Buying a used car

Buying a used car can be risky if you don’t carry out detailed checks
on the vehicle. It’s not always easy to determine the history of a used
car, but it’s crucial for ensuring you buy a safe, roadworthy and legal
vehicle. How do you know how old it really is? Has it been stolen? Is
the mileage genuine? Has it been involved in any accidents? Here’s a
guide to what to look out for when looking for a good used car.

First of all, the safety of a used care can depend on where you buy it.
Franchised dealers tend to be the most reputable, whereas at the other
end of the scale private sales carry the most risks.

With a franchised dealer, it’s likely that the car will have come from
a reputable source and will have been thoroughly inspected and all
faults fixed. The after-sales service should be good as well, with many
franchised dealers offering excellent warranties. Another key benefit
is that you should be able to part-exchange your old car, to save you
the hassle of selling it yourself.

Buying a car from a franchised dealer is the most expensive option,
though, so many people instead use independent dealers or private
sellers. The advantage of using an independent dealer is that their
prices can be more competitive and they tend to stock older cars. Check
whether you’ll get a warranty, though, and find out whether the model
is an import – specifications can vary a great deal and you may not get
as many features on an import as you would with a UK model sold at a
franchised dealer.

The cheapest option can be to buy privately, but this carries the most
risk as you don’t know who you’re dealing with and you don’t have the
same statutory rights and protection as you would when buying from a
franchised or independent dealer. The motto with private sales is
‘buyer beware’. This doesn’t mean that all private car sales are dodgy
and unreliable though – there are many crooks out there, but a good
many more honest and legitimate sellers. It’s just a matter of checking
carefully and acting cautiously before you jump in and buy.

When buying a used car, the main things to look out for are whether it
has been involved in a crash – which could have compromised its safety;
whether it has been written off and illegally put back on the road –
perhaps ‘cut and shut’ from two different car wrecks; whether it is
stolen; whether it has outstanding hire purchase or finance owing;
whether it has been illegally ‘clocked’ to make it seem as if the car
has a lower mileage; and, on a less sinister note, whether everything
is still in full working order.

The best way to ensure that you don’t end up with a lemon is to get a
car check done by an expert. The AA and RAC carry out thorough checks
on used cars and can provide reassurance and peace of mind. There are a
lot of things you can look out for yourself, though.

For example, some signs that the car has been clocked are worn screws
on the dashboard, a very low mileage for the age of the car (10,000 to
12,000 miles is the average annual car mileage), misaligned digits on
the counter, or signs of wear and tear that would indicate a higher
mileage such as chips and scratches around the bonnet and bumper or
worn foot pedals. Mileage must be recorded annually on the car’s MOT
certificate, so inspect these certificates to check for discrepancies
or whether the MOT certificates have been amended or forged.

Spotting a ‘cut and shut’ is more difficult as they can look just like
legitimate cars. Look inside the boot and bonnet of the car to check
for different paint colours. Also look out for signs of joins or
welding, particularly at the bottom of the door frame or the top of the
windscreen. Also ask to see the vehicle registration document (V5) and
compare the engine numbers and chassis numbers against those on the car.

As with any product, things can start to go wrong with age and normal
wear and tear from everyday use. The older the car, the more likely it
is to have faults or problems. Take plenty of time to inspect the car
thoroughly to ensure that everything is safe and in working order.
Don’t be afraid of wasting the seller’s time or appearing suspicious –
if they are legitimate, they will not be offended. Also take the car
for a test drive to see how it feels and sounds. Check that the
steering handles properly, the brakes work, the instruments and the
lights on the dashboard are all in working order, the tyres have a
tread depth of at least 1.6 mm, the seatbelts work, the windscreen
wipers work, there are no leaks in the window, door, sunroof or
windscreen seals, and that the engine looks in reasonable condition
with no oil leaks. Also ask to see the MOT certificates, service
history and vehicle registration document.

If you have any doubts after checking the car and documentation or are
suspicious of the seller, walk away. You could find yourself seriously
out of pocket if you buy a car that turns out to be stolen, faulty,
written off or still under a hire purchase agreement. More importantly,
though, your safety could be at stake and it’s just not worth taking
the risk.