What to look for when buying a used car

What to look for when buying a used car? Here’s what you need to check

Millions of used vehicles are sold in the UK every year, most result in happy drivers who enjoy a great deal. But how can you be sure you’re not being taken for a ride? Here’s everything you need to check when you’re buying a used car.

7 top tips for choosing a used car

Buying a second-hand vehicle doesn’t have to be a stressful experience. Stick to these tips for buying used cars and you’ll dramatically cut your risk of being caught out by a dodgy seller.

Check the car matches the documentation

Once you’ve got all the documents you need for the car, give them a thorough inspection to make sure everything matches the vehicle. For example, you’ll need your V5C registration to tax the car and it contains a lot of details you need to look at:

Is the seller’s name listed on the V5C? If not, ask who they’re selling it on behalf of and why
Check that the vehicle identification number (VIN), license plate, and engine number all match what’s on the V5C
Make sure the vehicle is the right colour, as listed on the registration
Can you see an official watermark on the document?

You’ll also want to see other documents like the car’s MOT and service histories. Question any inconsistencies or gaps. Don’t be afraid to ask tough questions now, it could save you time and money later. 

Take a closer look for tampering

Even if the documents match the vehicle, that might not be the end of the story. Pay attention for signs that the vehicle has been tampered with to match its V5C or service history:

Inspect the car’s VIN plate for signs it’s been forged or replaced
VIN numbers should be etched into the car’s lights and on glass; have these been removed or scratched out?
Check the screws around key instruments; if the screws are scratched and worn that could be a sign they’ve been replaced 

Is the mileage too good to be true?

If the car’s odometer is showing low mileage, ask yourself if the vehicle’s general condition reflects that. Is the age of the car consistent with the mileage you’re being told? An older car that claims to have suspiciously low mileage should set alarm bells ringing.

The vehicle’s MOT history should record its mileage every 12 months. Typically, it should increase at a steady rate every year. If the number of miles the car does every year suddenly drops off, ask the seller why that is. It’s possible the way they used the vehicle simply changed, or it could be a sign of foul play.

Find out more about what to keep in mind when it comes to annual mileage.

Insist on a test drive

There should be no good reason why a seller shouldn’t let you take a test drive once you’ve shown a serious interest in buying. This is the perfect time to check for fine details like:

Warning lights, which should flash on briefly to test when you start the car
Any strange sounds from the engine when it starts up
Braking: using the brakes should be smooth and quiet
Is the ride itself smooth, or does the vehicle vibrate?
Does the car stay steady while you drive, or does it veer to one side?
Is the exhaust giving off any unusual emissions behind you?

Learn more about test driving a used car.

Do a thorough safety check

Unscrupulous engineers sometimes go to great lengths to hide unsafe work. A standard safety check on a used car should consist of things like:

Inspecting the condition of the tyres
Making sure the spare tyre and any necessary tools are where you need them
Looking over the seatbelts for any fraying
Closely checking the airbags to make sure they’ll work

Don’t be afraid to look in greater depth. Get underneath the vehicle’s carpets for signs of a new paint job or unusual welding. Check the locks for signs of forced entry or replacement. Cars that have been welded together from random parts are often stolen and always unsafe.

Is the car all paid off?

Be completely sure that the used car you’re looking to buy has been paid for in full, and isn’t being used as security for a loan. It might seem deeply unfair, but lenders can come after a car’s new owners and repossess the vehicle if the old owner fails to settle a loan.

Think about using a checking company

There’s so much to check when buying a used car that it might feel overwhelming. Some companies can carry out a full check on your behalf to make sure you don’t get bamboozled. HPI is the most well-known company in the UK for providing that service.

Having a check done on your behalf will cost you. However, it’s a relatively low cost compared to having your car break down or get repossessed. These companies can give you peace of mind as well as protection from dodgy sellers.

What are the advantages of buying a used car?

With so much to check, you might ask if it’s a wise idea to buy like this. Don’t worry, there are plenty of advantages of buying a used car from a reputable dealer, including:

Price: Used cars are cheaper than new ones, and come with plenty of attractive finance options
Expertise: You’ll benefit from your dealer’s knowledge of hundreds of different cars
Choice: A typical dealership offers enormous variety in one place

Even if you’re buying a used car privately, you can save big money compared to buying new. Just be sure the private seller is acting in good faith by going over those checks.

Should I buy a used electric car?

In the early days of electric vehicles (EVs), the used car market was limited. Those days are over. Used EVs are more common than ever, and the speed of advancing technology is driving prices down.

As EV charging infrastructure spreads around the UK, these vehicles will only get more and more common, as well as easier to run. It’s a great time to make the switch from traditional fossil fuel vehicles, which are due to be phased out by 2035.

Learn more in our guide to buying an electric car.

What are my legal rights when buying a used car?

Your rights when buying used vehicles depend on where and how you buy. If you go to a dealer, you’re covered by the Sale of Goods Act; the dealer legally represents the manufacturer.

If you buy from a private seller or auction, the vehicle only has to be roadworthy. It’s on you to carry out the checks which a credible dealer would do on your behalf. Your rights are the same whether you buy in person or online.

Where should I buy a used car?

With Lookers, you’ll get all the knowledge and expertise of our friendly staff on your side. We’re committed to matching people with used cars that go the distance.

Shop our selection of used cars

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