10 questions to ask when buying a used car

August 19, 2022 by

Are you looking to buy a used car? This guide will help you know what questions to ask to reduce the risk of buying a dodgy motor.

Buying a used car can be a nerve-wracking experience, but there are various questions you can ask to build up a picture of a used car and understand how well it has been looked after over the years.

Our experts have put their heads together to come up with some helpful questions to ask when buying a used car. If the seller is not forthcoming with any of the information or their answer rings alarm bells, don’t be afraid to walk away or investigate further.

1. Why is the car for sale?

It’s always worth asking a private buyer why they’re selling. There are plenty of genuine reasons, but they might give you some useful information, such as an imminent major service or a problem that needs fixing.

If you’re buying from a dealer, ask how the car came to them. Some dealers may buy carefully selected cars from private individuals or other dealers, others might resell trade-in cars, while some vehicles may have been picked up at auction.

2. What’s the mileage?

How many miles a car has clocked up can have a big impact on its value. As a general rule, higher mileage cars cost less, so unscrupulous car sellers might manipulate the reading to look lower. This is much harder on modern cars, but always ask what the mileage is in case the seller gives the wrong figure.

You can also put the number plate into the Government’s MoT checker and see the recorded mileage at each test to see if it tallies up with what’s being claimed.

But do bear in mind that a higher-mileage car that has undergone regular, scrupulous maintenance is a better bet than a low-mileage car that has sat, idle and neglected, for some time.

3. What service history does it have?

Asking about a car’s history can help unearth any potential issues or concerning gaps. You should ask whether the seller has owned the car from new. If not, did they know the previous owner? Does it have a full service history? Ask for the details of the garage or garages where the car was serviced.

It’s not necessarily a bad thing if they cannot give a detailed answer, but it can help you build a picture of whether the car has been looked after. Main dealer or specialist servicing is the preferable history to see, but a car serviced at a good independent shouldn’t set off alarm bells, especially if the work that has been done is well documented.

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4. What are the tyres and brakes like?

Tyres and brakes are among the most important parts of a car, but they’re also some of the most overlooked by owners. Have a good look at the tyres, not only making sure they have a good tread depth, but also that they do not have damage.

Having tyres from mismatched brands can also affect grip and handling, so raise this with the buyer if you notice it, especially if the tyres on the left of the car don’t match the ones on the right. It’s a good idea to replace axle sets together (IE both fronts at the same time, and both backs at the same time).

You should also ask the owner when the brakes were last checked and changed. On the test drive, listening out for any nasty metal scraping sounds and steering wheel wobble when braking, as this can indicate worn or damaged brakes.

And bear in mind that if maintenance has been scrimped on on these two basic areas, the rest of the car may not have been looked after that well.

5. Is any scheduled maintenance due?

Car parts need replacing over time because of wear and tear. Some parts simply get to the point where they no longer work effectively, while others need replacing at regular mileage intervals to avoid the risk of failure.

Asking the owner if anything needs replacing soon could raise important concerns, or simply help you negotiate a lower price.

One of the key things to find out if you’re buying a petrol or diesel car (including hybrids) is whether the engine is chain or belt drive. If it’s belt driven, cambelts need replacing periodically every few years or after a specific mileage. This is a big job that shouldn’t be delayed or neglected, and you don’t want to be left with an immediate bill if it hasn’t been done. Plus, if the previous owner neglected this fundamental aspect, what else did they fail to attend to in good time?

Also ask when the gearbox fluid was changed/is due for renewal if the car is an automatic. If you’re looking at a manual car, look out for any indication of clutch replacement, feeling for judder or a high biting point when pulling away.

6. Can I get a vehicle history check?

Vehicle history checks will uncover if a car has been stolen, written off by an insurer, or has outstanding finance. It will also confirm details such as the make and model, number of doors and the colour.

Many dealers will automatically put their cars through a history check, but given these are relatively inexpensive, it doesn’t do much harm to buy your own as well.

These checks are often known as HPI checks, but HPI is just one company offering such services.

7. Can I have the car inspected?

If you are not confident inspecting a car yourself, you can organise a third-party inspection. There are various companies, such as the AA, who you can pay to give the car a once over to see if there is any cause for concern. Again, the seller might be trying to hide something if they object.

8. How about a test drive?

It’s highly recommended that you drive a used car before buying it. Even if you don’t have much experience with cars, it could flag any major issues. You will want to listen out for any curious sounds, make sure the car drives straight and true, and responds smoothly to steering inputs.

Plus if you’ve never driven the type of car you’re buying, a test drive will help you work out if it’s the right car for you in general.

If possible, take in a variety of roads on the test drive. Speed bumps in town can help unearth suspension clunks, while a 70mph cruise on a motorway or dual carriageway may uncover tracking or balancing issues with the wheels (feel for pulling to one side or judders through the steering wheel, respectively).

9. Can I see all the car’s paperwork?

The two most important documents you want to see are the V5C (logbook) and the service history. The V5C has the owner’s details, so you can check they actually own the car, while the service history shows you where and how often the car has been serviced.

Any other paperwork that’s available will offer further peace of mind, such as receipts for repair work and replaced parts. More paperwork tends to mean a car has been better cared for.

It’s also a good sign if the car has the owner’s handbook; this can be replaced if it’s missing, but careful owners tend not to misplace the manual.

10. What warranty do you offer?

Second-hand car dealers offer a variety of warranty options. Many will give a three or six-month warranty as standard, with the option of paying for additional cover, often through third-party warranty companies.

Look over any warranty carefully to see what is and isn’t covered, and remember that even if the warranty is short, or the dealer won’t’ offer one, you’re still protected by the Consumer Rights Act, which (with caveats) assumes that the dealer is liable to put right faults that develops within the first six months of ownership; note this does not apply to private buyers, though.

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