A Comprehensive Guide to Buying a Second Hand Car

Jack Dreyer | Friday 16th February 2024 12:00pm

Row of cars at a car dealership.

With the cost of new cars soaring in recent years, and the cost of living soaring even more, many drivers are turning to the used car market for their next car purchase. The right deal here can result in huge savings compared to a similar model of car bought brand new Ė but making the wrong purchase can leave you clogged with a money sink.

Hereís everything you need to know.

Choose the right place to look for a used car

There are numerous places to buy a second hand car from, and they each come with benefits and potential problems. Which oneís right for you essentially boils down to a balance between your available budget and how much you know about cars.

Buying from online marketplaces

Buying a car from eBay or Facebook Marketplace can be a great way to get a bargain, but youíre unlikely to have any professional guarantees from the seller Ė so it can really be a potluck if you donít know what to look for. The people selling via online marketplaces range from individuals selling their personal vehicles to commercial operations that make a living from buying and selling vehicles.

You may think that individuals are a safer bet here, and this certainly can be the case if a car has clearly been looked after Ė if thereís a good service history present, for example, and the car has a clean MOT history. But individuals may also not know what problems their car has.

Buying from an individual commercial trader comes with a few benefits. They are bound by some laws, but these laws are likely to be difficult to enforce if the trader decides they donít want to comply. At the same time, if the trader appears to have a good reputation and the car looks to be in good condition, itís possible that they also repair cars before selling them on, in order to buy lower and maximise profit.

Either way, itís important to know what to look for because, intentionally or otherwise, you may be buying a car loaded with problems Ė and you wonít find out about them until itís too late.

A used-car garage is great if you donít know what to look for

Going to a professional used car garage gets around a lot of the problems of buying directly from marketplaces, because youíre given a lot more assurance. Whether itís an actual franchise garage or an independent one, they usually have many more resources than an individual trader so are able to offer quite good warranties (usually at least a year) and will usually have given the car a thorough mechanical inspection & service prior to cleaning.

Because of the overheads that usually come with second-hand garages Ė such as buying the cars themselves, employing staff, and paying the bills for large forecourts and showrooms, this assurance usually comes at a higher price than if you were to purchase directly from an individual.

This higher price, however, is still likely to be significantly lower than a similar-year model from new Ė and another benefit is that many garages allow buying their cars on finance agreements, so you wonít have to pay up front for the entire cost.

At the same time, itís wise to also do some research on the garage; check their reviews and ask friends if they have any personal experience with the garage in question.

What to look for with a used car

So once youíve established where to look, itís important to know some key things to look out for. This doesnít mean you have to become a complete auto expert, but it helps to have a good awareness of some key systems.

If you see a car that looks just right for you (and one that seems to offer great value for money) itís easy to get carried away and part with your cash without thoroughly checking its condition.

If you can, arrange to view the vehicle during daylight hours as itís much easier to spot problems when itís light. Ideally, you should inspect the car when itís dry, too. Itís more difficult to see signs of damage if the vehicleís wet.

General impressions and condition

The Ďfirst impressionsí feeling with a used car is important Ė donít necessarily hold yourself to this first impression, but if a car feels like it hasnít been maintained properly, then it probably hasnít.

Itís important to check externally as well as internally.

For example, do all of the seatbelts work properly, and are there signs of damage or fraying that could affect how well they function? Are all the lights and the windscreen washers and wipers working as they should? Do the locks, including central and remote controlled locks, function correctly? Do all the windows open and close smoothly? Are there signs of impacts or scrapes on the vehicle?

Itís also important to keep your eyes peeled for signs of forced entry to the car, or indications that the locks have been replaced.

Check the tyres

Tyres are replaceable and wonít usually break the bank to do so, but checking the general condition of the tyres, their tread depth, and signs of damage or wear can help you establish how soon youíll need to replace them. Spotting signs of wear on the tyreís face can also indicate other things, like habitually under-pressuring them or driving with sudden accelerations or stops. Tyres are legally required to have a tread depth of 1.6mm around the whole of the tyre, but they should really be replaced before that in order to stay safe.

If there is supposed to be a spare tyre, make sure this is in place too, or if there's a tyre sealant kit and inflator, check that theyíre in a serviceable condition. Ensure the jack is present as well.

Car salesman passing over keys to a customer.

Check brakes, suspension, and axles

While youíre looking at the tyres, make a note of what condition the brakes seem to be in. Itís normal for them to not be especially sparkly after a few years of being on the road, but if they look heavily corroded then it could be a problem to replace. The same applies to the suspension components and the vehicleís axles.

Check brakes, suspension, and axles

Open the hood and have a good look in the engine bay Ė with the car off at first. Check the oil cap to see what condition the oil is in and whether there are any signs of gasket leaks around the engine bay.

Gasket leaks can be reasonably easy fixes but, in some vehicles, can be extremely time consuming, as components (like the engine) need to be completely disassembled in order to replace the gaskets. Some of these components, moreover, are tucked behind other components in order to maximise the use of space in the engine bay.

A tell-tale sign of a gasket or coolant leak is a creamy foam on the oil cap when you pull it up Ė but this can also be a symptom of frequent short trips (especially in cold weather) so itís worth checking the oil cap again after the car has been running for a few minutes.

Be sure to note the condition of any belts in the engine bay Ė these are, again, not terrifically difficult for auto experts to replace, but can destroy an engine if they snap while itís on.

While here, itís wise to also check the levels of brake fluid, coolant, and screen wash. Low levels of brake fluid indicate a leak somewhere, and low coolant levels could result in the car breaking entirely if driven for a length of time.

