How to buy a second-hand car safely

Few motorists will be able to afford a brand new car from March 1 when the new registration plates hit the nation’s forecourts – but buying a second-hand vehicle could be a feasible option.


Used cars can prove excellent value for money and be a worthwhile investment. However they can also prove a risky business, with potential pitfalls including outstanding finance secured against the vehicle, fiddled mileage and even being lumbered with a stolen car.

Here, we take a look at what you should be aware of when buying a used car so you can prevent your new wheels driving you mad – and costing you a fortune.

Outstanding finance

Unpaid finance on a used car is one of the most serious and potentially costly situations a buyer can find themselves in. According to the vehicle data provider, HPI, one in every four used cars it checks are found to be in this situation.

The unpaid loan therefore falls on the shoulders of the new owner to pay while the fraudsters walk away with your money – and no debt. So not only could you lose cash, it is also likely you would have the car seized so that the finance company can recoup their losses. 


This is an illegal practice in which the odometer of a vehicle is altered so it appears to have fewer miles on the clock. This clearly attracts a higher price – which could leave you open to being fiddled out of hundreds of pounds.

According to the AA, most cars average around 10,000 miles a year, so do your homework and check the age of the car against the mileage to be sure nothing is amiss. Tell-tale signs include worn screws on the dashboard, worn pedals and a shabby steering wheel on a car that has supposedly not travelled very far.

Cut and shut

This is when the remains of two cars that were written off in an accident are welded together to form a new vehicle, which takes on the legal identity of just one of the cars. This can be extremely difficult to spot just by looking at the car.

Cloned cars

The equivalent of identity fraud, this is when a car that is an identical match to another has its number plate swapped to either disguise the fact that it is stolen or so the owner can avoid parking tickets and fines. Worryingly, you would only become aware of this if you suddenly started receiving fines that you knew didn’t apply to you. Therefore, be cautious of anything without a V5C registration document which is consistent with the car’s age.

How can I protect myself?

The most comprehensive means of ensuring you don’t fall foul to dodgy dealings is to get a professional check. HPI offers this service from £19.99 and will look into the car’s history to ensure that it is all it seems. 

It will verify whether there are any outstanding loans left on the car, if it has ever been written off or reported stolen, whether the mileage has been tampered with and if it has a good CO2 rating. For peace of mind, it’s a small price to pay and in the long run could save you thousands.

The AA also offers a data check along with an in-depth vehicle inspection to make sure that your car is safe and roadworthy. Prices start at £125 for AA members and £139 for non-members but the cost depends on the engine size and the type of inspection that you want. More details can be found on the AA’s website.

How to finance your car

Once you’ve found the right second-hand car and had it checked for any irregularities, it’s time to think about the best way to afford it.

While you may want to secure finance through the dealership where you buy your car, it may be worth considering getting a more competitive rate of interest by applying for a personal loan direct from the bank.

There are some good rates on offer at the moment on personal loans, so it is definitely worth shopping around to see what is available. You’ll need to decide on the term you want to borrow the money over and exactly how much you’ll need. MoneySupermarket’s loans channel allows you to compare a variety of loans and find the best deal for your circumstances. 

The current market leader at the moment is M&S Money.  For loans of between £7,500 -£15,000, it charges a representative APR of 6% over five years. Following not far behind are offerings from Sainsbury’s Finance and Tesco Bank that both charge representative APRs of 6.1% for the same loan amounts.

Bear in mind that if you don’t want or need to borrow that much or would prefer to repay it over a shorter time period, the rates are likely to be higher.

So there you have it.  Buying a used car really needn’t feel like a gamble – so long as you are vigilant and aware of the potential pitfalls. For peace of mind have your second-hand car professionally checked – then get out on the open road and enjoy it.

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.

Did you enjoy that? Why not share this article

Take control of your energy bills

Our handy tips and tools will help make sure you never overpay again

Popular guides