The classified ads can be a quick route to getting your ideal wheels at the right price. However, while buying a car from a private seller can be incredibly quick and convenient, it’s easy to get your fingers burned if you don’t do your homework. Follow our top tips to ensure a safe and satisfactory used car purchase.
- Always arrange to meet the vendor at their address. A genuine seller will have no problems with this. Never meet in a service station or roadside lay-by – not only for your personal safety, you’ll also have no way of tracing the seller again should there be an issue with the car.
- The same applies for mobile phone numbers. If possible, always try and get a landline number for the seller.
- Ask questions. The more questions you ask about why the car is being sold, how it has been used and how it has been maintained, the more you will know about its history and possible faults.
- Never take large quantities of cash with you. It has been known for criminal gangs to lure and rob customers for their readies. If the seller is genuine, they should be happy to accept a bank transfer or other means of payment, but don’t be offended if they want the funds to clear before handing over the keys.
- Check the V5 document to ensure it matches the name and address of the seller. If they are not the registered keeper they may not have the right to sell the car.
- Always be sure to check any car you’re looking at doesn’t have any outstanding finance. For a small fee you can obtain a vehicle provenance check, which will also tell you if the car has been previously stolen or written off.
- Aim to have a look at the car during daylight hours. It’s much easier to spot small blemishes or evidence of a crash/repair work in sunlight. Be sure to question any obvious repairs that aren’t documented in the vehicle’s paperwork.
- Have a look at adverts for the same model that are the same age and in a similar condition to get a rough figure for the amount you should be paying. If the price seems too good to be true, then it usually is.
- Ensure that the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) matches the V5 document. It is usually stamped in the driver’s side door-jamb, under the bonnet, or on the leading edge of the dashboard. If the numbers don’t match, walk away, as the car could be cloned (a stolen vehicle that takes the identity of a legitimate one), or worse still, a cut-and-shut.
- To minimise the risk of mechanical faults, you should only consider cars that have a full service history. Normally this should be done at a main dealer while the car is under warranty, but don’t be put off by independent dealer services after that. Try to ensure that service stamps in the vehicle’s logbook are backed up with receipts, as some unscrupulous sellers have been known to fake them.
- Check the condition of the wheels. If they are badly scuffed then consider negotiating a discount for the cost to have them refurbished. Also carefully inspect the wear of the tyres. If a tyre is patchy or uneven, this could point to suspension or tracking issues.
- Get inside the car and test every single electrical item works as it should. Pay particular attention to air conditioning systems and electrically operated convertible hood mechanisms, both of which are costly to repair or replace.
- Have a feel of the carpets in the boot and footwells. If they feel damp then the car could be letting in water, which may in turn affect electrical components.
- Inspect the condition of the oil. When fresh it should be a golden-brown colour, getting progressively blacker as it is used. If the documents point towards a recent oil change but the oil itself looks old, query it. Also, avoid cars that have a mayonnaise-like gunk on the oil-filler cap, as this could be a sign of a faulty head gasket.
The test drive
- Be wary of any seller who won’t let you drive the car before purchasing it. Provided you are properly licenced and insured, a test-drive is a must.
- Start the car and listen carefully. Both petrol and diesel cars should settle into a consistent idle. Tappety noises are a sign the engine has lived a hard life and could be on its way out.
- Walk around the back of the car and check the colour of the exhaust. A healthy engine will blow thin white smoke which disappears as the it warms up. If the smoke remains, is unusually thick, or is black or blue in colour, there may be some big repair bills on the horizon.
- Ensure you drive the car at different speeds and on a variety of road conditions. Graunching noises from the suspension suggests that it is past its best. There should also be no play in any of the controls, particularly if the car isn’t displaying a high mileage.
- Warning lights on the dashboard should all illuminate upon ignition then go out again. If any stay on, particularly the engine management light, there could be trouble ahead.