What to look for when buying a used car

Buying a used car can be a difficult and often time-consuming process. This detailed guide will help you choose the perfect used car and get it for the right price.

If you’ve already chosen your ideal new car, view the best used car offers or read our used car finance guide for more information. For help picking the perfect car, read our list of the 10 best used SUVs, our top 10 family cars list or our best small cars list.

What used car should I buy?

You should make sure the car you buy will be fit for purpose. A high-riding SUV may have all the space you need inside and big boot but, if you’ve only got a small garage to park it in, a practical estate car may be more suitable. Our car chooser tool will help you get a better idea of exactly what you should look for in the second hand car market.

To help you pick the perfect make and model, read as many reviews as you can lay your hands on. For cars that are still on sale, our detailed car reviews and videos will help you get a good idea of their pros and cons. For older used cars, forums and customer reviews are a good place to look – they’ll help you find out if a specific model has a history of reliability problems or if a product recall has ever been issued.

How much should I pay for a used car?

It’s important to have a clear budget in mind when buying a used car. A major benefit of buying used is that expensive new models often suffer from steep depreciation (loss of value) and could represent excellent value for money in the used car market.

Mileage can have a huge impact on the price of a second-hand car, too. This isn’t always a cause for alarm, however. Providing a car’s been properly maintained and comes with a good service history, there’s no reason not to grab a high-mileage bargain.

In contrast, it’s often sensible to steer clear of suspiciously low-price, low-mileage cars or vehicles that have been left standing for a number of years. As the old adage goes, if a deal seems too good to be true, it probably is.

Cars with particularly desirable optional extras or decent standard equipment will probably cost more second hand. Expensive paint schemes in lurid colours are, however, unlikely to attract many buyers and can often be snapped up for less than more sober grey and silver offerings.

How much will a used car cost to run?

You should consider both how much a used car will cost to buy and how much money running costs and maintenance will set you back each month.

Not all cheap cars will be cheap to run. A nearly new supermini may cost more to buy than an aging two-seater sports car but it’ll almost certainly cost less to run and should prove cheaper to insure, too.

If you’re looking for a used car made after 1974, you’ll have to pay road tax. If it was registered before March 2001, the amount you’ll pay will be based on engine size. Cars with engines smaller than 1,594cc will cost you £145 per year while cars with larger engines will cost a flat rate of £230 per year.

If you’re looking for a used car registered after March 2001, the amount you pay will depend on its CO2 emissions. Electric cars and efficient hybrids that emit less than 100g/km will be free to tax while cars that emit more than 255g/km – such as some high-performance sports cars – could put a £500 hole in your wallet each year.

Can I check a used car’s history before I buy it?

Yes, and we strongly recommend you do. Head over to the MOT history checker on gov.uk and enter the car’s registration (number plate) and make. You’ll find an archive of all the car’s available MOT certificates including its annual mileage and a detailed list of any advisory notices or reasons for failure since 2006.

Comparing the car’s service history to its MOT test history will show you if any necessary work has been carried out to make sure it’ll run smoothly and safely. It’s best to avoid cars with a patchy service history or missing MOT tests.

Some used cars may have outstanding finance as a result of previous owners not keeping up with monthly loan repayments. There are many services available to help you check a car’s history before you buy it, helping you dodge unwanted fees or worse. These checks cost as little as a few pounds but will help you avoid cars that have been written off, have outstanding finance or have ever been stolen.

What should I look out for on a test drive?

The best way to judge whether a used car is worth the asking price is to jump behind the wheel and take it for a spin. We’ve put together a detailed test driving guide but, for used cars, there are a few extra points to consider.

Is the car already warmed up when you arrive? If so, the seller could be trying to hide a particularly nasty noise or filthy black smoke that only makes an appearance when the engine’s cold. Ideally, start the car yourself and make sure all fluids are topped up and clean.

Are all four tyres in good condition? Badly worn tyres could be a sign of drivers unwilling to fork out for regular maintenance and high-quality replacement parts. Mismatching tyres could be a hint that cost-cutting may be more than just skin deep, too.

Do any body panels look a bit too shiny or a slightly different colour? Are panel gaps straight and consistent? If anything looks not quite right it could be a sign of sub-standard repairs or, worse still, a cut-and-shut. This is where two cars are welded together to mask the damage from a serious crash.

If possible, test drive a few different versions of the same model. That way you’ll get a better idea of how each car should drive and you can decide for yourself whether “they all do that” or if the seller is just making excuses.

What’s a V5C document and do I need one?

The V5C document is one of the most important sheets of paper that’ll come with a used car. it states the name and address of the registered keeper and lists the number of previous owners. If a used car doesn’t come with a V5C, ask the seller why. If they can’t provide a good enough reason, walk away.

When you buy a used car you’ll have to complete a section of the V5C with your name and address and send it to the DLVA – or complete a section on the .gov.uk website. You’ll receive an updated form in the post a few weeks later that’ll list you as the car’s registered keeper.

Should I buy my used car from a dealer or a private seller?

Used car dealers often provide the option to finance a used car. A personal finance package could help you get behind the wheel in return for a deposit and a number of monthly payments instead of a single cash sum. Used cars bought from dealers often come offered with a warranty, too – faulty parts will be replaced free of charge for a specific period or mileage after purchase.

If you plan to part exchange your old car, a dealership is probably your best bet. Providing your car is in fair condition and comes with an MOT and all the necessary documents, most dealers will be happy to take it in against a new car.

You’ll probably not be offered these features if you plan to buy from a private seller, but the asking price could be noticeably cheaper than from a dealership. Working out if a stranger’s car is good value – or even whether it’s safe to drive – can be daunting for some buyers, however. If you’re unsure, take a friend or qualified mechanic along with you to give the car a detailed once-over. As a common courtesy, we recommend you contact the seller first to make sure they’re happy for you to do this.

Save money on your used car

Check out the latest car offers from our network of trusted dealers. If you’re not sure what to buy, head over to our car chooser tool or use our PCP calculator to get a better idea of how much a new car could cost per month.

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