Whether it’s your first time or you’ve done this many times, buying a used car can seem like a daunting experience full of steps and checklists. We’ll guide you so you have an easy time finding – and buying – the used car you need.

Follow our tips and you’ll learn what to look out for on a used car, all the documents you need to check and, of course, how to ensure you get the best deal.

Table of Contents
Is it worth buying a used car?
Where to buy a used car
Advice for buying a used car
Things to watch out for when buying a used car
What to look for when buying a car checklists
Buying your car checklist
Buyer’s rights
Arranging tax and insurance

Is it worth buying a used car?

Definitely yes. Provided you follow all the steps, choose a good and reliable model and don’t overpay, buying a used car is totally worth it.

Used cars not only they are cheaper – and a great way of getting the vehicle you want without the ‘new’ price tag -, but also there is plenty of choice for all tastes, requirements and budgets.

Did you know that new cars can lose more than 50% of their original value in just three years? If you buy a used car you’ll avoid the big hit of depreciation.

But not everything is perfect when you’re purchasing a used car. It can be tricky to know if the car you want has a hidden history or whether its previous owner has been looking after it well. That’s why it’s so important to run all the checks and to be super careful when buying pre-loved. And that’s where we come in to help.

Where to buy a used car?

The first thing you need to do if you’re keen on buying a new used car is deciding where to buy it from. There’s plenty of choices and we’ll explore the advantages and disadvantages of each type of seller with you, so you know what to look out for and where to go.


Car dealerships are usually an easy place to go to if it’s your first time buying a used car and are a bit nervous about the whole process. This way you don’t have a be a car expert. And at Motors.co.uk we have hundreds of trusted dealers that you can use to find the car you need.

Dealers – be it an independent garage, a car dealership or a trader – are professionals that sell cars. They usually inspect and maintain vehicles to high standards before selling them, so that the cars are in great condition. Depending on your dealer you should be able to part exchange, buy on finance and purchase warranties, insurance and after-sales packages that add an extra layer of security and confidence.

As a consumer, you have more rights when you buy from a dealer if the car has any major problems. There’s more information about that on our ‘Buyer’s rights’ section below but, for example, you’ll be covered by the Consumer Rights Acts 2015. This means that you’ll have a right to reject the vehicle if it’s faulty and you’ll be entitled to a full refund within 30 days of purchase of the car in most cases. After that, you’ll have fewer rights but will still be covered in some partial way.

Something to consider when buying a used car from a dealer is that they make money through profit margins, so there tends to be less room for negotiation than if you buy privately.

Private Seller

For those on a budget, buying a used car from a private seller can be a cheaper option than going to a dealer. There’s also usually more wiggle room for negotiations. However, if you’re buying a used car privately you should know what to check when buying a vehicle and know very well which mandatory documents you need to see and verify.

If you’re considering purchasing your next vehicle from a private seller you should also know that privately sold cars aren’t usually as tested as they would be in a dealership. You’ll have fewer rights too, and sometimes upholding the ones you have could be tricky if the seller turns out to be difficult. For example, if you’re buying a car privately, you are responsible for ensuring the car is ‘of satisfactory quality’ and ‘fit for purpose’ before you buy it. If you buy it and spot any problems with it you won’t be entitled to a full refund within the first 30 days of purchase, among other things.

As a tip and safety precaution, it’s always good to go to the seller’s home to buy the car. That way you can check if the logbook has the same address.

From auction

Did you know you could land a genuine bargain if you buy your car at an auction? Of course, that will depend on how lucky you are. But if the car you want isn’t popular with other buyers then you could bid low and pocket it. Auction houses are a good place to look for vintage and collectible cars, on top of more popular models.

The thing is that when you buy a used car at an auction you probably won’t be able to check it thoroughly or test drive it before placing your bid. Plus, you’ll have to make decisions quickly and under pressure if you don’t want to lose it. And, on top of that, you’ll have to pay auction fees.

If you’re interested in buying a used car from an auction we’ve got a few tips for you:

  • Go early to look at the goods on offer
  • Find out any fees and terms and conditions
  • Set a strict budget for bidding that includes any fees
  • Don’t get caught up in the heat of the moment

From online car buying services

These days you can literally buy anything and everything online. And yes, that includes cars.

Online car buying services are a reliable way to find well-priced vehicles from the comfort of your home. Most websites will allow you to filter by manufacturer and price, and some will let you choose vehicles by colour, model and even the number of miles on its clock. Everything is just a click away.

However, you may not get any hands-on inspections time with the car or have a chance to negotiate a better deal. Also, if the car is far from where you live the chances of buying and driving it home on the same day are also slimmer.

