Buying a used car can be a significant investment, and this article will help you avoid some of the pitfalls, especially if you are not someone that understands cars.
For context, the author is a fully trained and qualified motor mechanic and has bought & sold cars, vans, and motorcycles, etc., over many years.
Buying a used car – your options
There are three main ways to buy a used car in the UK.
1. buying a used car privately
This is the most common method of buying a used car but comes with the warning: ‘Caveat Emptor’, or Buyer Beware.
2. buying a used car from a dealer
Here you have more protection, though you will generally pay more for the privilege.
3. buying a used car by auction
Perhaps the most fraught way of buying a used car. There is zero protection, and decisions must be made ‘on the spot’. It is NOT for the inexperienced.
Key points to look for when buying a used car:
1. Do your investigations
Before you even go to see the car get the registration number and current mileage from the seller, if not in the photos. Use this to check the MoT status of the car on the UK Government website: https://www.gov.uk/check-mot-history.
Once on the site look at the current AND PREVIOUS test information. You can see how the mileage has been built-up, any failures and/or advisories. If there are any advisories on the current MoT record you can use these as a negotiation tool.
Do your homework on prices. There are many sites online that will give you low/typical/high prices based on the registration number and condition. Look on selling sites and compare the prices with the one you are interested in.
2. Check the V5c (logbook)
The V5c should be with the car and the details match the car (colour, VIN, registration number, etc.), and check that it has a watermark when held to the light.
3. Check for wear and tear
Of course, any car can have the odd scratch or two, but it is the non-obvious things you need to look out for; things like:
How worn are the rubbers on the brake and clutch pedal? Heavy wear suggests a lot of local mileage so ask if the clutch has been changed. If so, when? Also, look at the carpet beneath the pedals, again an indication of heavy use.
If a diesel, it is possible that the DPF (Diesel Particulate Filter) may be beginning to coke up. Again, ask if the DPF has had any issues because replacement is many hundreds of pounds, at least.
We all like to see a shiny car, but get down to the level of the doors and look along the sides. Any wrinkles or dents will be highlighted.
Also, look at the gaps around the doors, boot-lid and bonnet. Misalignment / odd gaps suggest bodywork repairs have been done. While there, look for paint patches that may have a different finish or texture.
Finally, look for paint on parts that shouldn’t have paint, for example, chrome surrounds and black window rubbers; another indication of respraying.
Under the bonnet, the engine bay should be dirty from regular use. If it has been cleaned, be especially cautious as this is very often a sign that leaks are present and have been cleaned away in order to hide them. An overly clean engine bay is a RED FLAG!
Tyres. We all know that there should be a minimum tread depth, and, honestly, anything less than 3mm across the tyre width means new tyres will be due soon. Get a quote for a tyre replacement for the car BEFORE you go to see it, and use this in your negotiations. Obviously, look for uneven wear, cuts, bulges, cracking etc. but look a bit closer… much closer because the tyre tells a story.
All tyres have a service life, regardless of wear, as the material that tyres are made of is affected by the environment (UV light, temperature swings etc.).
The general consensus is that tyres should be replaced after 10 years, even if there is a lot of tread depth remaining. Tyres on a car that is rarely used or stored outside may degrade quicker, so depending on the use and storage, replacement may be adviseable after 5 or 6 years; however, how would you know how old the tyres are?
Fortunately, as a reader of our site, we can tell you how to check when the tyres were manufactured because every tyre has a 4-digit code moulded into the sidewall. Before the year 2000, this was a 3-digit code so they would definitely need replacing today!
The code is made up of 2-digits representing the week number, and 2-digits for the year.
And, finally, let’s have a look at some signs of wear to look for when buying a used car, as these are also indicators of the type of use, and possibly, the type of owner.
In the photo below you will see my hand across the tyre tread of one of the front wheels.
What I’m doing here is sliding my hand across the tyre with a very light touch. The tyre should feel the same in both directions. If you feel one direction is smooth and, in the other, you can feel little edges or ridges, this is called ‘Feathering’ and is an indication that the tyre is ‘scrubbing’, basically dragging sideways when driving forward.
If the direction (inwards or outwards) is the same on both front tyres, it is an indication that the wheel alignment is incorrect and may require adjusting. Negotiate £50 of the price to allow for realignment.
If the feathering is not the same, it is possible that there has been some collision damage to the feathered side… get this checked professionally.
In the second photograph, my fingers are pointing to the outside edges of the tread because both edges are worn more than the central tread area. This is a classic sign of a tyre being driven for some distance while underinflated.
I noticed a slight pulling to the left on the steering when driving on a level surface in a straight line. Checking the tyre, I knew that this was more than likely due to underinflation, but it is a negotiation point to say that the steering is pulling one way or the other. I adjusted the tyre pressures and all was well.
If you’re interested in tyre selection and tyres in general, the Michelin website provides some really good information: https://www.michelin.co.uk/auto/advice/tyre-basics
4. Check the service history
When looking at a used car, it’s also important to check the service history. Don’t get so excited by the car that you lose your composure and forget to check that what has been said is true.
The amount of service history will tell you if the car has been regularly serviced and if any major problems have been found in the past.
5. Take a test drive
Before making a decision on a used car, it’s always a good idea to take it for a test drive. This will give you a chance to see how the car feels to drive and if there are any problems with it. If possible, try to take the car on a variety of different roads so that you can get a good feel for how it handles… and turn off the radio, this is a TEST drive!
6. Get a vehicle history check
A vehicle history check is another essential step to take when buying a used car in the UK. This will tell you if the car has ever been stolen, written off by an insurance company, or involved in any accidents. It’s well worth doing a history check before making any offer on a car.
7. Have an independent inspection carried out
Finally, if you’re seriously considering buying a particular used car, it’s always a good idea to have an independent inspection carried out by a qualified mechanic. If you are a member of a motoring organisation, such as The RAC or The AA you may find that they offer a discount to members for their excellent inspection services.
Before booking the vehicle inspection, use the above information to make sure that this is the car that you want, then book it.
A few websites to check prices and unbiased reviews:
Parkers free car valuation: https://www.parkers.co.uk/car-valuation/
Honest John car reviews: https://www.honestjohn.co.uk/reviews/
RAC used car inspections: https://www.rac.co.uk/buying-a-car/vehicle-inspections
The AA used car inspections: https://www.theaa.com/vehicle-inspection/
How can I check that a car has had all the safety upgrades done?
Once a car reached three years old it must undergo an MoT test (an old term referring to the Ministry of Transport, which no longer exists). If you enter the registration number into the government MoT checker website there is an option to check if all safety recalls have been carried out on that car.
Where can I get a used car inspected before buying?
Most garages that use qualified mechanics can offer this service for a fee; however, The main motoring organisations offer this at a discounted price to members.