The Ultimate Guide to Buying a Used Car: Everything You Need to Know

Buying a used car is often a much cheaper option than buying a brand-new model. – providing you know what you’re doing. However, to get the very best second-hand deal, you should do a little research first.  

Whether you’re buying from a dealership or a private individual, going the used route provides plenty of options. A little research will stand you in good stead, which is why we’ve drawn up this guide to buying a used car. From the pros and cons of your purchasing options to tips on how to negotiate, be sure to consult this resource before making that all-important decision and signing on the dotted line. 

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Different Used Car Purchasing Options

Buying from a Dealership

If you’re unfamiliar with the used car purchasing process, then opting to buy from a dealership or trader is a sound decision.

What do we mean by a trader? Basically, anyone from a single person selling cars on their driveway to a franchised dealer selling new and nearly-new cars, along with independent garages between the two.

Pros

One area these all differ is the degree of preparation and after-sales support you’ll get, and the cost you’ll pay for these. The larger the business, the greater the level of resources at their disposal.

A dealership will also likely put the used car through a rigorous inspection and offer a good warranty, which tends to be six or 12 months. Though this means things may be pricier, the peace of mind is a big reassurance.

Cons

Buying from a driveway trader will save on these up-front costs, but might cost you more in repairs. Remember, this person may have done little more than give the car a quick wash after picking it up from auction.

That said, all traders must legally comply with the Consumer Rights Act – meaning you may be entitled to a repair, replacement or refund if the vehicle is deemed not ‘fit for purpose’ or ‘of satisfactory quality’. If the seller ends up being rather unscrupulous, this can prove to be a headache in the long run.

So how should you decide? If the car is going to be an investment for the next 10 years for instance, then it might be worth the security a large dealership affords. Independent garages vary in size and quality, but their reputation is important to them. A quick Google search will show how happy their previous customers are.

Buying a Used Car Privately

If you’re on a budget, buying a second-hand car privately can be cheaper.

Pros

Along with the comparatively cheaper pricing, there’s a lot more room for negotiating compared to a dealership since the seller isn’t necessarily motivated to make a profit.

It also affords you the chance to meet the previous owner and see how well the vehicle has been looked after. A clean interior with few minor bodywork faults is a good indication that it’s been taken care of over the years.

Additionally, you can tell from the previous owner whether they have a genuine reason for selling or whether they’re just looking to get shot of a dodgy vehicle.

Cons

Some sellers tend to overvalue their cars, and you could be waiting some time for them to bring their price down for their old motor.

They may lack the rigorous testing of those sold at a dealership. Reading up on checks to carry out before you test drive your potential purchase can be valuable here.

You’ll also be entitled to fewer buyer’s rights than buying from a dealer too. If the car breaks down while you’re driving it home, then you’ll have no recourse to complain as a result.

Buying a Used Car at Auction

Buying from an auction can be fraught with risks, but there’s also potential to grab a serious bargain.

Pros

It’s a comparatively quicker, easier process than the two processes above.

If there’s not much competition for a particular car, you could get it for an especially low price. Auctions also provide you with an environment to see what people are willing to pay for a particular vehicle.

Since you have the chance to complete the purchase before and after the auction, you have more time to make your decision.

Cons

There tends to be a certain degree of luck and fortune involved, especially now that dealers are selling part-exchanges through eBay auctions.

There’s no possibility of giving the car a proper health check or inspection, which means there’s no real way of telling what kind of condition the car is in unless the seller is being 100% truthful.

First-time Car Auction Tips

Get to the auction house early; most allow a few hours of browsing before the sale which lets prospective buyers get a little closer to what’s being sold. Don’t forget to do some research beforehand to see how much similar cars sell privately, at a dealer and previous auctions.                                                                                                    

While looking around, note the general condition of vehicles you’re interested in; anything that’s cosmetically worse for wear is likely going to be a tell-tale sign of further issues. Likewise, when it passes through the auction hall, listen to the engine and look carefully for any signs that it may not be running right.

If you do start bidding, don’t get carried away, especially since auction houses add fees on top. See if you can find out what these are beforehand to avoid an added surprise.

Buying a Used Car Online

Online auctions through sites like eBay are fairly popular, but you should approach with caution if you’re planning on buying without seeing the model first.

Most buyers also expect some kind of deposit, and be aware that time-wasting isn’t appreciated. That said, if things aren’t as described when you’re picking it up, you’re free to walk away. 

Checks When Buying a Used Car

Wherever you choose to buy your used car from, it’s a good idea to make a list of things to remind you to check out while you’re giving the potential model a test drive. Bring along this checklist to make sure you’ve carried out the proper due diligence; if something’s not quite right then you’ll know it’s not the car for you.

Check the Tyres

Get down to the ground and give the tyres a proper once over. Do they have the 1.6mm legal minimum of tread; if not you’ll need to be changing them, which is another cost, especially if you want four matching premium tyres.

Check for Dents and Scratches

In clear daylight, inspect the general condition of the bodywork, as well as the wheels for signs of kerbing. Small dents or scratches shouldn’t be too much of a cause for concern, but make sure you use them to your advantage when negotiating.

Look for Panel Gaps

Look for any gaps between panels. If there are any particularly large panels, then this could be a sign that a car has been badly repaired after a crash. If aesthetics are important to you, check that the panels aren’t differently coloured. 

Check the Fluid levels

Open up the bonnet and check the levels for oil, brake and power steering fluid. Low levels could be a sign that it hasn’t been well maintained; check on the ground where the car is normally kept for any wayward fluid that’s pooled, another tell-tale indicator of its maintenance.

