Buying a used car can seem a little daunting, but you can minimise the chances of problems with these simple tech checks and answers to the most commonly asked questions
28 December 2014

Buying a used car can be a daunting experience, but bear our essential used car checklist in mind and you can walk away with peace of mind. 

Remember, you don't need to get your hands dirty, either. Just use your senses and take a knowing mate along too.

Autocar's roadside once-over 

Tyres – you want the same tread pattern and make on each axle at least, not some remoulds you’ve never heard of. Different tread depths suggest alignment/suspension issues.

Alloys – chipped, scraped and caked in brake dust? An owner who doesn’t care.

VIN plate – make sure they match and haven’t been tampered with.

History – old MOTs are worth studying for continuity. Plus you might find a bill for a new front end after an accident.

Electrics – press and prod everything and use your mate to tell you if the lights work.

Levels – look at the oil, water and hydraulic fluids. All should be fresh and at the max level. 

Bodywork – panel gaps, bits of dirt in the paint, overspray? It’s all about observation.

Locks – make sure they work smoothly. If they catch, perhaps there’s been a big prang.

The owner – do you trust them? Be a snob. Can they afford to run the car you want to buy? 

Used cars – frequently asked questions:

What's the best way to pay for a used car?

If someone wants cash, well, it’s their right to ask, but do you really want the hassle of carting thousands of quid around? Also, some sellers don’t have the car and just want to meet you in a lay-by and cosh you for the money. Don’t have nightmares, but it does happen. So keep it virtual.

Cheques are so last century and will take an age to clear, but they’re okay if you and the seller are prepared to wait. Dealers will, of course, take anything, including your old motor as part exchange, but put what you can on a credit card, as you stand an outside chance of getting the money back if things go pear-shaped.

A debit card is instant. Also consider a bank transfer, which, depending on your account, will see the money instantly transfer, although it doesn’t always show up online straight away.

One of the best ways to pay privately is PayPal. This shows up instantly and has a degree of buyer protection, like a credit card. 

What are my rights if my used car goes wrong? 

We could get bogged down by legal speak here. In the simplest terms, you have six months to complain to a dealer about a fault. A car should also be free from defects, unless they were pointed out to you by the dealer or should have been revealed by an inspection.

The car should also be as described, so a one-owner car must be just that and fit for any normal purpose, meaning it must be reasonably reliable and capable of any tasks you specify, such as seating seven passengers, or towing.  

The longer any dispute goes on, the less chance you have of rejecting the car. Some dealers will string it out and then invoke the warranty, so you end up paying for repairs. Just reject the car, take it back and ask for a refund.

Letters of rejection are downloadable from the web, so don’t be fobbed off. When it comes to private sales, unless the seller has misdescribed the car or sold you one that’s unroadworthy, sorting out issues will depend on how reasonable they are and how confidently you approach them.

Is a used car warranty worthwhile?

Like any form of insurance, a car warranty is a precautionary measure that could save you paying out unexpected mechanical and electrical breakdown costs.

Before purchasing a car warranty, you should weigh up the pros and cons and take certain factors into consideration. Is the car warranty worth the cost in comparison with the car’s value and costs to fix? How likely is your car to break down? Unfortunately, you should read the small print.

Warranties can vary widely, so make sure you are clear on what exactly is covered. 

Should I pay for an independent inspection or condition check? 

When buying a specialist car, especially privately, it’s a good idea to call in an expert. An independent report on a car’s condition by an engineer is vital to avoid making a costly mistake.

Having an inspection means faults can be pointed out so you can negotiate on the price or insist that the seller fixes the problems before you buy. It isn’t worth paying for an inspection on every car you see, though, just the one you actually want to buy.

The AA charges £142 and the RAC asks for £149, but Click Mechanic starts at £89.60. For classics and sports cars you may need to get a specialist to do it through a car club. At the very least you should never look at a car alone, however mechanically competent you are.

What checks should I make before buying?

There are three checks you can make from the comfort of your sofa. The DVLA’s free MOT Status Check Request (motinfo.direct.gov.uk), MOT History Request and Vehicle Enquiry (taxdisc.direct.gov.uk) will confirm the car’s details and give an indication of the recorded mileage. When it comes to checking whether the car is stolen, on finance or a write-off, an HPI check does the job. It will cost £19.99 for the peace of mind, but dealers will do this as routine. 

The service history will help to verify the mileage, but make sure it relates to the car. Contact the servicing garage and previous owners if in doubt. Ensure that anything the seller has agreed to do (repairs, get an MOT) is written into the contract. When buying privately, get the seller to confirm that the car isn’t on finance and they own the car. 

What paperwork do I need to do once I've bought it?

The DVLA has revamped its Vehicle Excise Duty system (no more tax discs), so you can register your new car online or over the phone. There’s still paperwork to be done, however, so fill in the ‘new keeper’ section on the V5C, make sure both you and the seller sign it, and keep hold of the green bit. 

Read the first part of our used car buying guide here

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