA (Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency) website, you can check that the following details tally with what the owner of the car is telling you:

  • The year that the car was built
  • The date that the car was first registered
  • The size of the engine
  • The colour
  • Tax rate
  • Current tax expiry date

If any of these don’t match, you should seriously consider walking away from any deal.

MOT history – You can check a car’s MOT history online here. All you need is the car’s registration number and either the reference number from the car’s V5 certificate or its MOT test number. This will tell you:

  • The dates of all its previous tests
  • The mileage readings at each of those tests
  • Reasons for any failure

If these don’t tally with what you are being told by the owner, you should be very wary of agreeing to any deal.

History check

A quick search of Google will come with numerous providers of car history checks such as those from the RAC and the AA. For just a few pounds, you will find out:

  • If the car has been involved in a serious accident
  • Whether the car has the correct mileage
  • If the car has been reported as stolen
  • If the car has any outstanding finance on it (which means if you went ahead with the purchase with finance still owing, the finance company still own the car, not you and can legally take it from you)

For the price, you should check any car you are seriously contemplating buying. Buying a car that has outstanding finance on it can be a VERY costly mistake.

Some warning signs to look out for

As well as cars with outstanding finance being a hazard for all second-hand car buyers, so are stolen cars. How do you know if a car is stolen? Look out for these following signs and if you are dubious, uneasy or unsure in any way, walk away from the deal.

  • There is no vehicle registration document V5C (also known as a log book)
  • The vehicle has a V5C document, but there are alterations on it or is lacking a watermark
  • The name and address of the seller do not match the name and address on the document (you should ask for proof of ID)
  • The ID number on the V5C does not match the ID number on the car
  • The seller does not have a current, valid insurance policy on the car

How to pay for the car

Car contract

Are you prepared to haggle? You should never pay a second-hand car’s asking price, there is always room for manoeuvre. Don’t be shy; it’s expected and the seller will most probably have inflated their original asking price to take into account any expected discounts. If you are buying from a dealer, by far the safest way to pay is by credit card. That way, you have the added protection of the CCA, the Consumer Credit Act. However, if you are buying privately, this won’t be possible.

This leaves you with cash, bankers draft or cheque. Whichever way you choose, it is vital that you get a receipt. This should include the following:

  • Buyer name and address
  • Seller name and address
  • Vehicle details
  • Price
  • Date
  • Signed by seller

What to do once you’ve paid

Shaking hands

When you have completed the deal and you have a receipt for you money, it’s important that both you and the seller fill in the relevant parts of the V5C document. The seller needs to send the document back to the DVLA whilst you should be given the ‘new keeper’ section.

It’s vital at this stage you have all the relevant documents, including its MOT certificate and any receipts for repairs. If it comes with service history, make sure all that is included and you have a copy of the manual as well as anything else such as an alloy wheel key and a code for the in-car radio. Finally, make sure you have a spare key. Keys are extremely sophisticated these days and a replacement can be very, very expensive.

There are no guarantees when buying a used car that your new vehicle is going to be free from problems. However, if you follow our advice, you can attempt to alleviate most of the major problems that can occur and, hopefully, you’ll have a nice new used car to enjoy!