Buying a Used Car


The Two Golden Rules

There are two golden rules for buying secondhand.

The first is to be open-minded. Obviously you'll have a budget and a good idea of what you want. But if something else crops up in top-notch condition at a bargain price you'd be a fool to ignore it.

The second rule is to trust your instincts. You have been developing them all your life and they are there to save your life. So if a gut feeling tells you there is something not quite right about the car or the seller, walk away. Don't be browbeaten by logical argument into buying something you don't want. That's how salesmen earn their money and you lose yours.

Buying Used Privately

Buying from Someone You Know

How well do you know this person, and how well do you know the car?

You wouldn't be the first to buy a disaster zone just because someone in the family was selling it. Nor would you be the first to overlook faults because you didn't want to upset Uncle Albert and Auntie Gwen and your entire mother's side of the family.

So think about this very carefully. Obviously, if the car is literally being given away, take it. It it's being offered to you at a knockdown price, make sure the price is knockdown by looking it up in 'Parker's Guide' or the 'What Car?' used price guide. If the price is merely a fair price, weigh up what you know about the car against what you're being asked to pay. How long has the owner owned it? Is the mileage genuine? How often was the car serviced? Is there anything wrong with it? How much will the faults cost to put right?

I accept you may have private reasons for giving too much for a car to an impecunious, elderly or sick member of the family. It's a diplomatic way of helping them out. But otherwise you should not let your relationship with the seller colour your judgement. The car is a purchase you are going to have to live with and if it proves to be a money pit you'll have to live with that too.

Buying Used from an Advertisement or Website

Websites are an excellent means of finding out how sellers are pricing the car you want. So in addition to buying 'Parker's Guide' and 'What Car? Used Car Price Guide', check the asking prices for the make and model you're after on This incorporates its own search engine and lists the model by asking prices at progressively greater distances from your postcode.

Once you find the car, first you need to establish the status of who you are buying from. If he is a trader, he is required by law to put a 'T' or the word 'trade' in his small ad. Don't be put off if he has. It gives you rights you do not have against a private seller; in fact the very same rights you have when buying from a swanky, carpeted car showroom.

To try and get out of this, some low-life 'home traders' try to hide the fact that they are traders. So when you call a number in the advertisement which does not contain a 'T' or the word 'trade', say you are calling about "the car". A private seller is unlikely to have half a dozen parked up and down the street, so will immediately know which car you mean. A trader who has more than one car will have to ask you, "Which car?" But even if there is only one car for sale, the seller could still be a small-time trader.

So your next question should be, "How long have you owned it?" (You may well feel the vendor squirming at the other end of the line.) Anything less than six months should then prompt your next question, "Are you a private seller or a trader?"

If the answer to this is something evasive or a final admission of trader status, ask yourself a question. Do you really want to deal with someone who has already lied in his advertisement?

Assuming from now on we are dealing with a genuine private seller rather than a trader, you need to establish some more facts about the car. First, concentrate on content of the advertisement.

By '55 reg' does he mean 2006/55 or 2005/55? Which 'model year' is the car? For example, a 2005 model '55' reg Focus could be the original shape, but a 2006 model had received a glamorous facelift, even if it had been registered in November or December 2005.

Ask how many previous keepers are listed on the V5 registration document, and add that number to the vendor for the true figure. Ask if the advertised mileage is genuine, and if the answer is 'Yes', ask how the vendor knows it is genuine.

By now, you'll be starting to feel the measure of the person you are dealing with and your instincts will be starting to work. Trust these instincts. They are what you were born with and have developed through your life to protect yourself against danger.

If you're happy about the car and the person selling it, make an appointment to view. Unless the car is something rare and really special, don't be rushed into a hasty twilight or nocturnal encounter. You want broad daylight and you don't want rain. Rain is the most effective disguise for a chameleon colour scheme, paint chips and a host of other defects.

Buying Used from a Dealer

'Franchised' Dealers

Most franchised dealers now offer used car schemes supported by manufacturers, such as Ford's 'Ford Direct', Vauxhall's 'Network Q' and VW's Retailer Approved Used Cars. Where the warranty is backed by the manufacturer (Ford Direct) rather than being simply an insured warranty, these give peace of mind but can come at a fairly high price.

Nevertheless, once you've shopped around a bit and got the feel of prices in the car supersites, it's worth paying the franchised dealers a visit. They have been known to beat supersite prices, and if their prices, inclusive of a cast-iron warranty, are only a few hundred more than the supersites, you may be better off doing a deal with the franchised dealer.

