Buying a car is a big commitment and one of the biggest expenses any household can make. Even if you’re buying a cheap one, used cars cost a lot of money. But what happens when the car you bought is faulty or starts giving you issues shortly after laying your hands on it?

Luckily there are laws in place that will protect you and your money if the car you buy is not fit for your purpose. Although there are some differences in the level of protection you will get depending on who you bought from, there’s always legislation in place that will cover you to some degree or another. In this guide, we’ll help you know your legal rights if you’re buying a used car.

There are a couple of things you should be aware of first. One is that you have less legal protection when buying from a private seller or a car auction than when buying from a dealer. The other one is that your consumer rights will be different whether you’re buying a used car in England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. Here we’ll cover the main legal rights in England but will explain the different variations between the other countries in the UK.

Consumer Rights Act 2015

The Consumer Rights Act became law on 1 October 2015 and protects you in almost all purchases you make. It covers the purchase of goods, digital content and services. And that includes new and used cars from official dealers – not to private sales – as well as servicing, repairs and maintenance.

According to the Consumer Rights Act 2015, all cars bought from official dealers must be:

  • Of satisfactory quality – The vehicle should be roadworthy, reliable and in a condition consistent with age/price.
  • Fit for purpose – The car should be able to everything you would normally expect from a vehicle, from towing to short journeys. It must be in working condition and ready to use.
  • As described – The vehicle should be exactly in the same condition as described by the seller at the time of the sale/purchase.

This means that the dealer must have the right to sell the car but is also liable for faults with the vehicle that were present at the time it was sold, even if they only became apparent later on. However, dealers are not liable for fair wear and tear that happens through normal use. They are also not liable if they mentioned to you the full extent of any fault or defect with the car before you bought it.

Faults, repairs and refunds

If for some reason the car you just bought from a dealer is not of satisfactory quality, not fit for purpose and not as described, then you’re legally entitled to reject it within the first 30 days. This applies whether you have an additional warranty in place or not.

After 30 days, you’re still protected by the Consumer Rights Act 2015 in different degrees, depending on how long it’s been since you bought the car.

  • Between 30 days and 6 months: you’re entitled to a repair, replacement or refund from the dealer.
  • After 6 months: you will need to prove that the car was faulty at the time of delivery if you want to claim a repair or replacement. It’s still doable, but it may be trickier to prove.

If you also have a warranty in place, you may be entitled to additional rights in regards to refunds, repairs and replacements. It is worth checking the terms and conditions of your warranty scheme to find out if this is the case. And if you need more information about this, check out our car warranty guide.

Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations

On top of having to comply with the Consumer Rights Act 2015, car dealers also need to comply with the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations (2008). These prohibit car dealers from engaging in unfair business practices such as:

  1. Giving false information in any way (verbally, visually or in writing).
  2. Giving insufficient information: leaving out or hiding important information that is important for the buyer like the results of all checks on the car’s mechanics, history and mileage, key elements of any warranty, etc.
  3. Acting aggressively to sell a vehicle.
  4. Failing to act in accordance with reasonable expectations of what’s acceptable
  5. Engaging in any of 31 specific practices which are banned outright like, for instance: claiming to be a signatory to a Code of Practice; falsely claiming to be approved, endorsed or authorised by a public or private body; falsely stating that a vehicle will only be available for a very limited time to push you to buy.

For more information, we do encourage you to read and familiarise yourself with The Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008.

Your legal rights when buying a used car from a dealer

As we mentioned right at the beginning of this guide, the safest way of buying a used car is from a dealer. Purchasing from an approved dealer means you’re covered by the Consumer Rights Act 2015. And that, in turn, means that you’re entitled to a full refund if your car turns out to be faulty and you return it to the dealer within 30 days of purchase. You’ll need to prove that the fault was already there when you bought it, though.

According to the law, a car is faulty if it meets at least one of these three legal descriptions:

  1. It’s not of satisfactory quality – Not as you would expect for a car of its age, mileage and price range.
  2. Not fit for purpose – when you’ve been told that the car can tow but in reality it can’t, for example.
  3. Not ‘as described’ – The equipment listed in the ad is not present or the car is not as it’s been described.

If you are taking your car back to the dealer within 30 days with a complaint and used your old car as part exchange to get the new one, then you are entitled to ask for it back as part of the refund.

Refunds after the 30 days are a lot less likely but the vendor is still responsible for the car to be OK six months after the sale. So if you spot a fault with your vehicle you are still legally entitled to either a refund that reflects the problem or they could repair the car at their own expense to make up for it.

After those six months, you still have six years of legal rights to protect you – five in Scotland. However, the older the car, the harder it will be to prove that it was faulty before you laid your hands on it. If you want to pursue a claim against your dealer it’s a good idea to get a second opinion from an independent garage.

