Most of us just want a good deal on our new cars. We want a great purchase at a reasonable price and, most importantly, we want something reliable that isn’t going to stress us out with lots of costly repairs.
So, how do you know what to look for when it comes to buying a used car?
In part two of our ‘Ultimate Guide to Buying a Car’, that’s exactly what we’re going to cover! We’ll show you how to check and test drive a car, give you some negotiation tips, and walk you through what you should do after buying your new car. Before all that though, how do you know whether the car you’re looking at is a good deal or not?
Need some help finding and financing your new car? Check out part one of our ‘Ultimate Guide to Buying a Car‘!
What makes a used car a good buy?
There are plenty of used car options out there. If you scour the classifieds thoroughly, you can find some amazing deals. As a rule of thumb, a used car is a good buy if:
- It has low mileage. 60,000 is a good condition, but there are plenty with 20,000 or less on the clock. The lower the mileage, the better condition it’s likely to be in. High-mileage cars may have been worked hard, especially if they’re only a few years old. Look for a car that still has it’s best years ahead, not behind.
- It’s on or around the average market price. Autotrader and other used car websites give an indication of whether you’re paying a fair price for a car. They check it against the average selling price for similar options so, if it says you’re getting a good or fair price, you’re paying less for this car than the average driver.
- It’s got more optional extras than the standard model. You don’t have to settle for a basic car when buying used. There are plenty for less than £7,000 with air conditioning, cruise control and Bluetooth. If you know what spec you want, it’s easy to find something that suits your needs.
- It’s fully documented. You definitely need a valid MOT certificate and the V5C logbook when buying a car, but look to see if it has a full service history too. Regular services means it’s likely to be in top condition as the previous owner(s) looked after it well.
- It’s good quality and mechanically sound. You want something that looks and sounds great. But how do you know what you should check and look out for?
Which? regularly release consumer information designed to help drivers make the best choice. This includes their Best Buys and Don’t Buys. Here are their top 10 in each category. Checking the reviews and listening to what the experts think can help you find an even better deal, especially if they cover aspects that matter to you.
Which? Don’t Buys
Which? Best Buys (Used Cars only)
|1.||Chevrolet Aveo – 3% (2008 -2012)||Lexus LS – 84% (2007 – 2012)|
|2.||Fiat Punto – 5% (2006 – 2018)||Lexus GS – 79% (2012 – 2018)|
|3.||Fiat Panda – 6% (2012 – )||BMW 5 Series GT – 77% (2009 – 2017)|
|4.||Ssangyong Korando – 31% (2011-2019)||Lexus RX – 77% (2009 – 2015)|
|5.||Chevrolet Spark – 33% (2010 – 2015)||Alpina D3 – 76% (2006 – 2012)|
|6.||Chrysler Ypsilon – 34% (2011 – 2015)||BMW X1 – 75% (2009 – 2015)|
|7.||Smart ForTwo EQ – 37% (2018 – )||BMW 5 Series – 75% (2010 – 2017)|
|8.||Smart EQ ForFour – 38% (2020 – )||Volkswagen Touareg – 75% (2010 – 2018)|
|9.||Chevrolet Aveo – 40% (2012 – 2014)||Honda Civic Tourer – 74% (2014 – 2018)|
|10.||Land Rover Discovery Sport – 40% (2015 – )||
BMW X5 – 74% (2013 – 2018)
What should I check when buying a used car?
There are plenty of checks you should complete before buying a used car. Not only should you complete a thorough test drive, it’s worth running a full history check on any vehicle you’re thinking of buying as well. Here’s everything you should check before agreeing to buy the car.
The car’s history and documentation
The last thing you want on your hands is a stolen car. Used car dealerships complete most of these checks before selling a car, but you should always verify a private seller’s details. Plus, it helps give you peace of mind before you agree to hand over any money!
First, you should check the car against DVLA (Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency) records. Ask the seller for the following details:
- Registration Number
- MOT test number
- Make and Model
If you suspect the details are fake, and it’s not because of a simple mistake, DO NOT buy the car. You should also report the seller if the car’s logbook details don’t match DVLA records.
Once your happy that all the documents are genuine, you should check the MOT status and history. Question any gaps – was the car under SORN? If the MOT history is dodgy and the seller can’t prove why, DO NOT continue with the deal.
Finally, invest in a Private History Check. These cost as little as £20, and give valuable information about the car which the seller may be trying to hide. It answers the following questions:
- Has the car been reported stolen?
- Does the seller still owe money on the car?
- Has the car been in a serious accident?
- Is the car showing the correct mileage?
- Has the car been written off, repaired and then returned to the road?
If the check gives you any red flags about the car, DO NOT buy and report the seller to the DVLA.
Once you’re happy that all the documents are in order, it’s time to organise a test drive. Here’s everything you should check during your time with the car. Make sure you take photos of anything you find.
