buying a used car

secondhand success stories

buying a used car


Today's new cars have been revolutionised by hi-tech design and manufacturing processes. This is good news, not just for new car buyers, but it is great for those interested in buying used cars. But it is important to remember used cars do need to have been looked after if they are to provide thousands of trouble-free miles. There are many ways to buy a used car but the safest is to buy from a reputable garage. Main dealers and independent garages that are members of the Retail Motor Industry Federation (RMI) agree to comply with a Code of Practice drawn up with the Office of Fair Trading.

The Used Car Market

In the trade, used cars are usually priced 'nearly new' or 'used'. Nearly new cars are those up to one year old, while used cars fall into two categories - one to three years old, and over three years old. Nearly new cars often have very low mileages and have thousands of pounds off the new list price, so are often outstanding value.

Main dealers generally offer a good supply of carefully prepared late model low mileage used cars and demonstrators with genuine mileage and services histories. Efficient after-sales services and warranties also ensure peace of mind as do mechanical breakdown, insurance services, hire-purchase facilities and servicing back-up. An independent garage is likely to have cars on its forecourt that span a wider age range, from the low mileage to the older less expensive models. Used car buyers not only make savings on the purchase price of a car but may also benefit from cheaper insurance. Depending on the age of the vehicle, improved value can be had by servicing and repairing a used car through an independent garage.

Before buying a used car

There are a few simple points to remember before handing over any cash. Avoid looking at a used car in the dark. If you don't know what to look out for when buying a car, take along a friend or relative who knows a bit about cars.

Before buying any car, and especially a used car, it is important to check its condition thoroughly and test it out on the road. How does it feel on the road? Do the brakes provide smooth, reassuring braking? Rattles and 'clunks' will soon reveal themselves, even on a short trip around the block. If the car is more than three years old, check it has a current MOT certificate stating the vehicle complies with certain criteria at a given date. But remember it is not a guarantee that any faults that may develop will be put right by the dealer.

A full service history is also very important to ensure the vehicle has been properly looked after, and check the mileage is warranted in writing to avoid any potential problems in the future. You can get a mileage check from HPI for a small fee. Ask to see the registration document and service record - does everything match up? Does the logbook show how many owners the car has had?

Having test-driven the car, it is vital to inspect it thoroughly. Check the underside of the vehicle for the condition of tyres and the exhaust system, as well as any oil leaks. Look for signs of rust. Any mysterious welding on the underside could mean the car is a 'cut and shut' and could well be a death trap. Check also that the VIN (vehicle identification number) is clear on the engine or the chassis. If it's been rubbed off or a number is there but looks untidy or poorly stamped, the car could be stolen.

On the outside, check the bodywork and fittings - spare tyres should have the correct tread (1.6mm) and pressure. Paintwork should be in good condition. Look for panels that are a slightly different shade, rippled, uneven or heavily chipped by stones. Check all locks are in working order and rubber seals are intact. Leaks can be expensive to rectify.

The interior of a car can also reveal a lot about the way it has been looked after and the mileage it has covered. Seatbelts - intended to save your life - should be free from damage. Carpets, especially the driver's side, can hide very high mileages. Does the condition compare with the mileage and age of the car? Window winders and locks, wipers, mileometer, dashboard instruments, pedal condition and door sills should also be checked.

The engine compartment should be subject to thorough investigation. For most of us, the engine bay seems complicated and dirty but there are still some very easy and practical steps that should be taken to gauge the condition of the car's engine for even the most non-mechanically minded. Check the condition and amount of oil, the colour of the water in the radiator, and unusual sounds, clunks and rattles. If engines are really of no interest and you do not trust your own judgement, the major motoring organisations offer inspection services for a fee.

Oil leaks are obvious signs of age. Inspect drive belts for fraying and cracking. A screeching noise is a sign of a slipping fan belt, but is easy and inexpensive to adjust or repair. The radiator should be free of leaks and the hoses free from damage. An engine that is not being efficiently cooled could be seriously damaged on a long journey, especially in hot weather. Diesel engines need plenty of coolant to prevent them from overheating. Check the level is sufficient. Also, check fuel lines are intact - if any are split or not fitted correctly, highly flammable fuel could be spilling over a hot engine.

Paying for the car

When you buy from a reputable dealer, the car's financial history will have been checked to show there are no outstanding hire purchase agreements on it and that it is neither an insurance total loss nor been stolen. Ask the dealer for written proof that the check has been made. Private buyers can also check the history of a used car for free by acquiring the appropriate form from the Citizens Advice Bureau.

Before entering into any finance agreement, accepting any warranty or indeed accepting a used car, make sure you read and understand all the documentation before signing them or handing over any cash. If the dealer has arranged the finance agreement whereby you purchase the used vehicle and he refuses to deal with a subsequent complaint, your claim for compensation will be against the finance company, which in turn will claim from the dealer. However, do not stop your repayments.

Any problems

If you have a dispute with a garage that is a member of the RMI and it cannot be resolved with the dealer, members of the public can approach the National Conciliation Service. The NCS gives peace of mind by offering customers arbitration through its independent panel of arbitrators.

Taking delivery of a 'new' car, even if it is pre-owned, is great fun and the best way to start the year. Don't plan your next journey until you have visited your local garage or main dealer.

For a list of your local Federation members, phone the RMI Consumer Motorline on 0845 305 4230 (Monday to Friday, 9.30am to 5.00pm) or log on to the RMI's website and click on Find A Service to locate your nearest new or used car dealer. It couldn't be easier.

Finally, the DVLA strongly recommends that anyone considering purchasing a used car privately should take following practical steps to limit the chances of being sold a stolen vehicle:

Always have sight of the registration document V5 prior to purchasing a used vehicle.

Check the vehicle identification number (VIN) - sometimes called the chassis number - corresponds with the number on the registration document. This number can usually be found on a metal plate under the bonnet or is visible at the bottom of the windscreen on newer vehicles.

If you have limited knowledge of vehicles take an experienced person with you. Be wary of handing over cash to someone who has been contacted through a mobile number.

Check if the vehicle has been seriously damaged, notified as stolen or is subject to outstanding finance. The following companies provide this service for a fee - Carwatch UK Limited (Vehicle History Check) - 0330 331 0030, Experian (Car Data Check) - 0844 481 5661 and HPI Limited -