In the case that a repair doesn’t fix the fault in your car, then you can still return the vehicle for a refund. But bear in mind that you won’t get back the full amount that you paid for the car, as vehicles lose value when you use them.

No matter what you decide to do, keep a record of all correspondence with a dealer, starting from your initial complaint. It may come in handy if you ever need to claim something back or report a fault.

Your legal rights when buying a used car privately

When you buy from a private seller you have far fewer rights to protect you from any fault with the car. Essentially, the amount of time you have to make a complaint about a privately bought car is six years – five in Scotland. Like in the previous case, the longer you wait to report a fault, the more difficult it will be to claim and prove the issue was there before you bought the vehicle. Get in touch as soon as possible and keep a paper trail of any issues.

The only legal terms that cover a private sale contract are:

  1. The seller must have the right to sell the car
  2. The vehicle should match the description given by the seller
  3. The car must be roadworthy – it is a criminal offence to sell an unroadworthy car.

Basically, the car must be as described in the advert and match what the seller told you when you bought it. If the vehicle has a fault or the private seller hasn’t mentioned something important that doesn’t always mean you’ll be entitled to anything. And if they had a disclaimer in the sale you may even not have any rights at all.

However, if the car isn’t as described you’re legally covered by the Sale of Goods Act 1979. This law states that a car should be of satisfactory quality, fit for purpose and as described in the advert. If it’s not, then you can contact the seller to seek some compensation. But this will usually be in the form of them paying for repairs rather than a refund.

Bear in mind that a private seller may refuse to pay for a repair. When that happens we’d advise you to get quotes from garages and keeping the seller informed about the situation. Remember that the repair bill cannot be more than what you paid for the car in the first place. If they still refuse to pay for repairs then you could ask them to give you the difference in value between what you paid and what the car is really worth.

In the case that the private seller refuses altogether to give you any sort of compensation, you could send a formal complaint letter explaining you’re looking to escalate your complaint. Alternatively, you could choose an alternative dispute resolution (ADR) scheme, which avoids taking the complaint to the small claims court, which can be expensive and time-consuming. With an ADR you’ll have a third party mediating between you and the seller.

For all these reasons you must ask the right questions and inspect the car thoroughly before you buy it from a private seller. on top of that, it wouldn’t hurt to get a thorough car check from a professional to make sure all is in working order and as expected.

Because your legal rights when buying a used car privately are more limited you may find some unscrupulous dealers masquerading as private sellers. This is a criminal offence and you should be wary of anyone wanting to meet somewhere other than their home or if their name is not on the V5C registration document.

Your legal rights when buying a used car online

Buying a car online has become quite common in recent years and you should know that if you do buy online consumer rights will still cover you. However, like with the rest of the cases, your rights will depend largely on who the seller is.

This means that if you’re buying from an online dealer you will have exactly the same rights as if you bought it in person from them. You’ll be protected by the Consumer Rights Act 2015 and the ‘cooling-off’ period will also cover you under the Consumer Contracts (Information, Cancellation and Additional Charges) Regulations 2013. You have the right to cancel your order from the moment you place it until 14 days after you get the car. If you do cancel, then you’ll have to return the car within a fortnight. And you should get a refund within the next 14 days of the dealer getting the car back.

If you’re buying a car online from a private seller you’ll have the same rights as if you’d bought it in person. That is that the car must be of satisfactory quality, fit for purpose and as described. You have limited legal rights if you’re seeking some compensation or a refund, but the Sale of Goods Act 1979 will protect you to a degree.

Your legal rights when buying a car at an auction

When you buy a used car at a live auction you will have very little legal protection. For that reason, you must check the specific terms and conditions of the auction before you bid. If your rights under the sale of goods act are excluded then you’ll be buying ‘sold as seen’ and you should check thoroughly the car beforehand.

In auctions, the auctioneer won’t generally be liable if the seller doesn’t have the right to sell the car in the first place – if it’s a stolen vehicle, for example. If you have any issues with the vehicle you’ll have to take them against the seller, if you can find him or her.

Some auctions offer ‘guarantees’ or ‘insurance’ for an extra amount of money but, again, rights are limited. Always check carefully the wording on any paperwork.

In some cases, when buying a used car at an auction there may be a cooling-off period. But it’s likely to be quite short and you should always check the terms and conditions before committing to a bid.

We hope you’ll never have to use these when buying a used car. But knowledge is power and it’s good to know which legal rights you’ve got if your next vehicle has a fault. And if you’re still looking for more information, check out your legal rights when buying a car online or this comprehensive guide on car scams.