The Used Car Buying Guide
It's exciting buying a used car, but it can be daunting too, as there are so many things you have to consider. From used cars for new drivers to family-friendly second-hand cars, the market is big enough to accommodate all kinds of customers and their requirements. However, it’s also a potential minefield of dodgy motors and no-nonsense salesmen.
Of course, we’d always recommend running a Green Flag One Check on any used car that you’re considering purchasing, but there are plenty of other things you can check in person too.
In this guide we'll show you what those risks are and how you can avoid them.
What To Buy
How do I know the car is right for me?
- The Kind of Car
With so many makes and models, shapes, sizes and styles, it’s hardly surprising that many motorists are bewildered by the variety of cars on offer.
Hatchback - Britain’s most popular car, a Hatchback is a three or five door car that is practical, efficient and affordable.
Saloon - Saloons are a longer version of a conventional Hatchback giving a more comfortable ride and more legroom.
Estate - An Estate car is based on Hatchbacks and Saloons but tends to be a bit longer.
MPV - An MPV stands for Multi-Purpose Vehicle but are more commonly called ‘people carriers’ so are ideal for those who need to carry as many as 9 people.
SUV - An SUV is defined by its off-road capabilities and roominess.
Coupe - A Coupe is historically a two-door version of a Saloon with a boot and hard roof.
Sports Car - Sports Cars are high-performance vehicles that more often than not have two seats so are less practical than most other cars.
Convertible - A convertible or a cabriolet is a car that has a roof that can either be removed or folded down.
- Petrol or Diesel
It’s the age-old question, petrol or diesel and the answer really depends on the number and type of miles you do. If most of your miles are made doing short journeys around towns petrol is for you. But if you do lots of longer journeys or motorway miles a diesel is a better option. And while there are more hybrid and electric options than ever, petrol and diesel still make up the majority of used cars on sale.
- Insurance and Servicing Cost
Used cars are considered the best choice for those on a budget. However, make sure you’re fully prepared for ownership by researching and budgeting for the main costs of running a car including insurance, tax, fuel and servicing/maintenance.
- Automatic or Manual
While manual cars are cheaper to maintain, offer greater control and more speed, automatic cars are easier to drive and require less maintenance.
Where To Buy
What are the pros and cons of each seller?
Just like there are hundreds of makes and models of cars to choose from, there are hundreds of places to purchase a used car from, too. From Private Sellers, Dealerships, Auctions and more, each has its pros and cons which we will explore in the following section to help make a well-informed decision.
- Private Seller
Vehicles on sale privately are certainly plentiful, but it can be risky. As they say though, without risk there is no reward, and as long as you take the correct precautions, purchasing a vehicle privately can be incredibly beneficial.
Pro: 1) Ordinarily, buying a car privately is cheaper than buying from a used car dealership. 2) Negotiating a cheaper price is usually easier, compared to bartering with a professional salesman. 3) You will have the opportunity to meet the vehicle’s owner, and the change to ask about the vehicle history in person.
Con: 1) Any finance or loan deals will have to be organised personally. 2) There will be no vehicle warranty. 3) You cannot purchase a used car with a credit card. 4) Unless negotiated otherwise, you won’t be able to part exchange an old vehicle.
Online shopping is the preferred means of grabbing a bargain for many these days, and this rings true when it comes to buying used cars too. Many believe this to be the best way to buy a used car, and you’ll find thousands of motors to browse through on online auction sites such as eBay.
Pro: 1) Much greater choice of vehicles that you wouldn’t have at a local dealership. 2) Easier to compare vehicles and financing options. 3) Better prices. 4) Can buy at your convenience so take as long as you need without sales people peterting you. 5) Saves you the time and money of visiting car outlets.
Con: It’s harder to negotiate a price. 2) There is often no warranty. 3) If it’s too good to be true, it probably is so be mindful of fraudulent suppliers. 4) There is no way you can touch or test drive the car prior to purchasing it - unless you live close enough to do so that is.
The good thing about used car dealerships is quantity. There are plenty of them about, and they offer a wealth of cars for sale. Whether you opt for a smaller independent dealership or a larger, recognised company, more often than not, you’ll find the vehicle you’re looking for.
Pro: More rights and security than buying elsewhere (especially when compared to buying privately). 2) The possibility of financial deals. 3) Potentially flexible prices. 4) Warranties and service histories of vehicles. 5) Many dealerships will accept credit card. 6) Many dealerships will also offer part exchange for your old vehicle.
Con: 1) Original prices are often more expensive than when buying a used car from auctions, online or private sellers. 2) Vehicle history documents and warranties are sometimes subject to the contract being signed. 3) Haggling with salesmen at a dealership can often be a tough negotiation process.
If you’re buying a vehicle under the hammer, it helps to be aware of what to look out for before committing to a final bid. After all, you want to be sure that you purchase a bargain – not a banger.
Pro: 1) Auction cars are usually a speedy sale, so you could get a car quickly and easily. 2) Have the opportunity to unearth a real gem. 3) It can be a good way to test the water of what other people are willing to pay for a certain model of car.
Con: 1) There’s an increased pressure at auctions which could cause you to make a poor decision. 2) You won’t be able to check over and test drive the vehicle. 3) Due to online auctions and buy and sell sites, the chance to find a bargain is becoming much more difficult.
