Currently reading: Autocar's guide to buying a used car
Want to buy a previously owned car but don’t know where to begin? Our svengali of the secondhand, James Ruppert, guides you through the used car jungle

So, you're in the market for a used car. Where do you buy? What do you go for? Should you head to the dealer or the auction house? James Ruppert reveals all.

Ways to buy a used car – pros and cons

1 – Private sale

Here’s where you could get lucky and meet a very lovely person who has a truly lovely car to sell. You could be buying from someone who is passionate and protective and has clearly cherished what you want to own, plus they have a folder full of service history and a plausible reason to sell. So the rule is always to buy an enthusiast’s car from an enthusiast, if you can. 

On the other hand, they may regularly sell cars for cash without a word to the tax man. That makes them car dealers without any of the responsibilities or warranties.

Genuine private sellers may have the balance of a factory warranty, or an independent one, or one that applies to specific parts, be they tyres, batteries or alternators, so do ask. There’s no comeback if you have a problem, provided they haven’t misled you or sold an unroadworthy car. 

Pros: They have the perfect car.

Cons: There are no comebacks.

2 – Franchised main dealer

The point here is that you’ll pay more for the car because franchises have big, big overheads. The upside, of course, is that the cars should be the very best available and they’ll come with a great warranty.

The car should have a main dealer service history and the dealer should be able to sort out any issues to your total satisfaction. Ideally you should be getting something pretty close to the new car buying experience, and the whole deal is completely manufacturer backed. There should even be a no-quibble 30-day return policy. Oh yes, they will take whatever you have in part exchange. 

The downside to main dealers is that because of space and these sorts of policies, the dealer’s used range may not be all that used, so you will be offered nearly new or fairly expensive two or three-year-old models. For many used car buyers, though, that’s about as risky as they would ever want to get.

Pros: Cast-iron cars sold with cast-iron guarantees.

Cons: Too pricey and not enough choice. 

3 – Car supermarket

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Well, the main reason to go to a car supermarket is that they have loads of cars to choose from, which, of course, is good, plus it’s often arranged in related rows to make it even easier for you to browse, just like a real supermarket. What you will find, though, is that the windscreen prices are plus an admin fee and are usually non-negotiable.

Some of the stock also comes direct from company/fleet auctions and can be scruffy, so you might need to offset the asking price against refurbishment, a service and a thorough valet. 

Pros: Choices - masses of it as far as the eye can see.

Cons: No haggling.

4 – Independent dealer

These can vary hugely when it comes to both customer care and the quality of the stock. Specialists in a particular marque or type of car can be particularly good, however, and long-established family concerns often have a reputation to keep. Independents will part-exchange your old car and should offer a warranty, but check what it actually covers.

Their stock should be spring cleaned, serviced and given an MOT before sale. If not, they’re not doing a proper job, so look elesewhere. 

Pros: Friendly, local and hassle-free.

Cons: Sometimes cars are scruffy. 

5 – A real car auction 

Buying at auction presents several major drawbacks which can make it a less than ideal used car buying experience. First off, you can’t drive the cars before bidding begins, or until you have actually bought and paid for it, plus you can’t look inside until the last minute when it’s driven into the ring. So the twin tenets of buying a decent used car are broken right there.

Then there are the fees. You might think you’ve paid less than the market rate, but the hammer price goes up once all the fees are tagged on. Also things happen really, really fast.

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That’s exciting, but it’s also a worry, as you can quickly become the owner of something that you believe has four wheels but otherwise remains something of a mystery. So not for the novice, then, or the purist for that matter. Experts only should bid. 

Pros: You might get a bargain.

Cons: You might not. 

6 – Buying online

The joy of the interweb is that the whole wide world of used car classified ads is there on a screen in front of you. Obviously the flipside is that it puts temptation at the tip of your bidding finger. What you must remember is that just because the car is online, there is no reason why the normal rules of buying a used car should be ignored.

You really do need to see it, especially if the vehicle is in the same country as you. If it isn’t then you must speak to the owner by phone/Skype and use clever modern-day devices to view the car and documentation. Do a ton of research about the seller, check feedback and, like a real live auction, set a bidding limit and stick to it. 

Pros: It can be fun and you might get a bargain.

Cons: Trust issues. Does it actually exist? 

Read the second part of our used car buying guide here

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