Tips For Buying a Used Car: What You Should Check

To protect yourself when buying a used car there are a number of checks that you need to do before buying. Read on to learn how to spot car scams, what physical checks you should do, and what your rights are when buying a used car.

Rebecca Goodman Last updated on 07 July 2022.
Tips For Buying a Used Car: What You Should Check

Buying a used car from a dealer or a private seller can be much cheaper than buying one brand new, but there are potentially more risks involved.

It is not as easy as turning up at a car dealership and driving off with your dream motor. With a used vehicle, you need to carry out more checks than you would for a brand-new car to avoid picking one that is riddled with problems. There is even a risk of unwittingly buying a stolen car if you don’t complete the right research.

Here are our top tips for buying a used car.

How can I check I am buying from a trustworthy seller?

If you are buying from a private seller, you will have to carry out checks to make sure the car is as advertised and to verify you have found a trustworthy seller. Although buying directly from an individual can be cheaper than going through a dealer, it offers less consumer protection so you need to be more careful.

Before you see the car, ask the seller for details of the make, model and registration number. You can then use these to check out information about the car on the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) website.

You can also do your own research to check the price of the car against similar vehicles. If the seller is offering a car at a significantly lower price than you can find elsewhere, alarm bells should be ringing.

A trustworthy dealer will usually thoroughly check the car for faults before selling it, or have a third party do so, and will often provide a warranty of either six or 12 months.

What common car buying scams should I be aware of?

Criminals are always coming up with new ways to con people out of their money, and the world of car sales is no exception.

There are several common scams to be aware of.

These include cloning a car, where criminals clone a legally registered car and put its number plates on a similar car, ‘ghost brokers’ who sell fake insurance policies and dodgy dealers who tamper with a car’s mileage.

» MORE: Car scams to be aware of

How can I check a car’s history?

You can check a car’s history free of charge on the DVLA website. This will show you every record the agency holds on the car, such as when it last had its MOT.

The free DVLA check however, will only show you more basic details and won’t show if it's been stolen or has outstanding finance, for example. You may want to pay for a private vehicle check, sometimes also called a ‘data check’, that will give you more comprehensive details on the car’s history.

What physical checks should I do?

When you see the car and test drive it you will need to check it is the correct vehicle and that it is in good working order.

This includes checking the following areas:

  • Tyres: These need a tread of at least 1.6mm. If the tread is below 3mm, you will need to replace them soon.
  • Bodywork: Take the time to properly inspect the car for dents and scratches in the daylight. They may be minor, but you could use any defects to negotiate a lower price for the car.
  • Fluid levels: If a car’s fluid levels are low, including the oil or windscreen washer, this may be a sign it hasn’t been well looked after.
  • Electrics: Before you make a decision on the car, test out everything you can, including the lights, windows, windscreen wipers, air conditioning and entertainment system.
  • Windscreen: Any chips in the glass could turn into a bigger problem down the line. Damage of 40mm anywhere on the windscreen will result in an MOT fail, whereas even a 10mm chip in a driver’s eyeline will result in a fail.
  • Car’s panels: If there are large gaps between the car’s panels, this could be a sign it hasn’t been repaired correctly after a previous accident.
  • Vehicle Identification number (VIN): To check it is the correct vehicle, make sure the VIN – a car’s unique 17-digit number – is the same as on its V5C log book. The VIN is usually printed under the bonnet, on the dashboard, and on the driver’s door.

What paperwork should I check?

You should ask the seller to provide the following documents:

  • proof of purchase
  • log book (known as a V5C)
  • MOT expiry date
  • service history

How should I pay for the car?

A private seller may ask you to pay in cash, use a debit or credit card, or pay via bank transfer.

Paying by credit card may incur further costs that the seller will pass on to you. However, by paying by credit card you are protected under Section 75 credit card protection, for purchases from £100 to £30,000.

You could ask to make your payment through PayPal, which offers buyer protection. This can help to protect you if you encounter problems with your purchase.

Usually a seller will ask for a deposit, once again using PayPal or paying by a credit card will provide you with more security than just transferring the money into the seller’s bank account.

» MORE: What is the best way to pay for a car?

What to think about when buying a used car from a dealer?

When buying a used car from a dealer there is potentially less risk than when buying from a private individual, due to the consumer protection a dealership could provide. However, you still need to carry out thorough checks to make sure the car is being sold as advertised.

As the dealer will inspect the car and will usually provide a warranty that lasts for six or 12 months, you will generally pay more than when you buy from a private seller. This can provide more peace of mind and may be an easier option if you can afford it.

» COMPARE: Compare car warranty deals

Your legal rights after buying a used car will vary depending on who sold it to you.

The Consumer Rights Act 2015 states that all cars bought from a dealer must be fit for purpose and as described. So you may have the right to claim a refund depending on when you bought the car.

However, if you are buying a used car from a private seller, it is very much a case of buyer beware. It is up to you to ask the right questions and carry out the necessary checks before you commit to buying the car.

It is, however, illegal for anyone to sell a car that is not roadworthy, as set out in Section 75 of the Road Traffic Act 1988.

» MORE: What are my legal rights when buying a used car?

Image source: Getty Images

About the author:

Rebecca Goodman is a freelance journalist who has spent the past 10 years working across personal finance publications. Regularly writing for The Guardian, The Sun, The Telegraph, and The Independent. Read more

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