What to Look for When Buying a Used Car: Top 10 Tips

When it comes to second hand cars knowledge is power. Our top ten tips to buying second hand will help ensure sure you're prepared so you'll know what to look for when buying a used car.

Petrolhead Zone Top Ten Lists
14 December 2020

When it comes to buying second hand cars knowledge is power. The more information you have, the better a deal you’ll get. And ultimately, buying a second-hand car comes down to simple economics. You want to buy it for the lowest possible price and the seller wants to sell it for the highest possible price, but it’s never that simple is it? As well as the price itself, it’s absolutely crucial that you also know what to check when buying a used car.

Unless you decide to buy one of the fastest production cars on the road such as a Ferrari 488 GTB or a Lamborghini Veneo, twelve months after driving a brand-new car off the forecourt you’ll be close to 40% down on your investment, even after all the haggling with the dealer about him lobbing in a set of floor mats or an additional year on the warranty.

So second-hand it is. After you’ve let the original buyer take the hit you can grab yourself a proper bargain, but as a wise old sage once said, ‘buy cheap, buy twice’ so you need to be careful, do your research and be clever about the whole thing, otherwise you’ll end up with a clone, a ringer, a cut-and-shut or a lemon. Call it what you want but you don’t want to be lumbered with what could turn out to be a switched-on tap from your bank account…

It’s important to note here that these tips are just that. Tips. They’re not set in stone and if you have any specific questions about a particular car you want to buy, speak to a professional mechanic or someone in the industry and they’ll be able to point you in the right direction.

Here are our Top Ten Tips for Buying a Second-Hand Car. Don’t say we didn’t warn you….

1. Do your research before you start taking test-drives

Let’s say you want to buy a low-mileage, 2012 BMW 320i. Look at any of the popular car-selling sites and you’ll most likely find hundreds if not thousands of them. First off, spend some time checking the classified ads (remember trade ads for similar cars are likely to be more expensive) so you know what sort of prices the car you want is selling for. There will also be lots of handy tips on classic car restorations shows, magazines and even online forums where you’ll find things like most common faults, issues to look out for and specific information that will help you to make an informed choice and potentially save you a fortune as the car gets older.

2. Budget, not just for the car, but everything else too…

Back to the low mileage 2012 BMW 320i. In March 2015, a decent one will set you back about £12,000. But it’s not only £12,000 you need to find. You need to budget for insurance, road tax, increased fuel costs, depending on your method of payment there may well be interest payments on loans or PCP agreements, servicing/MOT and also any unforeseen costs such as new tyres etc. In a recent survey by a well-known comparison site, annual running costs for an ‘average’ car are around £3,500, so make sure you’re covered.

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3. Ensure the car you’re buying isn’t an imposter…

Whether you’re buying from a dealer or a private seller, you need to be 100% sure that the car you’re forking out twelve grand on won’t come back to bite you. On the DVLA website you can check the information given to you by the seller of the car, including:

  • Year
  • Colour
  • Registration Date
  • Tax Date and the Date the Road Tax Expires
  • Engine
  • Chassis or VIN Number
  • MOT History

If it all matches, you’re golden. If it doesn’t, walk away. It’s one of the most important things to check when buying a used car.

4. Checks, checks and more checks…

Remember, its £12,000 someone’s ready to take off you so you need to be completely sure what you’re getting for your money. That’s why you want to swot up in advance and ensure you really know what to look for when buying a second hand car.

Go through the service book to make sure the car has been regularly serviced by a reputable garage and stamped accordingly and check to see if the car is still covered by the manufacturer’s warranty.  Also, go around the car, with a camera if you have to, and make a note of any small nicks, scratches or scrapes that may affect the advertised sale price.

5. Outstanding finance and other issues

A crucial entry on any list of tips for buying a used car is a financing check. More and more people are financing cars these days so it’s now prudent to check if there’s any outstanding finance owed on the car to a bank or credit agency. There are a number of sites you can go to for this information. You’ll have to pay for it but it will tell you about the car’s history in terms of finance, whether it’s been stolen or it’s been in an accident and it will also allow you to compare mileage and other vital pieces of information.

6. The warning signs on the V5C…

One of the biggest alarm bells you need to look out for is the validity of the V5C certificate, more commonly known as the log book. If there isn’t one, walk away immediately. If it has obvious spelling errors, alterations or no official watermark, walk away immediately. If the personal details on the V5C don’t match where the seller actually lives or works, walk away immediately. If the car’s ID (number plates, VIN number etc) doesn’t match with the information on the V5C, walk away immediately.

7. The car’s mechanics

If the seller makes clear there’s an issue with the car before any transactions have taken place, then you can consider yourself forewarned and you take a view yourself but if no information is forthcoming, you’ll have to judge for yourself.

If you’re not mechanically-minded, strongly consider taking a mechanic with you to check things like the clutch and gearbox, electrics, transmission, brake pads and discs and the cam belt. The mechanic will know what to check when buying a used car and will advise you accordingly.

8. Taking it for a test drive

A test drive is a key element when considering what to look for when buying a used car. Up and down the road and back isn’t good enough anymore. It used to be accepted that you’d drive it round the block not getting out of third gear and then be forced into making a decision. Make sure you’re insured to drive the car but you need to go out for half an hour on all types of roads if possible as well as doing some driving test manoeuvres like reversing, hill starts (to test the handbrake) and hard braking. If you can, ask the owner to drive part of the way so you can listen out for rattling or odd noises and press all the buttons, twist all the knobs and test the indicators, wipers and lights to make sure everything works as it should.

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9. Don’t be pressured to do anything…

Let’s be honest, apart from our Mike, second-hand car dealers have a reputation, warranted or not, for somewhat unscrupulous behaviour. The same can apply to private sellers too. Some will try and strong-arm you into parting with your cash or try to convince you that you’re buying a future classic car and some will do it more subtly, but the key thing to remember here is that it is your cash until you decide it’s time to hand it over. Don’t rush your decision. Do all the checks and tests you need to do until you are completely satisfied that what you’re buying is the right car.

10. It’s time…

You’ve decided on the car, you’ve done everything you need to do to ensure there are no issues, faults, liabilities or anything altogether dodgy about the car or the seller and it’s now time to do the deal. Confirm the price with the seller and make sure you get a receipt with the seller’s contact details, the sale terms and any other pertinent information about the car before you drive away including all repair documents, MOT certificates and manuals. Paying with cash or a banker’s draft is the easiest thing to do but using a credit card means you have protection under the Consumer Credit Act.  Lastly, complete the relevant paperwork in terms of transferring ownership on the V5C certificate and notify the DVLA that you are the new registered keeper of the car.

Here’s to years of trouble-free driving!

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