Buying a used car is a very common solution to motoring for many, allowing you to get behind the wheel of a car for a fraction of its price when new. Before you commit to buying a specific vehicle, there are various checks and tests you should complete to make sure you’re getting a good deal.

In this article, we’ve thoroughly explained what you should do before, during and after buying a used car. We’ll cover a variety of topics including where you can buy a used car, what payment options you may have and what questions you should ask sellers to ensure you’re well-prepared for the whole buying journey.

If you’re looking for advice about a specific part of the buying process, you can use the links below to jump to a relevant section:

Where can you buy a used car?

So, you’re looking to buy a used car, but where can you actually do that?

Well, there are a variety of options for you to choose from, each with their own benefits and drawbacks:

Buying a used car from a dealership, independent garage, car supermarket or trader

Used Mercedes-Benz Cars on Dealership Forecourt

One of the most common ways to purchase a secondhand car is to head to a car dealership, garage or supermarket.

Buying from this type of trader typically offers you a wider variety of vehicles to view on the day and can provide additional protection in the form of warranties, approved used car programmes and guarantees.

The staff working at these locations should also be trained to assist with any questions you may have and can provide advice related to car finance, part-exchanges and service/maintenance plans.

You may also come across what’s known as ‘driveway dealers’ or ‘driveway traders’. These traders are typically individuals who buy and sell vehicles independently, much like private sellers. However, as they’re buying vehicles with the aim of selling them for a profit, they’re required by law to register as a trader.

Buying from this type of trader often comes with less protection than that offered by the larger groups or dealers – they’re still required to follow the trading standards though, allowing you to request a refund or repair in line with the Consumer Rights Act 2015 if the vehicle is faulty.

Advantages of buying from a car dealership, supermarket, garage or trader

  • Additional protection in the form of warranties, approved-used programmes and guarantees (typically offered at the larger dealerships and dealer groups).
  • A wider range of vehicles to view and choose from.
  • More likely to receive a higher level of customer service, with staff being trained to answer queries and provide advice.
  • Help with finding suitable payment options, including finance.
  • Will often take your current vehicle as a part-exchange, allowing you to put the value of that vehicle towards the cost of your next one.

Disadvantages of buying from a car dealership, supermarket, garage or trader

  • Prices tend to be higher than private sales as they’re trying to make a profit.
  • Some dealerships have strict pricing policies that mean you’re not able to haggle the price down for a better deal.
  • There may be additional fees added to the final price of the vehicle for admin work that needs to be completed.
  • Some dealerships may use certain sales tactics to pressure you into buying a vehicle. While this is less common than it used to be, reading reviews before visiting a seller can help you find a reputable dealer.

Buying a used car from a private seller

Two People Shaking Hands in a House

Another popular way to buy a used car is to purchase it from a private seller. Previously, this was done using newspaper listings, word of mouth and ‘For Sale’ signs placed in the window of the vehicle, but nowadays, private sellers tend to use social media and classified advert websites to advertise and sell their vehicles.

Buying from a private seller brings with it a range of advantages, with prices typically being lower than what you’ll find offered by traders. You’re also able to talk directly to the person who owns the vehicle, offering you a chance to ask questions about the car’s condition, maintenance and service history.

There are a few factors to consider however, as private sales have less protection, typically following a ‘sold as seen’ agreement, meaning you can’t request a refund if the car is later found to be faulty. By law, private sellers must accurately describe the vehicle and be fully transparent about any known issues, though.

It’s also worth keeping an eye out for traders posing as private sellers too, as some less reputable traders will attempt to do this in order to avoid their legal obligations.

Advantages of buying a used car from a private seller

  • Typically lower prices than those offered by traders.
  • Private sellers are usually more open to negotiations related to price, allowing you to haggle the price for a better deal.
  • You’re dealing directly with the owner of the vehicle, allowing you to gather more details related to the vehicle’s history.
  • No sales pressure, allowing you to walk away if the vehicle doesn’t feel right.

Disadvantages of buying a used car from a private seller

  • If you’re planning on financing the vehicle, your options are more limited as the seller will be expecting the car’s price in full.
  • Less protection is offered than when buying from a trader, and you’re more susceptible to scams and faulty vehicles.
  • If you want the vehicle inspected by a professional, you’ll have to pay for this out of your own pocket.
  • As the owner will only be selling that one car, you’ll have no alternatives to choose from if you don’t like it.
  • If you buy the car, all of its paperwork and the transfer of ownership will have to be completed by yourself.