Exterior and Interior
- Check the seats and interior trim for signs of damage
- Look for rust or any other bodywork damage
- Check all the electrics and air conditioning
- Do the panels fit properly? If not, there may be severe accident damage
- Check for chips or cracks in the windscreen
- Is there excess wear on the pedal rubber, seats or carpet? If so, the car may be older than advertised
- Check the tyre tread depth including the spare wheel. This should be at least 1.6mm deep, but you want about 3mm for safety
- Can you see the VIN (Vehicle Identification Number) and does it match the number in the logbook?
- Make sure you start the car from cold. A warm engine could be hiding problems.
- Check for excessive smoke or unusual noises when the car is idling and accelerating. If the smoke is blue or black, there is a very serious issue with the exhaust system
- You should also check the body near the exhaust. If it has a dark oily layer alongside excessive smoke, the car may have worn piston rings
- Check the engine oil cap for any signs of head gasket damage
- Check the quality and quantity of engine oil. If it’s not a golden colour, the car may need a service
- Is the coolant and brake fluid in good condition and at the right level?
- Check for rust around the battery. Ask how old the battery is and if the car ever has problems starting in cold weather
- Check in the engine bay and underneath the car after the test drive. If there are any leaks, the car may need serious repairs
Steering and Suspension
- Listen for squeals when turning the wheel. A slight whine is normal for power steering, but anything else could mean the car repairing. Feel for unusual vibrations or juddering as well
- Make sure the car doesn’t pull to one side on a level stretch of road
- Check that the ride is smooth. Does the car soak up bumps? Or does it feel clunky and bouncy?
- Are there any unusual noises from the chassis?
Brakes, Clutch and Gears
- Do the brakes stop the car in a straight line?
- Listen and feel for vibrations and rubbing noises when braking
- Use the handbrake on a hill start. Does it hold the car firmly in place without slipping?
- Try all gears including reverse. Pay attention to any ‘crunching’ – it could mean the gearbox is on its last legs
- Check the clutch biting point. If it’s quite high, it might need a clutch replacement – but many small cars have a naturally high biting point. Speak to the seller about where the biting point usually is before deciding whether it’s natural or not
- Automatic gear changes should be smooth, immediate and almost silent. Check that the gearbox is forced to change gear when you accelerate hard
Other top tips for buying a used car
Make sure your insurance covers you test driving another car before booking one. Many dealerships have insurance policies which cover this, but private sellers may not. Be careful not to complete an uninsured test drive. Also, you should always take proof of insurance when test driving a used car.
Go to see the car in daylight with a friend or family member and view at the seller’s address. Meet them in person to buy the car as well. Check that the address you’re viewing at matches the one in the logbook. If there are any discrepancies, or you suspect any of the documents are false, DO NOT buy the car.
Make sure you get the original MOT document and the original logbook. Never buy a car without the proper logbook, and don’t accept copies of any documents. If the seller can’t provide original documents, receipts or anything else that you want to see, be prepared to walk away from the sale. Make these checks BEFORE test driving the car.
A good starting point when buying a used car is deciding if it will pass its MOT. Follow these pre-MOT checks to find a car in top condition!
When taking delivery of a used car
The seller must provide:
- The logbook
- A history check (if you haven’t done one yourself)
- MOT certificate
- A receipt. This should include the make, model, engine size, registration, chassis number, your address, the seller’s address and the amount paid.
You should also check that the car is still in the condition you agreed to buy it. If there are new dents, or the seller informs you of a new problem, make sure this is factored in to the price. You shouldn’t be expected to pay the same amount as before if the car is in worse quality now.
Obviously, buying a used car brings more pitfalls and difficulties than buying a new car. However, that doesn’t mean you should ignore these tips if you’re buying brand new – there are just different test drive steps to follow.
What should I check when buying a new car?
Test driving a new car helps you work out if you feel comfortable in the car or not. There shouldn’t be mechanical issues as the dealership’s test drive vehicles are kept in great condition. Besides, it’s unlikely that you’ll buy this car anyway! Here’s what you should look while test driving a new car:
- Load up the boot and take at least one passenger. Is there enough space in the back for kids? Does the car feel sluggish while carrying extra weight? Is the boot spacious and easy to load?
- Test the car on a variety of roads and try to overtake on a motorway. Does it pull well or would you struggle to overtake slower drivers?
- How does it cope with hills? If you live somewhere hilly, will it suit your usual commute?
- Test the cornering ability. Does it roll in the bends? Does it feel stable and secure?
- Brake hard to see how it responds in case of emergency
- If it has sat-nav, ask for the tutorial. Is it easy to use?
- Is it easy to get in and out of?
- Are the rear seats easy to fold?
- Is the interior comfortable?
