What to look out for when buying a used car

It’s the same for all of us. Whenever we buy a used car there’s always that nagging doubt at the back of our mind. Just how can we be completely sure that we’re not being taken for a ride? And how can we be sure that the car we’re buying won’t break down after just a few miles? The simple answer is that there are no absolute guarantees that any used car purchase will be completely trouble-free – but it’s the same with brand new cars too, as any car can give problems.

What do I need to be aware of when buying a used car?

Buying from a used car dealer

If you buy a used car from a dealer you’ll have a warranty, even if it’s just for a few months.

However, any dealer has overheads so you’ll always pay more if you take this route – but if you do have problems they’ll hopefully still be trading so you can pin them down in a bid to get their help.

Depending on the car’s age and mileage, the warranty may not be a very good one so read the small print and make sure that you know what’s covered.

Buying privately

When it comes to buying privately, you need to have your wits about you. There are plenty of dealers masquerading as private sellers and working from home.

When you phone up, ask about ‘the car for sale’ without specifying which one. If they need clarification, they’ve clearly got several vehicles up for grabs.

A few simple rules can save you a lot of bother:

  • Don’t buy a car from someone who will only give you a mobile number, because they’ll probably be untraceable if something major goes wrong.
  • Don’t look at a car in the rain or at night – the paintwork always looks great in these conditions.
  • Insist on visiting the seller’s house to inspect the car; ensure this is at the address on the registration document.

 

Paperwork checks

Before you can make a decision on buying a car you need to ensure that the paperwork is in order.

If the owner doesn’t have all of these pieces of paper to hand, make it clear that you’re not going to buy the car. Sourcing replacement documents isn’t always easy and in some cases it isn’t free either.

The key pieces of documentation you need to ask the seller for are:

  • Registration document or V5C. This tells you the basics about the car’s history such as how many owners it has had and who it is currently registered to. Bear in mind that the person named on this form is not necessarily the legal owner of the car. Don’t buy a car without one of these and make sure it’s a genuine document by holding it up to the light and looking for the watermark.
  • The MOT – With the system now fully computerised, everything is logged centrally and can be looked up instantly – you can check the MOT status of any car by looking it up on the official government website. If a car isn’t MOT’d it can’t be taxed – and neither will it be insured.
  • Ask to see the car’s service history. Ideally, the car will have been maintained by the supplying dealer from new, but what you’re after is proof of regular servicing. You can also ensure the mileage goes up in the right stages.

You can easily put a car through an MOT whenever you like, and when you buy a car you must tax it in your name from the outset, as road tax is not transferable when a car is sold. The V5C is the most important document of the lot; the name on this piece of paper is the person to whom any speeding tickets or other motoring fines will be sent to.

If that person doesn’t deserve them, they have to prove why this is the case – and not telling the DVLA of a change in vehicle ownership is an offence.

Test drives

You should never buy any car – new or used – without taking it for a test drive first.

Fail to do this, and a whole stack of mechanical faults could be just waiting to tear the heart out of your wallet. You also need to make sure you can get comfy; it may sound mad, but if you don’t give the car a decent run before you buy it, you could end up with transport that gives you aches and pains after just a brief drive.

 

Before you think about this though, start the car from cold, and make sure it ticks over happily. Let the engine warm up and ensure the cooling fan cuts in before taking it for a decent run that will allow you to try out all the gears as well as the major controls, brakes, steering and suspension.

While you’re in the car, think about the following:

  • Have the steering wheel and gear knob been worn smooth? Does this tally with the recorded mileage?
  • Is the interior undamaged, along with all the glass? Are there any stickers on the windows which may have been put on to cover an old registration number etched onto the glass?
  • Check for rust that’s been painted over, plus filler in the wheel arches. Once rust arrives, it’s very hard to eradicate.
  • Ensure all the electrics work – try everything. It’s the same with the instrumentation – does it all read as it should?
  • Is the exhaust chucking out soot? If so, the engine may have had it, although some diesels can be pretty sooty even when reasonably healthy.
  • Does the car drive well, with no pulling to one side under braking? If the car hasn’t been used for a while it may need a few miles to settle down – but not a car that’s been in regular use.