Buying a used car online

Person Sitting on a Bed with a Laptop

In recent years, online car sales have seen a surge in popularity, with many buyers being more open to the idea of purchasing a used car before even seeing it.

Typically, a buyer is expected to pay the price in full or leave a deposit before either visiting the dealership for collection or arranging for the vehicle to be delivered to their home address.

The major appeal of buying a car online is convenience. Online car dealers allow you to complete the full buying process from the comfort of your home, avoiding any negotiations with a trader or private seller and long waits while you wait for the paperwork to be filled in.

However, you’re often unable to view or test drive the vehicle prior to purchasing it. Many online traders do offer a money-back guarantee if the vehicle isn’t fit for purpose, but the wait for this process to be completed can often leave you in limbo while you wait for your money to be returned.

Advantages of buying a car online

  • Straightforward process that allows you to purchase a used car from the comfort of your home.
  • Various finance and home delivery options tend to be available.
  • Extensive selection of cars for you to browse and choose from.
  • No sales pressure, allowing you to research and compare any vehicles you’re considering in-depth before purchase.

Disadvantages of buying a car online

  • Unable to view or test drive the vehicle before buying.
  • Limited support and advice, making it harder for you to find answers to any questions you may have.
  • If you purchase a vehicle, you’ll be required to complete all of the paperwork yourself prior to being handed the keys.
  • Online scams are fairly common, so make sure you’re buying from a reputable, legitimate website before you agree to pay for anything.

Buying a used car at auction

Close-Up of Auction House Gavel

One of the less common ways of purchasing a used car is by heading to a vehicle auction.

Potential buyers attend vehicle auctions and compete for used cars that are presented – the buyer with the highest bid wins the vehicle.

Purchasing a used car from an auction house is a great way to save yourself some money, as the vehicles can often go for less than retail market value.

While the cost-saving benefits are appealing, there’s typically less protection for buyers and a number of other factors to consider before submitting your opening bid.

Advantages of buying a used car at auction

  • The chance to potentially save yourself some money.
  • Typically there are a number of cars for you to bid on throughout the course of an auction day.
  • No sales pressure, so you’re free to bid on vehicles as you please.
  • Auction days can be an exciting experience, allowing you to enjoy the process of winning the vehicle of your choice.

Disadvantages of buying a used car at auction

  • Auctions can get competitive, so you’ll need to be aware of current market prices to ensure you’re getting a good deal.
  • Limited protection on offer compared to other buying methods.
  • Inspecting and test-driving vehicles prior to them going on the auction block is often limited or restricted.
  • Post-purchase support is limited, with no one to provide advice related to maintenance and other requirements.

How do I know which option is right for me?

With a variety of options to choose from, deciding which is the best is a difficult decision. We’d recommend considering how much risk you’re willing to take when buying a used car, as this can generally point you in the right direction.

If you’re in the market for something that you can rely on to get you from A to B, then a dealership or car supermarket (whether online or in-person) may be the most suitable option thanks to the pre-sale inspections and guarantees offered by many of the dealers you’ll find.

If you’re willing to take a bit more of a risk in order to get yourself a better deal or don’t mind paying for or repairing a vehicle yourself should a fault develop, then a private sale or car auction may be a great choice.

While this is a general guideline, there’s no telling if and when a used car may develop a fault, wherever you buy it from. For this reason, it’s worth reviewing the car’s maintenance and service records to ensure it has been well looked after. Private sellers are often selling their pride and joys, so there are plenty of well-maintained examples out there that have a reduced chance of something going wrong.

What should you check when buying a used car?

Once you’ve decided where you’re going to buy a car from, the next step is to find a suitable vehicle. There are several things you should research and check prior to purchasing a vehicle, giving you the best chance of finding a car that’s a great deal.

Factors to consider before you visit a vehicle

Woman browsing on her laptop

Before you visit a vehicle, there are a number of things you’ll want to research in advance in order for you to be prepared should you choose to visit:

1. Budget

First things first, you want to create a budget of what you can afford. You’ll want to separate your expenses from your income and work out a realistic figure that you can spend on a used car.

If you plan on financing the vehicle, you should work out an affordable monthly payment and deposit that you’re happy to pay by using an online car finance calculator. This will then allow you to refine your search and only view cars that are within your budget.

