Which used car to buy

There’s a bewildering array of cars out there; you’ve got all sorts of engines, gearboxes, makes, models and ages of car to choose from. Working out which will work best for you can be a daunting task, but if you tackle it methodically you should be able to narrow things down fairly quickly.

Which used car is right for me?

With a limited budget and high insurance costs, you’ll be very restricted with what cars you can afford to buy and run.

The chances are you’ll have to buy a city car or supermini, so you’ll end up with a small hatchback of some kind.

The important thing is to go into the buying process with a level head; you can’t let your heart drown out your head, as you’ll probably only regret it. Start by creating a shortlist of suitable contenders; cars which are highly rated by their owners and the press, because they’re reliable, cheap to run, practical and fun to drive.

You can get a head start on this by reading our used car reviews section, along with our new car reviews if the car is still in production.  And don’t forget to check out our page on researching a new car purchase – much of the advice also applies to buying a used car.

Once you’ve got a shortlist together, start looking at what’s available. It may be that the perfect Ford Fiesta is available this week, but in two weeks’ time the ideal Volkswagen Polo will be on the market.  So what you end up buying will be dictated by what’s on the market at the time.

You also need to think about the following:

  • The older the car, and higher the mileage, the more maintenance it’ll need. Parts wear out, so don’t expect the car to just keep working without regular servicing.
  • Which makes more sense; petrol or diesel? For guidance on this, check out our separate post on the subject.
  • Establish what the insurance costs will be. The only way to do this is to get a quote on the car you’re thinking of buying; it’s no good trying to guess, based on the car’s value and your postcode.
  • Also research the likely servicing costs; most cars have a fixed servicing schedule, and fixed-price servicing has become the norm, which should enable you to work out what you’re likely to pay in maintenance costs.
  • Do you want an automatic or manual gearbox? Self-shifting gears can be a real bonus with today’s traffic levels, but cars with an automatic gearbox use more fuel, and the majority of used small cars come with a manual gearbox.
  • Don’t be put off by an ex-company car, even if it has a high mileage. Not only should it have been cared for mechanically (you can check the bodywork and interior easily enough) but most of the miles it will have been running hot. There’s nothing worse than a low-mileage car which has been run almost exclusively cold – it’s a surefire way of wrecking an engine.

Pre-reg cars

Garages that sell new cars tend to have monthly targets to hit. If they hit these targets they’ll get a bonus – and if they don’t, they won’t.

So it’s in their interests to make sure they hit those targets. That’s easier said than done though, if the target is high and there are no customers to sell to.

The thing is, the new car market doesn’t work on sales – it works on registrations, which is something else altogether. Car makers focus on new car registrations because that’s seen as the marker of success.

So if a garage can’t find a customer for that car sitting in the compound, it can register the car in its own name.

So while the car hasn’t been sold as such, it does go down as a new car registration, because it’s been registered. But the dealer has a problem; it has a car registered in its own name, but it doesn’t have a buyer for it.

What’s more of an issue is the fact that because the dealer’s name is now on the registration document, when the real first owner coughs up and gets the car registered in their name, they’ll appear as the second owner, so it’s effectively a second-hand car.

To entice customers into buying these ‘pre-registered’ cars, the dealer has to sell them at a reduced price, even if they’ve covered virtually no miles. After all, the car is – on paper at least – a used car.

If you’re wondering what the point of it all is, it’s because the success of a car maker is often judged on how much of the new car market it has. It used to be the case that all mainstream car makers effectively bought their market share by registering huge numbers of new cars.

But times are tough now and such tactics lead to big losses. And most car makers are struggling to survive, so they can’t afford to buy market share so much, which is why although pre-registering still happens, it’s not as common as it used to be.

So why should you care about pre-registered cars? Simple – you can potentially buy a brand new car for the same money as somebody else’s used car. If you want to take advantage of a pre-registered bargain, watch out for supposedly used cars being advertised with delivery mileage only.

As the targets have to be hit at the end of the month, it’s at the very end of the month or the start of the following that these pre-registered bargains are to be had – but finding them is completely hit and miss. A dealer might have several one month then none for ages after that – which is why you need to shop around.

Should I buy a classic car?

If you want to stand out from the crowd but you can’t afford a flash set of wheels, there is an answer; a classic car.

With so much more character and charm than modern vehicles, classics have personality, unlike all those Fiestas and Corsas your mates are driving.

Classic cars aren’t mere transport; they’re different from the norm, which automatically makes them a bit special. Why spend thousands customising a modern supermini for individuality, when you can buy a classic and instantly stand out from the crowd?

It’s not that simple though – things never are. There are all sorts of dull things to think about, like insurance, usability and running costs, plus those all-important safety issues. But don’t let these put you off; there’s always an answer.

On a more positive note, most mainstream classics cost peanuts, while parts are often plentiful and cheap. Many starter classics in good nick can be had for little more than a grand; you can pay much less, but if you want to spend more time on the road than in the garage, you need to invest in a tidy example.

So far so good, but it gets even better. If your classic is over 40 years old, you don’t have to pay road tax – not a bean. That can mean a saving of well over 100 quid compared with a modern motor; you still need a tax disc, but it costs you nothing!

It’s not all good news though; while it’s fun to brag about free road tax to your mates, your fuel bills will probably be higher. Older engines are less efficient than today’s computer-managed units, so don’t expect a 1970s Triumph to give as many miles to the gallon as a 21st century supermini.

The biggest bonus with classics though, is that they don’t shed value like yesterday’s newspapers. Buy a decent classic at a sensible price, look after it, and you’re unlikely to lose money when you come to sell.

Even older used cars still shed value, but with classics, all of the depreciation has already taken place so their values remain stable; you may even find that your classic increases in value during your ownership. However, if you run a classic as an everyday car, it’s unlikely to prove to be the cheap option; a need for much more maintenance will cost you, and if you can’t do at least the basics yourself, it could end up costing you a lot.

But if you’re not comfortable with even the basics of car maintenance, most classic cars come with a social scene attached, and if you join an owners’ club you’ll have a ready source of expertise at your disposal to maintain the car yourself. And with parts prices often criminally cheap, running costs can be astonishingly low.

But there are two major spanners just waiting to throw themselves into the works – safety and insurance. Older cars lack even the most basic safety kit, and insurance companies tend to shy away from covering under-25s. Even though classics tend to be less powerful and driven more carefully than more modern cars, because their owners cherish them, under-25s are less experienced than older drivers, and when you mix this with a lack of anti-lock brakes, airbags and strengthened safety cells, insurers get twitchy.

If the worst comes to the worst, you may have to insure on a conventional insurance policy; you just won’t be able to agree (and hence guarantee) the car’s value before any claim might be made.

Check out some of our FirstCar award winners from 2019 that might tick the box!