How to buy the right used car for you

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. 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

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 page 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.