2. Research

Having worked out what your budget is, you can now start narrowing your search down to vehicles that you like the look of. With a wide variety of options to choose from, it’s worthwhile considering a wide variety of makes and models that appeal to your needs.

When researching, you’re able to read expert used car reviews that can help you get a better feel of each vehicle’s strengths and weaknesses. Our handy car price guide can also assist in working out what you can expect a car’s price to be, ensuring you don’t overpay.

Finding a handful of vehicles that appeal on paper will allow you to save time test-driving vehicles that aren’t right for you. Online advice can also help in explaining other factors, such as which fuel type and powertrain is right for your lifestyle.

3. Running costs

When researching vehicles, another factor to consider alongside your budget is running costs. You’ll want to:

  • Get quotes for car insurance.
  • Check the vehicle’s road tax cost (this can be done on the Government website).
  • Consider the fuel consumption of any cars on your shortlist to ensure they’re suitable for your estimated annual mileage.
  • Factor in maintenance costs such as an MOT and servicing.

4. Do a stolen car, vehicle history and MOT check

When you’ve found a few cars that are for sale, you can gather further information to build a clearer picture of their history and general care. You’ll want to:

  • Run a HPI check to ensure the car isn’t stolen.
  • Conduct a free MOT check – this can be done on the Government website.
  • Review the vehicle’s Euro NCAP safety rating and see if there are any outstanding recalls you should be aware of.
  • Complete a vehicle history check using a reputable online service to help you avoid scams and uncover information that may not have been disclosed.

5. Ask about the relevant documents

While you’re unable to thoroughly inspect the vehicle’s documents at this time, asking whether the owner has the required documents in advance can help. You should ask if they have:

  • V5C Document in their name with the correct address.
  • Service history, and whether it’s full or partial.
  • A current MOT certificate (although this can be checked online, as previously mentioned).
  • The vehicle’s handbook.

If the owner hasn’t disclosed that these documents are missing prior to you viewing the vehicle then this can be a telltale sign that the vehicle is best avoided. Records such as service history can be lost over time though, particularly with older vehicles, so you’ll need to take each vehicle on a case-by-case basis.

6. Part exchange valuation

If you have a current vehicle that you’d like to sell, it’s worthwhile doing a part exchange valuation ahead of time if the dealership you’re buying from offers this service.

You can also cross-reference the price offered using an online valuation tool in order to understand if you’re getting a good price.

7. Shop around

Finally, before you head down to your nearest dealership or closest private seller, it’s worthwhile shopping around in order to get a better understanding of a fair price for your next car.

Used car prices have been known to differ slightly depending on your location, so if you don’t mind travelling further afield then you may be able to get a better deal.

Factors to consider when viewing a vehicle

Woman Inspecting The Oil Dipstick of a Car

Now that you’ve got your shortlist and are ready to go and view the vehicles, you’ll need to be aware of a few important checks to conduct.

If you’re not confident, then you could consider taking a friend or family member who’s more knowledgeable. Alternatively, you can pay for a mechanic to attend the viewing and inspect vehicles for you – let the seller know that this will be happening in advance.

If at any stage something feels strange, then you should walk away from the deal – never feel pressured into buying a used car that’s not the right fit. You’re better off looking elsewhere than purchasing a car that’s not suitable or has question marks against it.

While viewing the vehicle, you’ll want to consider:

1. The vehicle’s condition

Always examine the car, from top to bottom and inside and out. You want to look for signs of damage, that mileage matches the age, and that the overall condition of the vehicle is aligned with what you expect.

There are a variety of components to check, so you may want to put together a vehicle inspection checklist for you to refer to while viewing the vehicle. The checklist could include:

  • Bodywork – look for scratches, dents, damage and window cracks. Large panel gaps can also be an indicator of a previous accident.
  • Interior – again look for any damage, but also check all the electrics, components, seatbelts and technology work as expected.
  • Engine – look for both oil and coolant leaks and inspect the radiator, timing belt, coolant, battery and radiator.
  • Exhaust – do a cold start: thick white, grey, or light blue smoke from the exhaust are problem signs.
  • Wheels and tyres – check the tyre tread and test the suspension by pushing the car’s corners, listening out for unexpected creaks and noises.
  • Gearbox and clutch – ensure the transmission is smooth and test the clutch’s biting point.