Inspect the Oil Cap

Inspect the oil cap too. If there’s a white substance around it then that means coolant has mixed with oil, which could be a sign that the head gasket has failed.

Test the Electrics

Leave no stone unturned when it comes to this part: try the windows, turn the radio on and off, test the air conditioning and anything else you can think of. Though these can be simple repairs, it’s a negotiating point if something isn’t working properly.

Check for Cracks in Glass

Check for cracks and chips in the windscreen. If these get worse and are in the driver’s eye line, then they can be an MOT failure. Don’t forget about the front and rear lights either; inspect them for any chips, cracks or fogging and internal moisture.

Examine the Upholstery

Look for stains or tears in the seats. If there’s a particular smell, these may be hard to get rid of. If it’s a problem for you, check if the car has been smoked in too.

See If There's a Spare Tyre

Check to see if there’s a spare wheel and that it’s in good condition. Likewise, is there a jack for lifting the car in the event of a puncture, as well as an adapter for any locking wheel nuts fitted to the vehicle?

Look for Wear and Tear

There will probably be a certain amount of wear and tear, but is it consistent with the age and mileage? Low miles but heavy wear on the seat, steering wheel and pedals will be a definite red flag.

The required used car documentation

V5C – Registration Document or Logbook

Before buying a second-hand car, the most important document that you’ll need to check is the V5C, also known as the registration document or logbook.

Make sure the make, model and number plate of the car you’re buying matches the information on the V5. Does the Vehicle Identification Number on the V5 also correspond to the one on the vehicle?

V5 documents also show how long the seller has owned the car and how many previous owners it’s had. If it’s had a lot of owners over a short period, there may be cause for concern.

If you’re buying privately, check that the name of the registered keeper is the same as the person you’re dealing with and the address is the same as the one you’re buying from.

MOT Certificate

An MOT certificate isn’t as important as it used to be since you can check MOT history online to see if a car has a currently valid MOT.

Double-check the expiration date, and note any advisories the tester has suggested. They may or may not have fixed these; conduct a check if you’re unsure as this may show they’re trying to get shot of the car before incurring some sizable bills. Additionally – an MOT certificate from a few months ago is no guarantee that the vehicle is roadworthy at that very point in time.

Your rights and protection as a buyer

It’s worth familiarising yourself with the Consumer Rights Acts and Section 75 of the Road Traffic Act 1988, but basically, your rights can be summed up as follows: you have less protection if you’ve bought a car privately.

When buying, ask as many questions as possible. Sellers provide information at their own discretion, but if they’re telling lies about the car’s condition or history, then that puts them on thin ice from a legal standpoint.

If must be described accurately; if the car is advertised as having air-con, but you find out on the way home it doesn’t, you’re perfectly in the right to ask for a full refund. 

Can You Return a Used Car?

If you bought used from a dealer this can vary between manufacturers. If the purchase was through an approved used scheme, there might be a 30-day no-quibble return guarantee. However, this might be an exchange for another car however, so it’s worth reading their returns policy beforehand.

If the car turns out the be faulty, then you’re covered under the Consumer Rights Act and are fully entitled to a full refund within 30 days of purchase if you can prove the fault was there when you purchased the car.

From a private seller, refunds are a lot trickier. This is why you should do your homework and check everything before making the purchase. Take note of any faults and get a receipt that confirms the sale of the vehicle; if a fault reveals itself you at least have a degree of comeback.

If you have a complaint, get back to the seller as soon as possible. The longer you leave it, the harder it is to claim against them. If a car isn’t as described, then the Sale of Goods Act 1979 should cover you.

Sometimes the compensation comes in the form of paying for repairs rather than a refund. If they refuse to pay for repairs, track down some quotes from several garages, and approach the seller with said quotes to get them to pay. However irritated you may be, it’s important to keep the seller informed about the repairs issues instead of just dropping a repair bill on them without any notice.

Quick Tips for Buying a Used Car

  • Ask about test drive cars: Cars used for test drives can get you large savings, but you’ll also lose your VAT on them. Enquire about them at your dealership.
  • Time your visit right: As dealerships prepare for the next quarter, their offers may become more flexible.
  • Wait for a new model: Waiting until the new version of a car is released can get you a good deal on the outgoing model.
  • Do the research: Do your homework on the car you want to buy, and keep your cards close; don’t reveal exactly what you’re looking for or willing to pay. Don’t give the dealer the upper hand.
  • Consider financing and trade-ins: Take into account things on the back-end like financing and trade-in value of your current car as this is where dealers can sometimes make more money.
  • Go for a car around two years’ old: Aim to buy a car that’s about two years old. They’re unlikely to have any problems, and new car’s wholesale value drops around 50% of its original price after two years.
  • Have a “walking price”: Keep this in your head. If the seller refuses to meet the price, then that’s when to walk away.

Should You Take Out a Warranty on a Used Car?

It might not be worth the hassle. Justifying the cost of even the cheapest used car warranty – factoring in exclusions, premiums and low average expense of yearly repairs – is difficult.

Arguing with the warranty provider to try to get your garage costs reimbursed is an added headache you should probably just avoid. We think setting money aside each year to cover repairs is a better idea. But if you’re dead set on getting a warranty, at least pay for it when you buy your car.

We hope you’ve enjoyed this article. Looking for more from Brindley Garages? Head here to check out more news from the motoring world, or if you’re in the market for a new car, see how we can help on our homepage.

Added: 10 September 2019

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