Photo by why kei on Unsplash

Advice for buying a used car

Getting everything right is crucial if you’re buying a used car. When purchasing a vehicle it’s very important to do your research and be prepared so that you really get what you need. This goes from knowing your budget well to viewing the car and inspecting it thoroughly. It can feel like a lot. But here are some general advice and tips you should consider when picking and checking that new vehicle you want to take home.

1. Budget carefully

First and foremost, work out your budget and stick to it. Knowing how much money you can and are willing to spend on a used car will help you understand what cars you can afford. But it will also help you understand what’s the best way of financing your car (personal loan, vehicle finance or cash), as well as allowing you to work out how much you need for a deposit and what you can afford in monthly payments.

When looking into your budget, be sure to include tax and insurance so that you know the full monthly cost. And also bear in mind how fuel-efficient your new ride will be.

If you need more help with car finance, check out our Car Finance Guides where we cover everything in more detail.

2. Do your homework

Before you start looking at used cars, test driving them and putting in offers, it’s a good idea to know how much, on average, you’ll have to pay for the car you’ve got your eyes set up on. Browse online and see what people are asking for that make and model. Like that you can avoid paying more than you should for what you want.

3. Best time to view a car

A key step in buying a used car is viewing the vehicle. And there is a good time to view it if you want to check it’s in the condition you’ve been told it is.

Never view a car in poor light conditions, at night or on a rainy day. Weather can hide scratches, dents and any other problems the car may have. Also, check it from all possible angles on a bright sunny day.

4. Best time to buy a used car

Is there a ‘best time to buy a car’? Looking at the data and all the information out there, the answer may be yes.

  • December – usually a quiet month for most dealerships, which could increase your chances of landing a better deal.
  • February or August – quiet months as buyers wait for new number plates to be released in March and September. Cars with older plates tend to be discounted to make way for new ones.
  • Fridays – tend to be a quiet day for car dealerships. They have weekly targets, which may leave some room for bargaining.
  • Sale events – such as November’s Black Friday and Boxing Day in December.
  • End of March, June, September and December – car dealerships have quarterly quotas and if you visit them then you may be able to negotiate a bit more.

Photo by Kenny Leys on Unsplash

Things to watch out for when buying a used car

There are three main pitfalls you should watch out for if you’re buying a used car. These three things are illegal, so knowing how to spot them is key.


Clocking is the illegal practice of winding back the clock on a car with high-mileage to make it look like it has fewer miles on its wheels than in reality. Cars with low mileage have higher value, so watch out.

It may be useful to know that the average car covers in a year is around 10,000 miles, but of course varies depending on the previous owners lifestyle, a long daily commute for example. Ask the seller if the figure doesn’t match the age of the vehicle and be wary if it doesn’t make much sense. Another way of spotting if a car has been clocked is by checking the last service for the mileage.


Car cloning is what happens when a car is given the identity of another one. Crooks do that by replacing the number plates with those from an almost identical vehicle.

This is usually done by criminals to either hide the fact that the car is stolen or to rack up speeding fines and parking tickets in somebody else’s name.

Make sure that the number plate on the vehicle matches the one on the V5C and that the VIN/chassis number listed on the logbook matches the VIN plate on the car itself before you commit to anything. If you don’t know where to find that number it’s usually at the bottom of the windshield, on door frames, or under the bonnet – although it may depend on the model.


Cut-and-shuts are cars made from the remains of two or more vehicles that have been damaged in an accident and written off by insurers. Then they are welded together and given the identity of one of the wrecks. This is also an illegal practice and you should invest in a Car Data Check to make sure what you’re seeing matches the paper trail. HPI and vehicle history checks will tell you at once if the car has been recorded as a write-off. To make your car-buying experience a breeze, Motors checks this for you here. Just visit our History Check page and learn more.

Photo by Obi Onyeador on Unsplash

What to look for when buying a car – Checklists

So you know what car you want, whether you’ll go to a private seller or to a dealership, your budget and how much you should be paying for the vehicle you want. Now it’s time to be diligent and know what to look for when buying a used car.

It’s good to have some car knowledge but if you don’t you could always ask a friend who knows what to look for and to do as much research as possible before hand. Below are some helpful checklists to keep in mind.

Documents check

When buying a pre-loved car you will need to check some documents to make sure everything is alright and you’re making a legitimate transaction. The most important one is the V5C, also known as the registration document or logbook.

  • Make sure the make and model of the car you’re buying matches the one on this document, as well as the number plate.
  • Check that the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN number) matches the VIN on the vehicle. It’s usually on the lower part of the windscreen, but may vary on the model.
  • Check that the name of the registered keeper matches the name of the person you’re buying the car from (as well as the address).
  • How long has the seller owned the car? How many previous owners it’s had? You’ll find this on the logbook too.

