How to buy a second hand car

If you’re looking to change your car soon, you may well have picked the perfect time of year – not only will the forecourts be flooded with brand new ‘14’ plates from March 1, there will also be a spate of second hand vehicles available as motorists trade up for newer models.

It could be argued that the smart money always goes on buying second hand – after all, depreciation can see as much as 40% wiped off the value of a new car during its first year on the road. But the used car market is fraught with potential pitfalls, from outstanding finance to fiddled odometers.

So here’s how to buy a second hand car…

Set your budget

The first thing to do is work out how much you can afford to spend on your ‘new’ car. You can then narrow your search and start looking for a suitable vehicle within that price range.

And once you’ve set your budget, make sure you stick to it – there will always be a slightly better car available for just a little bit more than you’re paying, but this is a sure-fire way to overstretch your finances that could leave you struggling for money.

There’s no point having a new set of wheels if you can’t afford to run it!

Payment options

At this point it’s also worth considering how you’re going to pay for your new car. If you’re raiding your savings and paying with cash then you should always ask the dealer for a cash discount.

If you’re going to be spreading the cost then you may be offered a finance package by the dealer, and while there may be some decent 0% finance deals kicking around, bear in mind that this may require you to pay a lump sum either at the start or the end of the agreement.

If the finance does not come interest-free, then bear in mind the interest rates are usually pretty steep and you may be better off paying on a credit card or using a personal loan. Read Rachel’s article for a full rundown of the best ways to borrow from £1 to £25,000.

Do your research

Whatever your budget, and regardless of whether you’re in the market for a £500 run-around or a £15,000 family workhorse, buying a used car represents a sizeable initial outlay – so make sure you approach any transaction with your eyes wide open.

This means working out what type of car you need – if you’ve a family of four to ferry around then that two-seater sports car is out, even if it does come with a roof rack. And remember to factor in the running costs, including fuel consumption, road tax and car insurance.

Then there’s the MOT, servicing and repair costs to consider, bearing in mind that both premium brands and less popular makes and models often come with higher repair bills as replacement parts are generally more expensive.

At this point you should also check a few online price guides, car dealers and auction sites to get an idea of the average price of the vehicle you’re after, and also do some research into whether your target car has any common faults or quirks – and factor these in when making your decision.

Give the car a thorough check

Once you’ve found the exact car you’re after, check it’s all above board by visiting the DVLA website and entering the make and registration number. You’ll then be given information on engine size, vehicle colour and date of first registration – if these don’t match up with the car you’re after, steer clear.

If you’re happy to go ahead, the next thing to do is to give it the once-over and take it for a test drive.

Check the bodywork for dents, scratches and rust patches, particularly under sills and wheel arches, and look out for uneven gaps between body panels which could indicate poorly repaired crash damage.

Ensure oil level and coolant levels are correct and, when buying a petrol car, make sure the oil is a light, yellowy-brown colour - dirty oil could signal poor maintenance. Also check for oil and water leaks as these can indicate serious engine problems.

Test all lights, heating and heated screens and non-engine electrics as these are the main cause of faults on used cars. And also make sure the radio is working properly – this isn't essential, but replacing a faulty radio is expensive and annoying.

On the test drive, make sure the car accelerates and brakes as you would expect and that the clutch and gearbox function correctly, and listen out for any odd 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, suspension or wheel alignment problems.

Second pair of eyes

 If you don’t know your bushes from your big end, it might be worth taking along a friend or relative who does, or it might even be worth paying a motoring organisation to send someone out to give it a professional check.

And because some second hand dealers aren’t averse to employing underhand tactics, check out Clare’s article for a rundown of the most common used car scams. If you’re buying online, it might also be worth checking out my article Fraudsters target online buyers.

Negotiate on price

So you’re happy with the car, it’s time to haggle over the price – that’s right, even if the car’s everything you wanted and more, it’s still worth negotiating to see if you can get a better deal.

In general, anyone selling a car will inflate the price slightly to provide some room for negotiation, so go in with a slightly lower offer as a starting point, and make sure anything like worn tyres and a short MOT are reflected in the price.

If you have a problem with your second hand car once you’ve bought it and the seller is being unhelpful, you can find out your rights by calling the Citizens Advice consumer helpline on 08454 04 05 06 or by visiting the website.

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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