When viewing a car, your senses are your best friend, so use your eyes, ears and even your nose to detect anything that’s out of the ordinary.

2. Questions to ask when buying a used car

What to ask when buying a used car is also important. The right questions will help you build a better picture of the vehicle’s past, filling in any blanks that may be present. You want to ask the seller the following:

  • What vehicle checks have been carried out and when?
  • How many previous owners does the car have? (this can also be found on the V5C document)
  • Has the car ever been involved in a collision and if so, where was it repaired?
  • When is the car’s next service and MOT due?
  • Is the car, or has it ever been, modified? (this can affect insurance and car depreciation)
  • Is the car still under warranty, and if so, how long is left?
  • When was the vehicle last serviced and MOT’d and do you have a history of these records?
  • About any specific requirements you have such as towing capabilities, for example.

3. Space and practicality

Get inside and sit in every seat to get a feel for the car from every point of view. You want to make sure it’s spacious and practical enough for your needs and daily duties, so check the cubbies, storage areas, and of course, the size, shape, and lip of the boot. You may also want to ask yourself:

  • Are the seats comfortable?
  • Can you adjust them and move them easily to meet your needs?
  • Can you get in and out easily?
  • Is the boot the right shape and size for your requirements?

4. Check documents

Now that you can see the documents in person, it’s time to give them a thorough review. Pay attention to the following:

  • V5C document – look for the DVLA watermark, and ensure the registration and car’s VIN numbers match the V5C. Also, ensure the seller is the one registered on the V5C, and that it’s their address.
  • MOT certificate – check the expiry date and pay close attention to notes from the mechanic. Look for any recurring issues that are listed and ask whether they’ve been rectified.
  • Service history – look through the documents to see how well the car has been cared for. You want to see if the seller has all (or the majority) of the receipts too. If they do, it’s a good sign they looked after their car.
  • Vehicle handbook – make sure they have it present.

5. Mileage

Of course, you’ll have checked the mileage during your vehicle inspection, but it’s worth double-checking to ensure it aligns with the car’s records. You should:

  • Inspect the odometer for any signs of tampering, such as worn or replaced screws.
  • Review the car’s mileage and ensure it’s in line with the MOT certificate and service records.
  • Confirm that the mileage matches the age and condition of the car.
  • Use a full vehicle history check to help spot mileage fraud and car scams, such as clocking.

Checklist for test driving a used car

Person Driving a Vehicle with Hand On the Steering Wheel

If you plan on visiting the car in person prior to purchase, then it’s highly recommended for you to test drive the vehicle. Test drives allow you to get a better feel for the car, helping you to work out whether you could live with it on a daily basis. It’s also a great opportunity to identify any hidden issues or faults that weren’t noticeable during your initial inspections.

To get a thorough understanding of the car and its general condition while driving, you should:

Before driving the car

  • Avoid being distracted by the seller, as they may divert your attention away from problem areas and known faults.
  • Switch the radio off, as this will allow you to listen out for any knocks, bangs or unusual sounds.
  • Start the engine from cold – if it struggles to start, or the owner has already warmed the vehicle up prior to your arrival, this could indicate that there are potential issues.
  • Review the dashboard dials – when you start the vehicle, do any warning lights appear? and are the speedometer and rev counter acting as expected?
  • Make sure you’re insured to drive the vehicle – temporary insurance can be arranged for affordable prices.

While driving the car

  • Monitor the acceleration of the vehicle while both on the move and stationary.
  • Pay particular attention to the steering – does it drift to either side when you take your hands off the wheel?
  • Listen out for any unexpected knocks, bangs and noises, as this could indicate an often-costly issue.
  • Test the brakes and gears in a variety of scenarios – it’s also worthwhile trying an emergency stop when safe to do so, like how you did on your practical driving test.
  • If you’re test-driving a manual vehicle, you should thoroughly test the clutch and ensure it’s easy to engage.
  • Test the handbrake on a hill to ensure it can comfortably hold its own weight.
  • Make sure all of the car’s gadgets and technology are working as expected.
  • Consider the car’s condition in general, making note of factors such as visibility, cabin noise and overall comfort.

After driving the car

  • Let the car rest for a few minutes before attempting to restart it – if it struggles to start then this is another indicator of potentially expensive problems.
  • Check underneath the vehicle for any signs of issues such as oil leaks.
  • Take some time to gather your thoughts to ensure you’re making the right decision.
  • If there were potential issues identified during the test drive you should review the car’s paperwork again to see if it’s a reoccurring issue. You can also ask the seller to see if they have further information.