Many also have their own websites, enabling you to browse their stocks from your living room.

Where you want to part-exchange your old car, franchised dealers almost always give better part-exchange allowances than the supersites. But here you need to compare the total 'cost to switch', not merely the part-exchange allowance offered.


By far the biggest is the one that started it all: Car Giant in White City, London which has now taken over most of Hythe Road Industrial Estate and offers between 3,500 and 5,000 cars. CarGiant sells both 'nearly new' ex-rental and pre-registered cars, and ex-fleet cars up to 5 years old. The choice is so huge and the prices are so sensible that, for many private buyers, it's not worth the time and effort of trying to beat them by buying at auction.

Specialist Dealers

These are dealers who specialise in a particular type of car, usually sports cars, prestige cars or 4x4s, but you also find '7-seater Centres', 'Mini Centres', 'Mondeo Centres' and so on.

To maintain attractive stock levels, they usually have to pay more for their cars, especially at auction, and this is likely to be reflected in the prices they ask.

You have to weigh up the convenience and time-saving they offer you against these slightly higher prices. And if they have any sports or prestige cars on offer that are less than three years old, you should question the wisdom of buying from them rather than from a franchised dealer. (Why have they got the car rather than a franchise?)

The best specialists are keen enthusiasts of a marque, such as Porsche, BMW or Volkswagen, with workshops on the premises.
Independent Dealers
These are your old-school car dealers, seen by the hundred on London's Romford Road and stretches of the A24 through Tooting, Balham and Clapham.

Some of them are really nice people. Some of them are right old rogues.

'Home' Traders

These people are much maligned, usually by magazines with a vested interest in maligning them. (Obviously if a magazine's main source of income is from advertising by dealers, it isn't going to recommend the little guys who undercut those dealers.)

A proper trader who openly trades from a home of his own is bound by all the same consumer protection laws as a dealer with large, expensive premises. He'll be watched fairly carefully by the local Trading Standards Office. The only way he can make an honest living is by offering deals that beat those on offer from the big boys.

That 'home of his own' bit is important. If he's operating from rented accommodation you may have no more comeback against him than from a 'traveller' working from a big shiny caravan.

Make sure he invites you into the house (to make sure it really is his house). And if he's the least bit aggressive, shifty, bad tempered or has a vicious looking dog on a chain, make a polite excuse and get the hell out of there.

Never buy a car in a car park or a lay-by, or from a dealer working from a mobile phone number who brings the car round to your house. Always make a History and Provenance Check on cars offered by home traders, and look for verification that the mileage is genuine.

For this purpose, a fleet car's computerised service history print-out is a far better bet than a lot of stamps in a service book. For example, unless the car is a notorious tyre eater, such as a manual Volvo T5, if the tyres seem to have been changed every 5,000 miles you'll know this doesn't add up.

Checking the Car Out

Getting the Car's History Checked

Several organisations will check the car's history for you to make sure it is not on any registers as having been an insurance damage write off, a finance bad debt, or stolen. All you need is the car's make, model and registration, so this is something you can do before you even make a trip to view the car. Don't assume that you'll get lucky and find a clean car - there are many tales of buyer who have thought the same, only to end up with a car that was stolen, written-off or had finance outstanding.

These operations have extended their services to a limited mileage check (where past mileages have been recorded). Mileage records depend on honest information having been supplied in the first place and are not always up to date for every car.

The best advice is to treat all odometer readings as suspicious and to get in touch with previous keeprs listed on the car's V5C. Make sure that you always see all the paper work, including the the V5C before parting with any money. The V5C VIN number should match that's stamped onto the car. You can usually find the car's VIN in the engine compartment, though this varies from make-to-make.  If you are buying from the first keeper of the car and he is a man of the cloth, then the mileage is probably correct. If you are buying from a freelance commercial traveller, then, if the mileage is low, it is probably not correct.

DVLA introduced a new red V5C in August 2010. The new red V5C is more secure, customer friendly and highlights the need for buyers to check the legitimacy of the vehicle presented for sale.

From 4th September 2011, when a vehicle is taxed or declared off the road (SORN), DVLA will automatically send the registered keeper a new red V5C if they haven’t already been issued with one. Registered keepers will be advised to destroy their blue V5C and to use the new document in any future dealings with DVLA or the Post Office®. Click here to go to the DVLA's dedicated site.