MOT and service history checks

Checking if a car has a valid MOT is as easy as going online these days but it’s still a useful thing to look for when you’re buying a used vehicle. You just have to see when the MOT certificate expires and take note of any advisories that have been suggested.

Some sellers may have already fixed all the issues spotted on the MOT but it’s worth checking just in case. Again, if you know nothing about cars take someone who does with you to look for things like underbody rust or issues under the bonnet.

If the seller has all the service history for the car, check it. The service book is not compulsory, but it’s a nice bonus when you’re buying a used car since it lets you see how well it has been looked after.

Car history checks

If you’re in the market for a used car find out as much as possible about its history. You’ve already checked out the logbook, MOT and service book. Now it’s time to go deeper.

Motors.co.uk does a comprehensive history check that will help give you confidence on your purchase.

What should you look out for in a car history check? Mainly any hidden discrepancies in the car’s history. Like, for example, the following:

  • If the car has been stolen
  • Has the car been written off?
  • Has it been involved in a collision?
  • Does it have any outstanding finance?
  • Mileage discrepancies – useful to spot if the car has been clocked.
  • Common breakdown reasons by make and model.
  • Common MOT failures by make and model
  • Independent car review
  • Vehicle evaluation
  • Average running costs by make/model
  • Car inspection and buying checklists.

If something doesn’t add up, don’t say yes to the car.

Visual inspection checklist

If possible, view and check your potential new car in daylight on a bright day as this will help highlight any cosmetic problems. Check for:

  • Scratches and dents on the bodywork and wheels
  • Tyre treads: make sure their tread depths meet the legal guidelines of 1.6mm minimum. You just need a 20p coin to check. If the tyres are too worn out use that for bargaining and factor in the cost of new ones.
  • Wear and tear: does it match the age and mileage of the used car? Check in detail to see how well the vehicle has been maintained.
  • Electrics: check the windows, air conditioning, radio and other electrical parts of the car.
  • Lights: look for cracks, chips and moisture on the inside.
  • Windows: check for chips, especially in the windscreen. Cracked windscreens need to be replaced. A crack within the driver’s eye line can make a car fail its MOT.
  • Interior: make sure the seats are in good condition – tears, stains, scratches. Check how it smells, as bad odours can be tricky to remove.
  • Safety: check that the seatbelts are working, ensure the airbags are where they should be and in working condition, look for ISOFIX features if you’re planning on fixing a car seat for a child.

Accident damage checks

On top of checking all the documents and car history for any accidents in the past, it’s a good idea to inspect the vehicle in person looking for accident damage:

  • Panel gaps: large or uneven spaces between the different body panels of a car can be a giveaway of repair work after a car crash.
  • Pillar creases: Open the doors and check for creases and kinks in the pillars connecting the roof to the body of the car. If they are only on one of the sides of the vehicle it could be a sign of having been in a collision.
  • Paint: Uneven, discoloured or an overspray of paint often indicates panel repair after an accident. Look for it on the headlights, taillights, door frames – interior and exterior -, exhaust and tyres.
  • Tyres: If any of the tyres are worn unevenly this could signal crash damage.

Mechanical and under-bonnet checks

Here’s where having car knowledge or bringing a friend who knows something about cars will come in handy:

  • Under the hood: look for signs of damage or repair like mismatched items.
  • Oil cap: a milky gooey substance underneath the oil cap can indicate the head gasket has failed to function properly. This substance is caused by coolant mixing with oil.
  • Oil, brake and power steering fluid levels: if low, this could be a sign that the vehicle has been poorly maintained.
  • Rust: look for it under the bonnet.

Test drive checklist

New or used, it’s always best practice to test drive the car you’re thinking about buying. That will help you understand how it works but also what does it feel like when you’re behind the wheel. If you’re buying a family car, it’s also a good idea to take them along with you to make sure it’s got enough space for everybody and everything.

Some things you should check:

  • The comfort of driving position
  • Functionality – Is it easy to fit a child car seat? Does everything you want to carry fit in the boot?
  • Test it on different roads – from the motorway to country roads.
  • Brakes
  • Acceleration and handling
  • What does the engine sound like?
  • Does it veer to one side?
  • Does the clutch function smoothly.
  • Bonnet, doors and boot – Are they easy to open?
  • Is there enough room for passengers?
  • Check the suspension
  • Does it fit in your parking space?

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Buying your car checklist

Once you’ve picked your used car, made sure the paperwork and car history check look fine, and test-driven the vehicle it’s time to pay for it and take it home.

This is a very important part of the process of buying a car, used or new. Mostly because it involves a lot of important decisions. But with our guidance and help, it should be plain sailing.