How to get the best deal when buying a used car

Man in Shirt and Tie Shaking Hands

Having found, inspected and tested a number of vehicles, you will most likely now be in a position to purchase the vehicle. Before you go ahead and agree on a sale price, there are a few things to consider to ensure you’re getting the best deal.

1. Negotiations

In most cases, the seller’s advertised price normally has some movement, allowing you to negotiate or ‘haggle’ for a better price. While this process can be intimidating, you should be confident in the research you’ve conducted and discuss why you believe the car should be at a lower price.

If you plan on buying a used car from a dealer, then it’s worth bearing in mind that some dealer groups don’t allow for negotiations related to price.

When negotiating the car’s price you should:

  • Be confident and calm, referring back to your research and inspections whenever required.
  • Clearly explain why you’re asking for the car’s price to be lower – is it priced higher than other equivalents? Are there issues or imperfections that you’ll need to rectify, such as worn tyres?
  • Leverage other forms of discount to your advantage – some larger dealer groups may be happy to offer the likes of service plans, a full tank of fuel, or breakdown cover as part of the overall package.
  • If you agree on a lower price, make sure this is in writing.
  • If you’re not happy with the price, then walk away – you’re not under any obligation to purchase the vehicle at this stage.

2. Agree on a collection or delivery date

Unless you plan on buying and driving the vehicle away that day, you’ll need to agree on a collection or delivery date of the vehicle. This will also give the dealer some time to valet and prepare the car if agreed.

When it comes to collecting or receiving delivery of the vehicle, give it another inspection to ensure there are no new imperfections and that you’re happy with the overall condition. If you’re not happy, then you should mention it to the seller now as it will be easier to come to an agreed amendment plan prior to it being purchased.

3. Arrange for payment

Once you’re happy with the price of the vehicle, you’ll need to sort the payment.

If you’re buying from a dealer, they can usually help out and advise on suitable finance agreements such as Personal Contract Purchase (PCP) or Hire Purchase (HP), if you plan on paying over a set period of time. If you’re buying from a private seller then you’ll need to pay in full, although sourcing a personal loan will allow you to pay the seller in full, yet pay the balance of the loan back over time to the provider.

When paying for the vehicle, you’ll typically need to take:

  • Your driving license.
  • Employment details and history (if you’re opting for a finance deal).
  • Additional proof of your identity and address (such as a passport).
  • Your payment method (whether cash, card, or cheque).

What to do once you’ve bought a used car

Laptop, Phone and Notebook on Desk

Now that you’ve bought your vehicle, you’re probably eager to get behind the wheel and start enjoying the open road. Before you do so, there are a number of things you need to sort in order to ensure your vehicle is roadworthy.

Larger dealership groups will be able to provide help and advice related to these factors, but if buying private, you’ll need to arrange them yourself in order to avoid getting in trouble with the law.

1. Receive the required paperwork

This will typically be done during the sales process, but you should ensure you have received all of the necessary paperwork before leaving the seller’s address. This includes the V5C new keepers slip, as this is proof that the vehicle’s ownership has now been registered in your name. Both you and the seller should also inform the DVLA of the change of ownership.

2. Arrange insurance and road tax

Along with a valid MOT certificate, your vehicle is required to be insured and taxed before you’re able to drive it on the road. You can arrange your car insurance easily online, or sort temporary insurance that allows you to drive the vehicle home.

Your car tax will need to be paid for on the Government website. The car will need to be insured before you can arrange this though, so ensure you have that policy in place before attempting to sort your tax.

3. Book a service or maintenance if required

A fair amount of used cars are brought up-to-date with their routine maintenance schedule prior to being sold, particularly if you’re buying from a dealer or car supermarket.

However, if the vehicle you’ve purchased would benefit from some attention then it’s worthwhile getting this seen sooner rather than later, in order to prevent further issues from occurring.

4. Enjoy your vehicle

Once all the mandatory requirements have been sorted you’re free to start enjoying your new car. You may want to consider heading out on a road trip or testing the vehicle on the motorway, as these are great ways to familiarise yourself with the car.

Downloadable used car checklist

Click the link to download a handy version to take with you when buying a used car.