Buying a Used Car – Your Complete Checklist

Looking to get on the road without breaking the bank, or keen to stretch your budget to something more impressive than you could afford from the showroom? Buying a used car gives you the opportunity to save a huge chunk compared with what you'd pay new, but it could cost you if you don't have your wits about you. Read our checklist of things to be aware of, and give yourself the confidence to buy in the knowledge you're getting a good deal.

1. Work out your budget

Before setting out to shop for your used car, get your finances in order. Figure out whether you’re better off paying cash or financing the purchase somehow. If you do go down the financing route, work out how much you can use as a deposit and what you can pay each month. Set yourself a budget and stick to it – don’t be drawn into buying something you can’t afford.

2. Get a feel for the market

In these connected times, it’s easy to cast your eye over what cars are on the market within your budget. There are a lot of variables that can affect the price of a used car, but if you can get an idea of the kind of thing you’re looking for and how much it tends to fetch, you’ll be in a better position to judge whether you’re getting a good deal.

3. Decide where to buy your used car from

Would you be better off going to a dealership of some kind, a private seller, an auction or looking online? There are pros and cons to each and our expert guide looks at private sellers versus dealerships to help you decide what’s best for you.

  • Buying from a trader is often easier to navigate for buyers with limited car knowledge. Depending on the size of the operation, they will offer some degree of peace of mind in terms of the inspection they’ve put the car through and the warranty they offer.
  • Private sellers don’t have the overheads of garages to worry about, so they often sell vehicles for a cheaper price and are more likely to negotiate as they’re not trying to turn a profit.
  • Auctions can offer a bargain, but get carried away and you could end up paying well over the odds with no recourse to a warranty.
  • Shopping for a car online gives you access to a vast range of options, but are you confident the reality of your purchase is going to live up to the picture on your screen? It’s always advised to check the car out in person before buying.

How you balance these considerations depends to a large extent on what you want the car for. If you’re looking for a family car that will stand the test of time, the extra security offered by a reputable dealership might well be worth paying for. Remember that many of these used car dealerships now post ads and sell online as well.

4. Check the paperwork

A used car will come with a pile of documents, which you need to pay some attention to. If you’re buying from a private seller, check:

  • The listed keeper is selling the vehicle from the address stated on the VC5 logbook
  • The Vehicle Identification Number on the VC5 vehicle registration document matches the number stamped on the car’s chassis
  • The service history matches the car’s online MOT record at https://www.gov.uk/check-mot-history
  • That sales receipts prove ownership and don’t show any outstanding finance on the car
  • Whether the cambelt needs renewing (this can be an expensive bit of work)

View the car at the seller’s home so you can see their address matches the one given on the VC5 document. For a fairly small fee, the RAC can run a data check on the car’s history to reveal any hidden discrepancies such as it having been written off, or evidence the mileage has been clocked.

5. Inspect the car in daylight

Ideally, you’d also want to inspect it in good weather – paintwork can look very different under a shroud of raindrops. Check:

  • Engine – does it start OK? Are there any leaks, or excessive, blue or black smoke from the exhaust? What condition is the head gasket in?
  • Clutch and gearbox – how smooth does the gear change feel and sound; does the clutch biting point feel too high or low?
  • Wheels and tyres – do they show any sign of kerbing? Do the tyres have the legal minimum 1.6mm of tread?
  • Electrics – do the lights, windows, infotainment system and air-con all work OK?
  • Bodywork – any dents, scratches or rust? Large gaps between the panels might be evidence of shoddy repair work.
  • Windscreen – are there any chips or cracks that could mean it needs replacing?
  • Lights – can you see any cracks, internal moisture or fogging?
  • Interiors – do the seats have any tears or stains?
  • Fluid levels under the bonnet – low oil, coolant or screen wash could be signs of poor maintenance
  • Spare wheel – is this in the boot, along with a lifting jack and a locking wheelnut socket?

6. Take it for a test drive

Make sure you take the car for a test drive before you finalise the sale, and check the following:

  • Does it start OK from cold? Does the temperature gauge show the seller has been warming the car up in preparation for your test drive?
  • Does the temperature gauge shoot up to halfway and stay there? This could be a sign of a dodgy thermostat.
  • Do all the gears select easily?
  • Does the steering operate smoothly without tracking to one side?
  • Does the suspension feel like it’s working properly?
  • How does the engine sound?
  • Does it feel sluggish?
  • If you get a stretch of road to yourself, test the brakes. Check the handbrake too.
  • Does it feel like a car you’d be happy driving? As well as reassuring yourself it doesn’t have any faults you can’t live with, this is your last chance to check you’ve chosen the right car for you.

7. Negotiate

Not all sellers will be open to negotiation, but it’s a common part of used car purchases, especially from private sellers. Trying to play hardball is likely to be counter-productive – being polite and fair is more likely to produce results. If you think the car is overpriced, make an offer and be prepared to walk away. The seller might well call you back with a counter-offer. Dealers might be more amenable to throwing in extras like a free service than knocking money off.

8. Finalise the sale

If you viewed the car on a previous day, take the time to give it one last look over before committing to your purchase. Once you’re sure you are happy with what you’re buying and have carried out all the necessary checks, you can arrange to transfer the funds.

For car dealerships where the transaction is not via Gumtree, it’s best to use a credit card or debit card so the sale is trackable. Ask for a receipt, including for anything you’ve agreed such as work to be carried out before collection.

9. Make sure it’s taxed and insured

You’re legally obliged to take out insurance and tax the car before you drive it home. Get a quote in advance and phone up to accept it when you’re ready. For road tax, you can phone the DVLA’s 24-hour automated service on 0300 123 4321.

10. Know your rights

If you find that a vehicle bought from a dealer is in fact unroadworthy or not sold as described, and you can demonstrate this, there are various legal remedies open to you covering periods ranging from 30 days up to six years. If you bought the car on a credit card, you may be able to claim redress from the credit card company.

Buying a used car can be a tricky business, but if you do everything on this list, you can head into the buying process with confidence. Do your homework, keep on your guard, get out there and bag yourself a bargain.


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