If the seller has a blue V5C with a serial number between BG8229501 to BG9999030 and BI2305501 to BI2800000, do not go ahead with the sale. Click here to find out why.

For what to look for in individual models see the Car by Car Breakdown Reviews.


First Impressions

When you first see the car, what do your instincts tell you? Do you get a funny feeling in the pit of your stomach?

Trust these feelings, because they are your natural defence mechanisms at work. All too often we ignore our instincts and talk ourselves into making a bad decision.

That's what salesmanship is all about: getting you to think nice thoughts about what you're going to do with the car or how easy it will be to pay for it, and to put out of your head the obvious fact that the car is a heap of junk.

Beware the car dealer who pre-qualifies your financial status over the phone so that, when you arrive at the car lot, the finance is set up and all you have to do is choose a car. By that time, you are pre-sold on buying a car from that dealer come what may and, when you leave home, you leave your brain and your instincts behind.

Assuming - and only assuming - you have a good feeling about the car, you can check it out yourself or have it independently inspected. The downside of an independent inspection, of course, is that it may take some time to get an appointment, the vendor may sell the car in the meantime, and you'll still have to fork out the inspection fee.

So, even if you're not mechanically minded, it makes sense to carry out some preliminary checks before you go to the expense of an independent inspection.

Having the Car Inspected

If the vendor has the time and patience, it makes sense to have the car professionally inspected.

Used Car Inspections:, and

Vehicle inspections: Independent inspections, including specialist, classic and modified cars:

Vehicle Inspections in Scotland:

Inspections tend to cost £100-£250 for the average car, the inspectors 'come to the car', and you are provided with a written report afterwards. Some include an HPI status check.

Sports and high-performance cars need specialist inspections by experts in the particular make and model. An AA or RAC inspection of a Porsche, for example, simply isn't enough. Best to get a written report from a Porsche dealer or Porsche specialist and to pay the extra for a compression test on all six cylinders.

The problem is, no vendor with any sense will give you right of first refusal on a car subject to inspection at a later date unless you pay them a non-refundable deposit. If you can't cut a deal like this with the vendor, they will simply sell the car to the first buyer who comes up with the right money and you could end up forking out an inspection fee for a non-existent 'sold' car.

Condition of Older Cars

Where cars are more than ten years old, whatever the make, there is likely to be some rust somewhere.

In general, except for Mercedes, German cars with metallic paint finishes seem to rust the least. But this is an oversimplification because German build-quality slipped quite a bit between 1988 and 1992. Since 1986, all Audis have incorporated hot-dip or electro-galvanised panels, but, since 1988, so have most FIATs, starting with the Tipo and carrying on even with Unos and Pandas from around 1990.

Where the car has spent its life also affects its propensity to rust. Nothing rusts a car worse than a saline solution that allows corrosion batteries to form on a car's body and suspension. In northern counties such as Northumberland, roads are heavily salted from November to March, and if you go into any Northumberland market town you can see the effect this has on the cars. Cars in coastal areas are affected by airborne salt and sea spray.

In general, cars that have spent their lives in the South East and at least 20 miles from the coast are least likely to have been affected by premature rusting.

Keeping a car in a garage does not necessarily prevent rusting. If a car is put away wet and salty in a poorly ventilated garage, the atmosphere in there will accelerate the rusting process. On the other hand, a warm, dry car driven into a dry, well-ventilated and possibly even heated garage is least likely to rust while stored. Remember, though, the floors of most garages, even integral garages, are usually below the damp course of the house and condensation is likely inside such garages during the winter.

Inspecting a Car Yourself

First and foremost, does the paint match? If every panel is a different shade of red, for example, the car has been in several accidents. If the paint is fresh and new and all the same colour, the car has been in a big accident and has been rebuilt. If just part of the car has fresh paint, for example the bonnet, it may merely have had a minor scrape or been repainted because it was badly stone-chipped.

Other tips for looking for signs of repaired accident are to peel back bits of rubber trim and look for 'tide marks' underneath, to open and close all the doors and check for even shut lines, to look under the boot carpet for fresh paint and a lack of the usual manufacturer's stickers, to look under the bonnet at the inner wings and on the engine, gearbox and suspension, for flecks of spray dust, to crouch down in front of the car and look for ripples in its sides. It's not that hard, is it?

One final tip: when a front wing is replaced it is resprayed in situ and they don't usually make much of a job of the section hidden behind the closed door. Feel the paint there, and if it's rough the car's had a new front wing.

