• Don’t take the seller’s word for granted
  • Find a detailed checklist online to take with you when inspecting a vehicle
  • Take your time when making your decision

The internet has transformed the used car market. Gone are the days when your only chance of finding the second hand car of your dreams was to trawl through the small ads or ring round the local dealers in the hope they had something appropriate in stock.

Now, in the space of a few clicks online, you can get a tailored list of all the corresponding vehicles ranked by price, mileage and even the distance of the seller from your house, often featuring photos and financing options too.

Unfortunately, this convenience goes both ways: when buying privately, cars are usually ‘sold as seen’, but even when dealing with a professional it’s important to be vigilant.

1. What can I do before going to see the car?

Email the seller asking for the registration number, make, model and MOT test number, and then use the Department for Vehicles and Licencing Agency’s online vehicle enquiry service to check that the details you’ve been given match their records.

2. How can I trust the seller?

If you’re buying from a trader (i.e. a business that sells cars) the Citizen’s Advice Bureau recommends three main actions:

  • Look for an established firm with a good reputation.
  • Look for a trade association sign (e.g. the Retail Motor Industry Federation) or a sign that says they follow the Motor Codes code of practice – this means you can act through a trade association if something goes wrong.
  • Look for a trader whose cars have been inspected by an independent engineer or motoring organisation.

If you’re buying from a private seller you don't have the same legal protection as when buying from a dealer. Second hand car sales website Exchange and Mart advises you to meet a private seller at their home address and if you feel unhappy with the other party to trust your instincts and walk away. 

3. What should I do with the paperwork?

The first thing to ask for is the V5C vehicle registration certificate (‘log book’), make sure it has a ‘DVL’ watermark and that it is registered to the seller’s address.

“Make sure the details in the log book match the details you’ve been given and check the vehicle identification number and engine number,” recommends the DVLA website

Car sales website AutoTrader recommends examining the service history to make sure the recorded mileage is in line with the mileage displayed in the car and that regular maintenance has been carried out. Don’t be afraid to ask to see receipts for work done.

“Cars over three years old should be supplied with a valid MOT – check old MOT certificates to verify the car’s mileage, and contact the garage that completed the MOT test if you’re unsure,” recommends AutoTrader’s buying guide.

4. Is there anything I should watch out for?

A close look will often give you an indication of how a car has been treated – bumps and scratches are hard to hide up close. Depending on the age of the vehicle a bit of wear or tear can be forgiven but signs of rust should be taken seriously.

Leading car review magazine Whatcar? recommends checking for gaps between body panels and discoloured paintwork that could indicate a previous crash. It’s also worth checking the wheels and spare tyre treads.

5. How important is a test drive?

This is your chance to assess every aspect of the car, so never buy a car without testing it. That said, always make sure to arrange suitable car insurance prior.

Before starting up the engine, it’s a good idea to test all the electric functions on a vehicle. Turn the key in the ignition and check that the dashboard lights come on, then test all the outside lights, windows, heater, air condition, radio and other electrical devices the vehicle may have.

For the drive itself, AutoTrader tells buyers to always take a trip of at least 15 minutes and to try different types of road.

“Start the car when the engine is cold, and check for excessive smoke and unusual noises. Check the gears, brakes, steering and suspension work as they should, with no unusual noises and vibrations,” reads AutoTrader’s buying guide.

6. Can a warranty give me extra control?

When buying a used car you’ll need to decide whether you want to take the chance of unexpected repair bills or pay to take out a used car warranty.  Sometimes, dealers will include a form of warranty as part of the sale.

Even without a warranty, it’s worth knowing that you’ll still have legal rights even if the car you buy through a dealer turns out to be faulty. In the case of a problem it’s worth seeking legal advice as you may be entitled to a repair, the cost of a repair, or some or all of your money back.

If all this information seems like a lot to take in, don’t hesitate to print it out and take it with you when you go to visit a seller so that you don’t forget anything. Other detailed checklists exist online and are often a useful tool to use, but above anything else common sense remains your best ally when buying a second hand car. Happy hunting!