Turn engine on & check dashboard lights

Once youíve had a look at the car and its engine bay, turn the car on and listen to how it sounds. If itís a diesel car, itís normal to have a short burst of black smoke come out of the exhaust, but be wary if a significant amount comes out.

Itís also normal at this point for all of the dashboard lights to turn on Ė but note any that donít turn off. An oil warning light, for example, may have only just turned on or may have been ignored for weeks!

Check that the radio and headlights turn on as intended, then get out and check the engine bay again. At this point, youíre double checking how the engine sounds (listen for any noticeable knocking) and listening out for any belt squeak. Belts can be adjusted to get rid of noise Ė but overly noisy belts can indicate an improper fit which, in turn, could have resulted in excessive wear.

Check vehicle MOT & service history

Physically inspecting and testing a car is only part of the story when youíre investigating whether itís a savvy purchase. Youíll also need to do some checks into the vehicleís history. This will help you to establish whether itís been sold illegally or has had big repairs in the past (which could be a positive sign).

Check the carís registration number, MOT test number, make and model, mileage and V5C registration certificate with the DVLA to ensure they tally up with what the vendor is telling you. You can do this online using the DVLAís vehicle information checker. Ensure that the car has had regular MOT tests too.

While an MOT history isnít a marker of the current quality of the vehicle, it can give you pointers on the type of driver who owns it. If, for example, the carís had repeated clutch & gasket issues Ė it could be an unlucky car, or it could be an aggressive driver. This, in turn, could indicate other excessive wear in other parts (such as CV joints) from poor driving habits.

Itís also a good idea to get a private history check done. Also called a Ďdata checkí, this can cost up to £20, but itís well worth it, as it can flag up any serious problems the car might have had. This includes whether itís been reported stolen, itís been written off and then returned to the road, itís showing an incorrect mileage, or the seller still owes money on it.

Person opening the glovebox of a car.

Take it for a test drive

You should never hand over your money for a used motor without taking it for a test drive first. Bear in mind youíll need insurance to do this. If you already have your own cover for an existing car, check with your insurance providers to see if youíre allowed to drive someone elseís vehicle. If you donít have insurance, a private seller or traderís policy might cover you - but ask them about this before you get behind the wheel.

Your test drive should be at least 15 minutes long and you should have the opportunity to drive on different types of roads so that you can see how the car performs at various speeds. As well as paying attention to the general smoothness and feel of the ride, make sure you look out for a variety of possible red flags. For instance, do the warning lights work normally? Are there unusual noises when you press the brake pedal? Is the steering pulling to one side? Does the handbrake seem slack? Can you hear strange noises when you start the engine from cold? Do the exhaust emissions seem excessive?

If you notice any issues when youíre in the driving seat, this probably isnít the car for you.

Negotiate a price

Cars and the components in them take a lot of beating in their daily use. When youíre buying a used car, itís wise to expect wear and tear. Components like tyres, brakes, and suspension simply have an expected operational life because they work by wearing themselves down. As such, take it as a positive sign that, for example, brake discs have recently been replaced or thereís been some re-welding done to a part of the chassis.

Replacing an engine, a set of brake discs, or an exhaust, tends to be a much less frequent (and therefore more expensive) task than replacing a brake pad or tyre. The key is to understand that youíre buying a machine that will wear down, and understand how much youíll need to pay to fix it when it does wear down.

Then youíre in a position to negotiate whether the price youíre paying is a fair price.

Different payment methods to consider

When choosing a payment method for purchasing a used car, buyers should consider factors such as convenience, security, fees, and the seller's preferences. It's important to communicate with the seller and agree on a payment method that works for both parties before completing the transaction.

Payment methods can include:

  • Cash
  • Personal cheque
  • Certified cheque or bank transfer
  • Financing
  • Trade-in

Before handing over the money

Before handing over the money for a used car, it's essential to take several important steps to protect yourself and ensure that you're making a wise investment. This includes making sure you inspect the vehicle to ensure it is up to standard.

It is also crucial that you verify that all necessary paperwork is accurately signed.. Confirm the seller's identity and ensure they have legal ownership of the vehicle. Finally, only proceed with the payment once you are fully satisfied with the condition of the car and have completed all necessary due diligence, to protect yourself throughout the transaction process.

Sorting your legal documents

Sorting your legal documents when purchasing a used car is a critical aspect of ensuring a smooth and legally sound transaction. Here are the key legal documents to consider:

  • V5C Registration Document (Logbook) - This document serves as proof of ownership and contains essential information about the vehicle, including the registered keeper, vehicle details, and registration history.
  • MOT certificate to verify that the vehicle has passed the mandatory annual roadworthiness test.
  • While not strictly legal documents, service history records and receipts provide valuable information about the vehicle's maintenance and repair history.
  • Ensure that the vehicle has valid road tax (Vehicle Excise Duty) if you plan to drive it immediately.
  • Before driving the vehicle away, ensure that you have valid insurance coverage in place.

By gathering and reviewing these legal documents thoroughly before completing the purchase of a used car in the UK, you can ensure compliance with regulations, protect yourself from potential issues, and facilitate a seamless transaction.

Need to maintain your new old car?

If youíve pressed the button and bought a used car that suits you, donít put off maintaining it with regular servicing, tyre replacements and even brake checks. A vehicle is always an investment Ė and that investment holds financially and with a whole lot less stress when itís regularly checked, serviced, and repaired by experts. Trust the experts at your local Kwik Fit centre.

Any facts, figures and prices shown in our blog articles are correct at time of publication.

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