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Buying a used car: a 9-point checklist

Buying a used car can be a great way to bag a bargain and make your money go further.

When you’re searching for a reliable set of wheels without any hidden surprises, you must of course do your research. We’ve pulled together some key pointers to help you successfully buy a used car that you can happily drive away.

  1. Find a trustworthy trader

Many people buy used cars from dealers. If this is the route you take, then do your best to find an established firm with a good reputation. 

For a start, ask friends and family for recommendations, and look up online reviews. 

Citizens Advice recommends looking for a trade association sign, such as the Retail Motor Industry Federation or the Scottish Motor Trade Association, or a sign that says the dealer follows The Motor Ombudsman's code of practice.

  1. Look out for pre-reg cars

A pre-registered, or pre-reg, car is one that has been registered by the manufacturer or dealer, but not sold to a customer before.

These cars are sometimes used for sales demos or test drives, so they’ll have registration plates and a number of miles on the clock.

By buying pre-reg, you may be able to find a good deal on a new-ish car with the lower price of a used vehicle.

To find a pre-reg car online, consumer motoring site Honest John suggests adjusting your search to find used or ‘nearly new’ cars for the current or previous year, and adjust the maximum mileage to 100 or some other low amount. Some manufacturer websites also list them for customers looking for a vehicle to configure.

  1. Check the car’s history

This part is essential. You need to run some simple checks to reduce your chances of buying a car that’s being sold illegally, has had major repairs, or still has outstanding finance against it.

You’ll need information from the current owner, including the registration number, MOT test number, mileage, make and model. There should also be an owner’s handbook detailing all of the car’s maintenance history with previous owners.

You can then use the DVLA’s free online vehicle information checker to make sure what the seller tells you matches the DVLA’s records.

If something doesn't match up, first check with the seller in case it’s a mistake. But if you’re at all unsure, then it’s probably best to look elsewhere for your next vehicle.

Also, make sure you check the car’s MOT history, which you can do for free on the government website. Ask the seller about any gaps in MOT, but again, if in doubt, try your luck elsewhere.

For extra peace of mind, you can also pay as little as £10 for an organisation such as the RAC, AA, or HPI Check to do a data check. They’ll check for things like outstanding finance, mileage discrepancies or whether the vehicle has been stolen, scrapped or written off.

If you discover outstanding finance before buying a car, check with the finance company whether payments are still due. If this is the case, then ask the owner to settle the account before you buy the car.

  1. Carefully check the car

First impressions are very important. How do you feel when you see the car? If you have doubts or suspicions about its history, then maybe it’s not the right car for you.

After drawing those first impressions, you then need to take your time to check the car as carefully as you can to ensure the price of the car reflects its condition. Always do this in dry weather in the daylight, otherwise you may miss something.

You don’t need to be a trained mechanic to make some simple checks. For example:

  • Check the car’s bodywork for scratches or dents that could be expensive to repair.
  • Check the interior for stains, rips or scuffs. 
  • Test the headlights, brake and indicator lights and the radio to ensure all are working as expected. 

It could be a good idea to take a friend or mechanic with you when you go to check over and buy a car, to provide a second pair of eyes. Alternatively, you can pay an organisation such as RAC or AA for an inspection.

  1. Take a test drive 

Try before you buy. Take a test drive on different types of road, both urban and rural if you can.

When you start the car and are driving, watch for excessive exhaust smoke and listen out for any unusual noises. Also, test the brakes and all of the gears. The RAC has a nice simple checklist here.

During the test drive, be sure to consider whether you’re comfortable and happy driving the car. After all, you’re likely to spend many miles behind the wheel. Is this a car you can imagine yourself using regularly?

Remember, you need to make sure you’re insured to do a test drive. If in doubt, check with your insurance company beforehand.

  1. Ask about extras and safety features 

It’s worth finding out what extras come with the car. Bear in mind extras can add to the price, so be sure they’re features you really want and need, so you’re not paying over the odds.

Also, find out about safety features. For example, you may want to prioritise a vehicle with AEB or autonomous emergency braking.

You can use the Euro New Car Assessment Programme (NCAP) crash test scores to compare car safety before you buy.

  1. Add up all of the costs

The sale price isn’t the be all and end all – you should consider the car’s running costs too.

After all, UK motorists spend on average more than £2,500 a year on running costs, according to 2020 stats from the Office for National Statistics, and this figure doesn’t include the cost of depreciation.

Running costs to consider include:

  • Fuel: if you’re choosing a diesel car, then the cost of filling up will typically be higher than if you go for petrol. Also, check manufacturer listed MPG figures for individual models.

  • Tax: Tax for used cars is based on their CO2 emissions and can vary hugely, so check how much you’d have to pay.

  • Insurance: find out which insurance group your shortlisted car falls into, as this will affect how much it costs to insure. For details on insurance groups, go to Thatcham Research website

  • Parking and Congestion Charge/Tolls – Depending on how frequently you plan to use your car, if you’re commuting to work, parking fees– these are all costs to keep in mind.

If the car is less than five years old, then you can use this calculator from the Money Advice Service to work out how much it will cost to run each year.

  1. Haggle on the price

Always try to haggle down the asking price when buying a vehicle. According to Money Advice Service research, nearly two thirds (64%) of people who tried to negotiate when buying a car were successful. So, give it a try!

It’s important to know your budget before you go car shopping and if you don’t get the deal you need, then walk away, don’t get carried away.

Even if you’ve agreed a price, before you finalise the deal, there’s no harm in asking the dealer or seller if they can throw in something extra, like a full tank of fuel.

  1. The right way to pay for your car

When you’ve found the right car for you, then consider how you’ll pay for it. Paying with a debit or credit card provides you with better protection than paying with cash.

Your seller should write a receipt for you, with detail including the car make, model, engine size, registration and chassis number. Also, ensure they include your address, their address and the amount paid. The receipt should then be signed and dated by both of you.

You’ll then need to register, insure and tax the vehicle. Once all of the paperwork is sorted, it’s time to enjoy driving many happy miles in your new car.