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Used car buying guide

When you buy a brand new car, you pay extra to customize it to your liking, and have the experience of driving fresh from the production line. Buying used cars can save you a huge amount of money, new cars typically lose up to 40% of their value after just one year.

Although it makes great financial sense to buy a second hand car, make sure you take your time when buying used.


It’s important to think about how much you have to spend, not only on the car itself, but also on additional costs like road tax, insurance, servicing and breakdown cover. Get quotes for the following services that are specific to the car you’re considering before going to look at it, this will ensure you’re loaded with all the relevant information to make an informed purchase.

  • Insurance - Get an insurance quote from comparison sites like or, both of which will provide you with quotes for a car you haven’t bought yet. You’ll be able to see who’s cheapest and what options are available on policies within your overall budget.
  • Road tax - Use this website to find what road tax band a car is in and work out whether you can afford it. Remember, you can pay road tax on a monthly or 6-monthly direct debit to spread the cost.
  • Servicing - It’s important to get your car serviced regularly, as this will ensure it’s looked after and develops fewer faults over its life. This doesn’t have to be at the main dealer, as you can sometimes find a better deal on servicing elsewhere. Get a quote from a local garage for a full service and find out the recommended service schedule from the car’s manufacturer.
  • Breakdown cover - Get a quote for breakdown cover, especially if the car is outside its warranty period and the manufacturer doesn’t offer a free breakdown policy (some do).
  • MOT test - If the car is more than three years old, remember it’ll need an MOT every year. Make sure you budget for this cost too.
  • Additional work - Some cars may need more work doing to them, which should be made clear at the time you purchase the vehicle. If this is the case, get a quote for doing the work before you buy.
  • Finance - If you’re going to buy a car on finance, get as much information about the loan that’s being offered. This should include any interest that will be added to the debt along with any charges that could be applied over the life of the loan, such as if you make a late payment.

Read as much as you can about the car models you’re interested in. Websites like Parkers and Honest John have a lot of useful information from independent sources. Search in internet for model-specific forums with first hand owner experiences on there. These sorts of websites should give you an idea of any common problems with the car, so you can check them out when you see them.

You should approach your research with an open mind. Read several reviews and opinions before you come to a conclusion. If you’re still not sure, take a test drive yourself. A lot of reviews are very subjective and you might not agree with the reviewer.

Once you’ve decided on a few cars you like, work out which variants of a model you’re interested in. Car models are normally offered in a variety of variant or “trim” levels. These can affect not only how the vehicle looks, but also what features it has, engine and handling too. Get a good idea what equipment and trim levels are available for a particular car from Parkers so you can work out which ones are right for you.

Use sites like AutoTrader and to find cars in your area for sale, and see what prices are being asked for them. Get a really good idea of how things like age, mileage and the trim level affects the price. This will be useful when negotiating once you’ve found a car you’d like to buy.

Viewing a car

Beware of deals that just seem a little too cheap, or too good to be true, as they may well be. If a vehicle has a very low mileage based on its age or is a lot cheaper than similar vehicles, there may be a serious problem with it. In these cases it might be worth paying someone to check the car’s health, which is a service offered by companies such as The AA and RAC.

The most important thing to do when going to see a car you’re interested in is to find out as much information as you can about the history of the vehicle.

Ask about a service history. The more information and evidence the current owner can give you about a car’s history, the better. If a full service history is available, you know a vehicle has been looked after and is less likely to develop a fault. If little or no history is available, find out why - the current owner should be able to give you a reasonable answer, otherwise walk away.

Registration document (V5C). Ask to see this document, and make sure the person who’s names on it (the registered keeper) is the person you’re talking to. If not, they need to give you a good reason why they’re selling the car for someone else. The previous keeper is also listed on the document, so you could even try to contact them to find out more information about it.

Rain can hide scratches and dents, so make sure you view the car when the weather is dry or the car is undercover.

Find out about the manufacturer’s service schedule. Some schedules require large maintenance tasks to be taken at certain intervals. For example, the cam belt may need to be changed at 80,000 miles, or brake fluid may need replacing at every 4th service. Make sure a car’s service history reflects these and that these repairs have been carried out in accordance with manufacturer recommendations.

Find out if there’s a spare key, if not ask why. Spare keys can be expensive to buy, sometimes well over £100. Some vehicle manufacturers provide a “master key” with each car that’s a different colour. These can be even more expensive to replace if they’ve been lost.

Have a good look at the car. If any panels are misaligned or appear a different colour to the rest, this may indicate the car has been repaired in an accident. Inside the car, check the condition of the carpets and interior. Ask to remove any seat covers if they’ve been fitted to check for signs of excessive wear or damage.

If the car has alloy wheels that have locking wheel nuts fitted, ensure it comes with a locking wheel nut adaptor, as sometimes these get lost. If there is one, make sure it actually fits the nuts on the wheels.

Taking the car for a test drive

A separate article is coming soon with advice about what to do when taking a car for a test drive, watch this space!

MOT Test

Find out when the car’s MOT is next due, an MOT is only due when a car is more than three years old, so newer cars won’t need one yet. You can find out when the car was registered on the website. Ask for the MOT certificates and the owner should be able to produce them. Take a look at the advisory items to see if any sound serious or could develop into a problem later on. You may be able to use this information to affect the price you pay. You can contact the DVSA to find out the current state of a vehicle's MOT history. Also, read our guide about MOT Test Common Questions.

Approved dealers

If you’re buying a car from a dealer, it’ll normally be a little more expensive. In addition to protection provided by law, you may be offered additional benefits by larger dealers, such as breakdown cover or a limited warranty. Sometimes it may be worth the extra money to get a car from somewhere who knows them well, and offers these additional benefits.

Make sure you’re happy

It’s important to be comfortable that you’re making the right decision when buying a car. It’s an expensive purchase and you may own the vehicle for some considerable time. If you can’t come to an agreement with the seller, or reach a price you’re comfortable paying for the car, walk away.

Before you pay

Agree arrangements for collecting the car or getting it delivered before you pay. Confirm the price and what is included, such as any work that needs doing or accessories currently fitted to the vehicle. Get a receipt with details of the car, any work or parts included along with the details of the seller.

Problems after you buy

If you bought the car from a trader or dealer, you’re covered under the Sale of Goods Act (read more on the Which? website). In summary, it states that goods should be fit for their purpose and sold as described. Any known faults should have been brought to your attention at the time of purchase and you should expect the vehicle to last for a reasonable amount of time. If the car develops a fault within a year after you buy it, you may be able to claim for the cost of repairs, some of the cost of the car, or in some cases the entire cost. This will depend on a number of factors and it’s recommended that you seek advice before taking any action. Unfortunately the law doesn’t protect you in this way if you bought the car from a private individual.

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