It ultimately comes down to which matters more; saving money or peace of mind? Sure buying privately or at auction are the cheapest options, but these also offer the least protection. So if you want peace of mind you're better off paying more to buy from a dealer.
Is all the relevant paperwork in order?
Now you’re familiar with where to buy a used car and the specific pros and cons of each, it’s time to ensure all of the relevant paperwork is in order.
- MOT - All cars need an MOT 3 years after their date of first registration. You can check if a car has an MOT at [link] and this is important because if a car isn’t MOT'd it can’t be taxed - and neither will it be insured.
- Service History - Ideally the car will have been maintained by the supplying dealer from new, but what you're after is proof of regular servicing. You can also ensure the mileage goes up in the right stages. If there's no service history, you've got no evidence that the car has been maintained.
- Tax - There's no requirement to display a tax disc and the DVLA no longer issues them. When a car is sold, the vendor has to cash in the road tax so you'll have to buy your own. Current rates are listed at gov.uk/vehicle-tax-rate-tables.
- V5C - A V5C, also known as a Log Book, tracks the registration and taxation of a specific vehicle and is an important document if you ever sell, or if you're looking to buy a used car.
Who said you have to be mechanically minded to check out the basics?
If you’re happy with all the paperwork, the next step is to take a closer look at the car. Being aware of common problems and where to look for them can mean the difference between a dud purchase or an amazing deal. So, it’s a good idea to read through this checklist and exercise it when you look over a used car.
- Age & Mileage - Yes, age is just a number, but the older the car, the higher the chance it will need repairs or mechanical maintenance. The same goes for mileage too, high mileage is a good indicator that the car has more wear and tear or has been run to the ground. Not to mention some dealers or sellers may try to dupe customers by ‘correcting’ the mileage. A One Check from Green Flag will ensure the mileage checks out and you’re not purchasing a ‘clocked car’.
- Dents & Scrapes - This one might be an obvious one but look closely for any dents and scrapes in the bodywork. Also, if the panels don’t line up properly (especially on the bonnet) as this could indicate the car has been poorly repaired following an accident. Just remember, any damage will be costly to put to right, so haggle accordingly or walk away.
- Engine Oil & Fluid Levels - Ensure that the car has the correct levels of engine oil, as if its low it could lead to mechanical failures. Not to mention it's a good pointer towards whether the car has been well-cared for and maintained. You should also check the brake and power steering fluid, as well as the oil cap, oil level and whether there are signs of oil leaking from the engine.
- Electronics - A car’s electronics are often some of the first things to start malfunctioning, especially in older vehicles. We recommend testing the windows, radio, internal lights, indicators and warning lights, front and rear lights, air conditioning and any other electrical components.
- Glass - As we all know, chips can soon turn into cracks, which will mean replacing the full windscreen so it pays to be vigilant. Cast an eye over the windscreen to identify any potential chips in the glass. Don’t forget to check the front and rear lights for chips, cracks and internal fogging too!
- Interior - You’re going to be spending a fair bit of time inside the car, so it’s worth taking a good look around. You should check for damage and tears in the car’s seats, as well as the carpets, boot, dashboard, glove box, roof and sun visors.
- Keys - Are all the keys available? There should be at least a spare and probably a master as well. Lose the only key and you may have to have everything reprogrammed – which can cost hundreds of pounds.
- Tyres - Kicking the tyres may be the classic car check cliché, but we’d recommend more than just flailing your feet at them and hoping for the best. When checking car tyres, it’s important to pay attention to the tread. 1.6mm of tyre tread is the legal minimum, so if the tyres fall below this you’ll need to consider the extra cost of changing tyres in the sum total of the deal.
Don't be sold a lie
Unfortunately, car scams and motor fraud are genuine problems facing car buyers and sellers. But being aware of the most common scams could be the difference between you falling victim to a dud purchase or an amazing deal.
- Car Cloning - More aptly referred to as vehicle identity theft, car cloning is an illegal practice where the identity of a legally registered vehicle is used to either hide the identity of a stolen car or salvaged vehicle that looks similar.
- Clocking - It’s obvious, but low-mileage cars are worth more than high-mileage ones, which is the exact reason why some sellers reduce the displayed mileage on the cars they’re selling. This is what we call ‘clocking’. So make sure to check the reading doesn’t shoot up between purchasing the car and collecting it.
- Written Off - In the UK, if a car has been involved in an accident or suffered damage, we refer to it as being ‘written off’. While a Category S or N write-off can be repaired, it’s worth knowing whether it’s been written off in the past.
How To Stay Safe When Buying A Car
Arm yourself with these top tips to avoid car scams
- If it’s too good to be true, it probably is
- Research the market and compare similar models to check pricing is accurate
- View the car before paying for it or paying a deposit
- Take the car for a test drive
- Don’t be pressured by a pushy seller
- Does the V5C match the registration and VIN?
- Get a One Check to make sure the car hasn’t been stolen, written off or has outstanding finance
I know we sound like a broken record at this point, but for total peace of mind when buying a used car, and to avoid the most common vehicle scams, you need a One Check. A One Check will alert you to any worrying information held against the car as well as a market value which you’ll need to make an informed buying decision.
Is the vehicle you're buying in the green? Get an instant peace of mind now.