Guide To Buying A Used Car


A report from the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) suggests that used car dealers are at the top of the league table when it comes to official complaints in the UK. It appears that there are over 70,000 complaints made to the OFT’s Consumer Direct division each year. Some 70% of these complaints related to faulty vehicles; 13% were about misleading claims made by the seller; and 7% related to sub-standard levels of service.

This data only covers problems encountered with “professional” traders and does not include the many more thousands of dissatisfied buyers who have bought a car from a private seller.

This guide is intended to help to avoid the many pitfalls it is possible to encounter when buying a used car.


Your legal rights when buying a used car depend on whether you are buying it from a trade dealer or from a private individual.

Buying from the trade.

Buying from a dealer is generally the safest way to buy a used car as it gives buyers the maximum protection as long as the dealer remains in business.

Essentially if you buy from a dealer, the car they sell you must match their description of it. If the dealer lies or misleads about the car you are buying, you are within your rights to claim compensation under The Sale of Goods Act (1979).

All cars bought from a dealer should come with some sort of warranty cover and any dealer not offering this protection should be avoided. It may be worth checking whether a dealer is a member of the Retail Motor Industry Confederation – this organisation offers an arbitration service in the event of a problem.

Finally, whenever possible buy from a dealer using a credit card as this brings with it additional legal protection.

Remember to make sure you are completely happy with the car before parting with any money or signing any contract.

Buying from a private seller.

Although buying a used car from a private seller is usually cheaper than going through a dealer, there is greater risk involved and lower levels of legal protection. The onus is not on the seller to declare information about the vehicle. Rather it is up to the buyer to ask the right questions regarding past repairs and faults and also to test-drive and thoroughly inspect the car. Whilst the seller must be truthful in describing the car and its history, it can be very hard to prove misrepresentation. Generally, private cars sales operate under the “sold as seen” banner.

One tip here though – if you buy privately, beware any seller who only provides a mobile phone number for contact as it may be hard to trace them in the event of a problem. For the same reason, try and meet the seller at their home address.

As with dealers, remember not to commit to buying any car until you are completely happy with the car that you are buying.


There are several steps to go through when buying a used car and we've tried to summarise these in our 40-point plan. Follow them all and they will help you to avoid many of the pitfalls that can cause problems. If you are not confident in your ability to inspect a vehicle, take someone with you who is more experienced. Remember that you can pay for someone (such as the AA or RAC) to do this for you.


  1. Draw up a shortlist of makes and models of cars and use independent price guides such as Parkers or What Car? to give you guidance on likely prices for different ages of vehicle.
  2. If you have a car to sell, make sure you have an idea as to its value and whether you would be happy to trade it in to part-pay for your next car.
  3. From this, set your budget and get your finances in place, for example, securing a loan to help you buy your car. Don’t forget to check potential running costs including car insurance costs. You can use a car insurance comparison site like to check likely costs.
  4. Use the internet, local papers or specialist magazines to try and make a shortlist of cars you are interested in seeing


  • Check the car’s mileage – as a rule of thumb it may have done about 10,000 miles a year. Any more than this and it may be “well used” rather than just “used”.
  • If you are definitely interested in the car, consider taking out a vehicle search (you can do this through to check the car’s history – whether it is stolen, been modified, has had its mileage changed (or “clocked”) or whether it has ever been an insurance write off.
  • Have a look at the registration document (V5C) and make sure that the seller is the registered owner. Check the watermark on the document and for any spelling mistakes – forgeries have been used. Check that the V5C matches the car’s number plate.
  • If the car is over 3 years old, check the MOT document. Make sure that the mileage on this tallies with what’s on the car’s odometer.
  • Ask to see a full service history of the car. Again, check the odometer readings against what is currently on the clock. In particular check whether the cam belt has been replaced in accordance with the manufacturer’s recommendation.


  • Always look at cars in full daylight and in dry conditions if possible. Check bodywork from both outside and inside the car.
  • Check that the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) that is on the registration documents is the same as that on the engine plate and on the VIN plate that is usually found under the driver’s carpet. Make sure that the VIN has not been tampered with. (There may also be VIN marks etched into windows).
  • Check the car locks and the fuel filler cap for any signs of forced damage.
  • Look for signs of rust on the car’s wings, bumpers, sills, under wheel arches, under the bonnet, around door frames and the windscreen and around brake and exhaust pipes.
  • Check that the doors and wings match up. If not the car may have been in a crash and been repaired poorly. Look for irregular paintwork and look for possible use of filler.
  • Think about whether the general state of the car is about right given its mileage.
  • Check the treads on tyres, including the spare (the UK legal minimum is 1.6mm and any tyre with tread less than 3mm deep will need replacing soon) and look for other signs of excessive wear and tear.
  • Check the dashboard and ignition for any signs of tampering.

  • Check that the seatbelts work and are in good condition.
  • Check that the windows and doors (and boot and bonnet) open and close properly.
  • Check the suspension by pushing down on each corner of the car and letting go again. If the shock absorbers are in good condition the car should only rise once before returning to its normal position.


  • Make sure that the engine looks relatively clean and well cared for.
  • Check the oil. Do this before starting the car and make sure that the level is correct and that it is clean rather than sludgy. Also check there is no residue around the oil filler cap or neck and the oil breather pipe (this is a sign of possible head gasket leakage).
  • Make sure the coolant is not rust coloured.
  • Check that there are no oil leaks from the engine.
  • Start the engine. Listen for any rattling or knocking noises. Make sure the oil indicator light goes out soon after the engine starts.
  • Rev the engine and check for blue or black exhaust smoke. The presence of either indicates problems. (Note that white water vapour from the exhaust can be considered as normal when the car is started cold; and that a very faint blue smoke from diesel engines is also normal).


  • Make sure that you are insured (and the level of insurance cover) before driving anyone else’s car! Dealers normally have a motor trade car insurance policy that will cover you but with a private seller there’s a good chance you won’t be covered.
  • Always test drive a car for at least 10 or 15 minutes to check it properly.
  • Start by making sure there is no “play” in the steering – that the wheels turn as soon as you turn the steering wheel. You may need a friend to help you check this.
  • Make sure the handbrake works properly (preferably by parking on a slope).
  • Make sure that the steering is straight and that the car doesn’t pull to the left or right. Also make sure that the car doesn’t swerve excessively or that the brakes judder when braking at speed.
  • Make sure the clutch operates smoothly and that all the gears are easy to engage.
  • Don’t just drive on the flat –try to drive up a hill and change gears on the hill too.
  • Check the temperature gauge for signs of overheating.
  • Listen and feel for suspension “knocks” on bumpy roads.
  • Make sure the brake pedal feels solid and does not sink to the floor before working.
  • After the drive, check for any fluid leakage from shock absorbers by looking inside the wheel arch).


  • When you’re sure that you are happy with the car, make an offer based on the research that you have done. Sensible offers normally get sensible answers!
  • Pay using a credit card whenever possible as this provides you with additional protection. If this is not possible, use a banker’s draft rather than cash.
  • Make sure you get the V5C registration document when you buy the car. This indicates ownership of the vehicle and you need to sign and send it to the DVLA immediately.


We hope that this guide is useful. The key to successfully buying a used car is to take your time and ONLY buy the car when you are 100% sure that it’s the right car for you, in the right condition and at the right price. If you are unsure about it, walk away. There are thousands more cars on sale for you to choose from. And if in doubt, take expert help from an advisory service like the RAC or AA.

Happy motoring!

12/12/2011 15:28:38 Jo

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