- Is there good vision? What are the blind spots like?
- How well does it reverse?
DON’T let the sales person use the test drive as an opportunity for an extended pitch. Be clear and firm that this is your time to experience the car and you want to do it your way. We’ll cover this in more detail in a minute.
You should also plan for delivery of your new car if you’re satisfied with the results of the test drive. Agree a date and ensure that the dealership sticks to it. Send them a couple of gentle reminders in the run up and make sure they contact you about any problems or delays. You’ll want your old car sold and the new car insured, taxed and ready to drive as soon as it arrives.
When taking delivery of a new car
Once the delivery date arrives, there are several things you should check before signing any remaining paperwork and accepting the keys to your new car. Most importantly, check that all the car manuals, service books and logbooks are included when you take delivery. You don’t want to be chasing a dealership about a missing logbook!
Get the representative to talk you through the service schedule and the optional extras included on your car. You want to know how everything works and the best way to keep your car under warranty and in top condition. The better you look after your car, the more you can sell it for when you decide to upgrade!
Make one final thorough check of the car. Is everything you paid for included and working? Is the paintwork applied properly? Do all the panels and fuel fittings fit perfectly? Make a note of anything that doesn’t and tell the representative immediately. Check the mileage as well. It should be around 25 miles, unless the car was driven to the dealership. If there’s any discrepancy about this, make sure the representative tells you why.
How to negotiate when buying a used car
If you’re happy with the test drive and want to buy the car, you need to know how to negotiate the price. If you’ve shopped around and found a better price elsewhere, take a printed copy of the offer and ask if the seller will meet the price. Most importantly, if your checks have uncovered any potential issues (i.e. the car needs a service, new tyres or the bodywork isn’t in pristine condition), you should get the seller to factor this into the price. Anything can be a bargaining chip to get the best deal, especially if the seller expects you to fix it yourself. Here are our top 5 negotiation tips:
- Be calm, polite and friendly with the salesperson – but be firm and clear on what you want, especially when it comes to finance
- Use the salesperson’s name in conversation
- Don’t take no for an answer – but don’t get combative or aggressive
- Show that you’re serious. If you mention that you’re looking to buy on the day, the dealer may be more willing to do a deal – especially if there are sales targets to meet!
- Be flexible. If the seller won’t negotiate the price, despite any issues you might have found, ask them to include the repair costs in the price. Be prepared to walk away if they’re not willing to match your concessions
If you’re clear about what you want and work with the seller to compromise on price, you’ll be able to secure a great deal. Then, once you’ve bought your new car, what should you do next?
Your next steps
Part one of our guide detailed how to secure car insurance for your new purchase, but you also need to tax your car and transfer ownership from the seller to you. Here’s how.
A dealer will register a new car for you. If you’re buying a used car, the seller must complete this process. To do this they must:
- Use your details to register the car to you online. This can be done directly through the Government website.
- Fill in the green ‘new keeper’ slip in the logbook and give it to you
- Destroy the current logbook
The DVLA will then immediately update the record and send you a new logbook within 3-5 days.
Tax is non-transferable, even if the seller has several months’ worth left on the car. They can claim the refund for any tax left over. You must tax the vehicle using the details in the vehicle’s logbook through the Government website. Click here for a more detailed explanation of how car tax works.
If you’ve followed every tip across our two-part ‘Ultimate Guide to Buying a Car’, you’ll now be the proud owner of a new car that you got the very best deal on. Don’t forget to check back in with our guide every time you’re looking to buy a new car, so you always save money and get a reliable purchase. Here are our definitive Do’s and Don’ts when it comes to buying a used car to wrap everything up.
Our Do’s and Don’ts when buying a car
Here are our final top tips. If you follow these 5 Do’s, and avoid the 5 Don’ts, you’ll stand the best chance of getting a great deal when you buy a car!
- DO shop around and check out all your options.
- DO budget strictly. Once you’ve got it, make sure you stick to it!
- DO thoroughly research any car you’re interested in. You can find things on the second check that you missed the first time. These might affect whether you still want the car.
- DO be prepared to walk away from the deal if you’re not happy or the seller asks too much.
- DO haggle. Don’t let the salesperson dictate terms and do all you can to get the best deal.
- DON’T get greedy. Make sure you can afford the car in the long run as well as the short term.
- DON’T buy the first car you find. You’ll never get the best deal.
- DON’T forget to insure your new car before buying.
- DON’T rush the process. Take your time and consider everything fully before making a decision.
- DON’T be pressured into a decision, either on finance options or for a car you don’t really want.
Drew works for BookMyGarage writing blogs, website content and almost everything else in between. He works closely with ex-mechanics and subject matter experts. When he’s not helping you save money on running your car or making your driving life easier, he can be found either with his head in a book or with a golf club in his hands (usually looking for his ball in the woods)