Four things to consider when buying a used car

Four things to consider when buying a used car
Four things to consider when buying a used car

After a house, a car is usually the most expensive purchase we will make, even if it’s second hand rather than brand new.

Whether you’ve saved up the cash or worked out a suitable way of getting finance, the next big step is finding your dream car.

But even once you’ve tracked down the right model you want to make sure it isn’t hiding any nasty surprises, in terms of a dodgy history or potentially catastrophic mechanical problems.

At worst you could end up buying a stolen, cloned or written-off vehicle or left facing a bill running into thousands if a key component such as gearbox or turbo packs in.

With this in mind, James Fairclough, CEO of AA Cars, has offered his advice on what critical checks to make when buying a used car.

Know the seller

If you choose to buy from a private seller, you should ensure that they are the registered owner of the vehicle by going to their address and checking it matches the address found on the vehicle’s V5C document. Always be cautious if the seller wants to meet you on ‘neutral’ ground such as a service area, car park or lay-by somewhere, as the car may be stolen.

If you're buying privately make sure you confirm the seller's identity and address, never meet on "neutral" ground like a public car park. (Photo: Shutterstock)
If you’re buying privately make sure you confirm the seller’s identity and address, never meet on “neutral” ground like a public car park. (Photo: Shutterstock)

Some scammers advertise a car and claim it’s overseas and ready to be shipped once you’ve paid a deposit. If you encounter a seller like this walk away immediately.

Remember that if you choose to purchase your vehicle privately, you are not protected by the Consumer Rights Act if something goes wrong.

If you buy from a registered motor trader this Act ensures you are entitled to a repair, replacement or if a fault comes to light in the first six months after purchase as long as the problem was present when you bought the car.

The majority of reputable dealers will also offer a warranty which will protect you should any unforeseen mechanical failures occur. Just check what is and isn’t covered as levels of protection do vary.

If you’re buying for a trader do your homework on them, many are great, some are less trustworthy. Look for reviews online from previous customers and ask around for recommendations to see if they have a good reputation or not.

Check the history

Whoever you buy from, it is vital to see the car’s history and ask about any accidents or recent repairs. Getting a history check will help you ensure you are not buying a stolen car, or one that has been written off, while also providing other critical information about the vehicle.

Always ask to see all the car's documentation and history. (Photo: Matt Allan)
Always ask to see all the car’s documentation and history. (Photo: Matt Allan)

Dealers are obliged to prepare the car before offering it for sale, including verifying the accuracy of the recorded mileage. The service history will indicate the vehicle’s mileage, as it should have been recorded at every service, and is important to check. Paying attention to this will help to protect you from ‘clocking’, whereby the mileage is tampered with so the car can be sold with a lower mileage than it actually has.

Take care to check how the car looks – if it appears worn, but the mileage seems low, take extra precautions.

Mechanical checks

James recommends paying for a professional mechanic to check any vehicle before you buy to ensure there are no underlying problems.

A good vehicle inspection will look at all the major elements of a car, including the bodywork; chassis; suspension; steering, transmission; fuel and exhaust systems, brakes; wheels and tyres; electrical controls and the interior.

Either check the car's mechanical components yourself or pay a professional to inspect it before buying. (Photo: Shutterstock)
Either check the car’s mechanical components yourself or pay a professional to inspect it before buying. (Photo: Shutterstock)

If you don’t want to pay for an inspection James recommends you check external features such as the tyres, lights and windscreen wipers, and ensure the warning lights function properly.

However, it is crucial you check all the working components too. Are the brakes effective, or do they make an unusual noise when applied? Is the steering wheel pulling to one side? Check the clutch – a noise when you press the pedal or a high biting point could mean that repairs will be required soon. Find out if the car has been driven frequently in hilly areas or towed a lot, this can affect how long a clutch will last before it needs to be repaired or replaced.

Keep your ears open for any unusual noises, be mindful of how the car looks (mismatched colours can indicate multiple repairs) and check if the keys work properly.

If you consider that the engineers carrying out the inspection check for nearly 130 elements of a car, then question if you have ticked off as many aspects of the car in your own assessment as possible.

Don’t rush in

Crucially – if a deal looks too good to be true, it probably is. It is best not to sign anything or hand over any money until you’re absolutely happy – there will be other, similar cars available so there’s no need to take a risk if you feel uneasy.

Reliving Formula 1's glory days at the high-octane Estoril Classics

Experiencing one of the latest entries in the historic racing calendar

Joining the police on a trip down the M1 memory lane

Getting behind the wheel of the oldest and newest cars to patrol the UK's first full-length motorway

Seven tips for passing your driving test more quickly

Passing is never guaranteed but these hints could help you get it right first time

How to control your car if you skid: winter driving tips from experts to handle front and back wheel skids

Advice on how to keep control in bad weather and what to do if you lose it