How to get the best deal

Negotiating a bit never hurt anyone, especially if you take a friendly and polite approach. Although most dealerships tend to price their cars in line with online outlets, sometimes they will offer a discount or some sort of deal if you ask.

Some tips to get the best deal on your used car:

  • Be friendly, polite and fair.
  • Stick to your budget (and never share the upper limit of it with the seller).
  • Start with a lower price than you’re willing to pay and then increase gradually if necessary.
  • Let the seller reply to your offer.
  • Be prepared to walk away if the car price is not right for you. But before doing that be honest with the seller and give them a chance to meet your expectations.
  • Check the car with the seller and make a note of any bumps, scratches or faults. They may come in handy if you want to haggle.
  • If you’re buying through a dealer try to negotiate for extras like complimentary MOT, a full tank of fuel or aftercare services.
  • Never feel pressurised to buy a car.

How to pay for the car

You’ve got a deal. The next step in your car buying journey is paying for it. These days there are almost endless possibilities. What you choose will depend a lot on the value of the car and your finances.

You can pay your car in cash, using a debit or a credit card, by electronic transfer or using several types of car finance.

  • Cash: there will be no extra fees or interest and you could sometimes get a discount for paying cash. But if something goes wrong with the car you won’t have the protection that some credit arrangements offer. At the same time, carrying a lot of cash on you may not be the safest.
  • Debit Car: you may have protection from problems if your card provider has a ‘chargeback’ scheme.
  • Credit Card: gives you more flexibility for making larger payments if you can afford them and you’ll get protection for goods costing between £100 and £30,000. However, interest rates on credit cards tend to be much higher than a finance agreement.
  • Electronic transfers: are safe and secure but your bank may have an upper limit on the amount you can transfer to someone else’s account. If you choose a CHAPS payment there will a charge, so you should check with your bank.
  • Finance: many dealers offer finance on used cars these days but you should check how their interest rates compare against personal loans from banks.

What to do before handing over the money

Here’s a quick checklist with a few things you should do before paying anything:

  • Are you completely happy with what you’re buying?
  • Agree on collection or delivery arrangements for the car
  • Confirm what’s included in the price and what’s not
  • Confirm any work the seller has agreed to do before you get the car
  • If possible, make sure you use a trackable method of payment for your own safety
  • Make sure you get a receipt with the vehicle details, date, price, terms of sale and the seller’s details. If you’re buying privately you can use our buyers/sellers contract template

And that’s it, you’re now ready to pay for your car and drive home with it – or get it delivered if that’s an option.

Photo by Anthony Shkraba from Pexels

Buyer’s rights

Car dealers must comply with the Consumer Rights Act. This specifies that ‘all cars bought from dealers must be of satisfactory quality, fit for purpose and as described’. According to Section 75 of the Road Traffic Act 1988, it is also illegal for anyone to sell a vehicle that is not roadworthy. And for that reason any vehicle you buy, privately or through a dealer, must be fit and safe to drive. No excuses.

If the car you’ve just bought from a dealer is unfit for purpose or if unsatisfactory quality you may be entitled to a refund, a replacement or a repair. But you’ll need to act quickly if you discover a fault with the vehicle and want a full refund. That is because your right to reject a car is restricted to the first 30 days after the purchase, although some sellers may offer extended periods. If you take longer than that in reporting a fault with the vehicle then you may be able to get a repair or replacement, depending on the issue.

However, if you buy a car from a private seller you’ll have fewer rights to protect you. That is why it’s so important to do all the homework before buying a car privately. While the vehicle must be as described in the adverted and what the seller told you, that doesn’t mean the person you bought it from will give you a refund or pay for repairs. If the seller refuses to compensate you in any way you may have to escalate your complaint or start legal actions.

Arranging tax and insurance

Last but not least, you need to take out insurance and pay for road tax, this is a legal requirements. If you want to drive your new car home you’re going to have to arrange for those two.

Getting car insurance before laying your hands on your new car is quite easy. Get a quote from your preferred insurer beforehand giving them all the details of the vehicle. And once the sale goes through call the insurance, or go online, to take out the policy. Easy as pie.

To tax your new car you can use the ‘new keeper’s slip’ on the V5C on the DVLA’s website. You can also phone the DVLA’s 24-hour service or visit a nearby Post Office.

*Disclaimer – The information in this guide does not constitute legal advice and is provided for general information purposes only. The information on this page is not an alternative to legal advice from a solicitor.

We hope this complete guide to buying a used car has helped you understand all the steps you need to take when purchasing your new ride. It’s packed with information and tips but if you follow them the experience will be seamless and you’ll be the proud owner of your dream car in no time.