Except on Mercedes and older small Fords, rust is less of a problem than it used to be and paint is now so expensive it's simply not worth filling a car with pudding and giving it a 'blow over'. But if the car is getting on, check all the usual places - round the wheel arches, under the valences (if they're steel), round the edges of the boot floor, under the carpets if they will lift, in the bottoms of the doors, round the headlights and along the outer tops of the doors.

Next job, check the tyres. Uneven wear may be due to incorrect alignment settings, or it may be due to bent suspension components from kerbs, pot holes or road humps. So be particularly wary of uneven front tyre wear. Check the nearside front wheel for rim damage. Has it got a new wheeltrim? Does the wheeltrim match the others? Are all the wheeltrims wrong? (A cheap set of four costs less than one correct wheeltrim from a franchised dealer.)

You've done paint and tyres. Now on to the interior. Dirt cleans off, but tears in the seats and broken bits of trim are notoriously difficult and expensive to put right. One fag burn can be invisibly repaired using new techniques, but a lot of fag burns will cost you £50 each and the repairs won't be invisible. If the entire interior stinks of tobacco smoke you'll be up against it to get rid of the lingering odour. Has there been a dog in the car? Has it scratched the paint? Has it left a smell? Don't feel you have to be polite about this to the car's owners, however nice they may be. It's your money they're after, not your friendship.

Open the bonnet and check all the fluids. Makers like Ford very helpfully paint yellow all the things you need to check. But what you want to look at is the oil on the end of the dipstick. Is it up to the mark? What colour is it? Castor-oil yellow is excellent; light brown is good; dark brown is okay; a tar-like black in a petrol engine spells disaster, though lubricating oil in all but the latest HDI diesel engines will always be black.

Unscrew the oil filler cap. If there is a deposit of whitish or creamy-grey 'mayonnaise' underneath, it means one of two things. The car has led a life of very short runs from cold starts, has never warmed up properly and the condensation this has created has mixed with the oil. Engines run like this have less than a quarter of the life of engines run properly, so a little old lady's car with 10,000 miles on the clock has really done the equivalent of at least 50,000 miles and should be valued accordingly.

The second problem 'mayonnaise' can reveal is a blown cylinder head gasket. It may be straightforward to replace this, or the head may need to be skimmed because it has warped. This gives the car a higher compression ratio and may mean that it simply won't run on 95Ron unleaded petrol. Have a look under the radiator cap or in the radiator expansion tank for similar emulsion to confirm the problem, and also look for white smoke (steam) from the exhaust.

Have a look at the condition of the power steering fluid. It should be red, not black. Same goes for the automatic transmission fluid (most autoboxes have a dipstick). It is a good idea for automatic transmission fluid to be changed every two years (essential with CVT automatics). It is also vital that the ATF level is kept up to the mark.

Look under the car for leaks. Is there oil on the vendor's driveway? A leak from a cam-cover gasket is common and no big deal, but a bad oil leak from a cylinder head gasket means the head has to come off and, if it does, manifold studs may break and stretch bolts will have to be replaced. A leak from the timing belt cover is bad news because it means that the camshaft end seal or a jackshaft seal has gone, contaminating the timing belt - so you won't just need a new seal, you'll need a new belt. If the gearbox/final drive is leaking from an output shaft seal, the lack of oil in the transmission may have led to premature wear.

Now ask to see the service history. Not a book full of stamps; the actual bills for all the work on the car that the owner has paid for, or, if a fleet car, a computer print-out of its service history. If, from this, you find that the car has been 'overserviced' (had its oil and filter changed every 4-6 months), then be willing to pay more for it than the guides suggest. If, on the other hand, it has been 'underserviced' (with gaps of more than a year), then pay substantially less than guide price. If the car has a timing belt rather than a chain, in general this needs to be replaced every 60,000 miles or every 4 years, whichever comes first. On some cars, such as Fords with Zetec engines, the replacement cycle can be pushed to up to 5 years or 80,000 miles whichever comes first, but no longer. If the service bills don't show a timing belt change, then budget £60-£200 to have it done. (The job is more expensive on Peugeots and Citroens because there is an engine mounting in the way.) Automatic transmission fluid should have been changed every 2 years; brake and power steering fluid every 3 years, but every two years if the car has ABS (most now do). If the car has a manual gearbox and the oil in that was changed within its first 18 months on the road, this is a valuable plus point worth paying more for.

You have now made a number of checks that will have provided you with a lot of information without having to pay anyone. Now we'll get onto the road test of the car.

The Think Car Team

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