5 top tips for buying a second hand car

A new car can depreciate by as much as 20% the second it leaves the showroom, and it can have as much as 40% wiped off its value within its first year on the road – so buying used could be seen as the more financially savvy option.

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However, the used car market is something of a minefield, making what should be one of life’s more pleasurable experiences often anything but: you spend hours online and on foot seeing what cars are out there, fending off pop-up ads and pushy salesmen, and when you do finally get your vehicle you spend most of your time on the road worrying that something is going to go very wrong, very soon.

That’s my experience of used car buying anyway - and I’ve certainly bought my fair share of bangers. There was the Citroen ZX that appeared to have an allergic reaction to engine oil. And that Rover Metro that was so adept at boiling engine water that it would’ve made a better kettle.

My foray into the world of classic cars didn’t go to well either, having owned one Beetle that relieved itself of its steering wheel  while I was driving – it actually came off in my hands – and another that insisted on having its starter motor massaged with a hammer before firing up its engine.

More recently, my last two cars have blown head gaskets on the exact same stretch of motorway, causing me to crawl into the same Little Chef car park to call my breakdown recovery service. Like a really rubbish version of Groundhog Day. With really rubbish cars.

So, to avoid making the same mistakes I’ve made and to try and ensure you get a decent vehicle at a fair price, here are five top tips to consider when buying a second hand car…

1. Work out the type of vehicle you need

This may sound obvious but the first thing to consider is the type of car you’ll need and how you’ll be using it. For instance, do you need an MPV with more than five seats, or would a standard family car be more suitable?

If you’re going to be doing a lot of motorway miles a more fuel efficient diesel may be your best bet, whereas if you’ll be mainly making short journeys around town you’ll probably want a car with a smaller, petrol engine. What about more eco-friendly cars such as electrics, hybrids or LPG models?

Once you have decided on the type of car you’re after, check what vehicles are available in that category, bearing in mind that a less sought-after make or model can offer better value for money and be no less reliable.

For instance, you will often find that a used VW Jetta is less expensive than a VW Golf, although the only real difference between the two is that one is a saloon and one is a hatchback.

You will also need to look at the running costs, factoring in fuel consumption, road tax and insurance as well as MOT, servicing and repair costs – it’s no use having a great car if you can’t afford to keep it on the road!

2. Work out how much you can pay

Once you know the type of car that you need you should get an idea of what exactly you can afford. The easiest way of doing this is to search classified ads online and in your local newspaper  as well as checking an online price guide as this will help you get a feel for the average price of the vehicle you’re after.

The cheapest way to pay for a used car is with cash – if you’re raiding your savings, ask the seller for a cash discount.

If you’re looking to spread the cost it’s a better idea to arrange the finance yourself, by taking out a personal loan or even a purchase credit card as these will most likely be a cheaper option than any finance offered by a dealership.

However, no matter how you choose to pay, it’s vital that you buy with reference to your spending power. There will always be a better car that’s just above your limit, but you need to stay within budget to avoid stretching your finances too much.

3. Find out about the car

So, the money is sorted and you’ve identified the car that you want – but don’t part with your cash just yet. First, complete an identity and history check on the car to make sure that it has never been written off, stolen or is not still part of a finance deal.

To check the car’s identity, simply visit the DVLA website and enter the car’s make and registration number. This will then give you information such as the engine size, vehicle colour, date of first registration, current road tax expiration date and cost of annual road tax.

If this doesn’t match the details of the car you’re considering then do not buy it. It could be a ‘ringer’ (has been given the identity of another car) and it should be reported to the police.

See what paperwork is available with the car – ideally it’ll have a full service history and old MOT certificates – and check the car’s mileage against old documents as well as any advisory notes on the last MOT certificate – this will give you an idea of any problems the car has.

Also check if the model you’re buying has any familiar faults and that these have either been dealt with already or are reflected in the price – I was stung when my Rover 25 blew its head gasket and later found out that this was a common problem on this model at around the 80,000 mile mark.

4. Check and test drive the car

First of all, try not to check a car at night or in particularly bad weather as there are things you can easily miss when the light is poor.

When inspecting the car, check the bodywork for dents and scratches as well as rust, particularly under sills and wheel arches, and for uneven gaps between body panels as this indicates poorly repaired crash damage.

Check the oil level is correct and, if buying a petrol car, that the oil is a light, yellowy-brown colour – dirty oil could signal poor maintenance. Check for oil and water leaks as these can indicate serious engine problems.

Test all the non-engine electrics as these are the main cause of faults on used cars, including lights, heating, heated screens and radio (although this isn’t essential, replacing a faulty radio is expensive and annoying).

Once you’ve given the car the once-over, it’s time to give it a test drive. You should take this opportunity to check the vehicle accelerates and brakes as you would expect and also that the clutch and gearbox function correctly.

Also listen out for any odd clunking or rattling noises that could be a sign of mechanical problems. When safe to do so, take your hands off the wheel to make sure that the car doesn’t list to one side as this could indicate tracking or suspension problems.

If you’re not particularly knowledgeable about cars, do you have a friend, relative or colleague who could help you out? A bit of moral support could be welcome at what is undoubtedly a stressful time.

If necessary, you can pay a motoring organisation to give the car a professional check-over.

5. Don’t pay the asking price

Haggling, negotiating, bartering; call it what you like, but it’s not something that many of us are comfortable with or good at.

However, no seller ever expects to get the advertised price so once you have a figure in mind that you want to pay, make them a lower offer as a starting point. That way there’s room for negotiation from both sides and you should both be able to agree on a price.

And, when haggling, remember to ask for a discount for paying cash (this only really works with dealers and not private sellers) and if there are any potentially costly jobs that will need doing in the near future. If, for example, the tyres are worn or the MOT is short, make sure this is reflected in the price.

After-sales advice

If you buy a car in an auction or from a private seller you will not have as much comeback, should something go wrong, as you would if you’d bought from a trader.

If you do have a problem with your second hand car but the dealer is being unhelpful then you can call the Citizens Advice consumer helpline on 08454 04 05 06 or visit its website.

Let us know some of your top tips when buying a second hand car on Twitter @LesRobertsMSM or - as Desperate Dad did - via our forum.

Please note: Any rates or deals mentioned in this article were available at the time of writing. Click on a highlighted product and apply direct.

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