Buying a used car – tips and tricks

There's no right or wrong way to buy a used car, but there are things you need to do to make sure you don't get ripped off. This brief guide will help you to find the car of your dreams at a price that you can afford. This guide is written from a British point of view, but the same principles apply elsewhere.

A car salesman, yesterday

First step – What car?

Some people, when looking for a new car, simply browse the ads, see what's available, and go from there. Others, like myself, have an idea of the type of car they want; estate, hatchback, Ford, Saab, diesel, automatic, whatever - and then look within their criteria. Some have a fixed idea of the exact car they want and do a somewhat limited search - better if money is no object. For the rest of us, a budget needs to be set.

Once you're decided on the budget and/or car you want, look around. Sites/publications like Autotrader (link below) and papers like BuySell and Loot can be helpful in finding your next car, as can your local car auction - look online or in your local paper to find your nearest one. Auctions can be good for getting a bargain but for the remainder of this guide I'll be focusing on private sales at a seller's home, as that's where I've had the most experience.

Next step – Arranging a viewing

Look at the advert - is there a landline or just a mobile (07) number? Some sellers only put their mobile numbers for safety reasons, which is fine, but when you call them, ask if you can take a landline too. If the advert gives a landline but specifies a calling time - be wary as this can indicate a phone box number (one possible sign of a dodgy seller). Try calling the number outside the specified time to check. It could just be that the seller is at work at certain times.

When you speak to the seller, don't say 'I'm calling about the Ford Fiesta in the paper'. Simply say 'I'm calling about the car'. If they ask 'which one?', it might be that they are a car dealer, and possibly untrustworthy.

Assuming the seller seems fine up to this point, ask to view the car. Always try to make this during daylight hours for obvious reasons, and preferably at the seller's home. This is another way to test the genuine nature of the seller. If they live a long way away, meeting in the middle is acceptable, but otherwise, the seller should be fine with you going to their home.

Before going to view a car, it's worth getting a vehicle history check (VHC), especially if the car is costing over £300. This check will tell you all the registered owners, any accidents and other useful bits of information. It will also tell you if the car is stolen or under a current hire purchase - if this is the case, the car wouldn't legally be yours, so walk away.

It might also be worth seeing what the car insurance and tax would be on your potential new car. Parkers guide (link below) is a good tool for telling you what insurance group a car is in, and you can use online quotation sites to find out a rough price. Remember any car with modifications such as alloy wheels or bodykits will raise your insurance.

Rust damage on a door panel

Then – Looking at the car (outside)

Let the seller 'sell' the car to you first of all; this will give you an idea of how well they know their vehicle. If they seem vague or unwilling to tell you much, or just invite you to look for yourself, alarm bells should ring; it might not be theirs to sell. If they're selling it for a friend, ask if you can call the friend to ask some questions.

Once you're satisfied with the seller's status, check over the car yourself. Some just glance over the car, kick the tyres, peer inside and deem it fine. This method is OK if you're buying spares/repair but for those of us who want a roadworthy, legal vehicle there are more stringent checks to be made.

Look at the tyres, including the spare. Is the tread worn on them? A full set of new tyres can be expensive. Check the tread by taking a 10p coin and placing it in one of the grooves. If the tread doesn't reach the lettering around the outside of the coin (1.6mm) - it's not road legal. Check each tyre and valve for signs of punctures - not always obvious but wetting your finger and running it along any suspect marks can reveal holes. Look at how the tyres are worn - a little wearing is acceptable but more wear on one side than the other can indicate misaligned tracking or balancing, which can be expensive to repair.

Cast a beady eye over the bodywork. Are there any rust patches, holes or scratches? Small surface scuffs aren't too bad but rust holes can be nasty to fix, and if close to wheel arches may even be an MOT fail point. Is all the bodywork the same colour? If a door panel or bonnet is a slightly different shade or texture it may have been replaced after an accident.

If possible, look under the car. You need to check for signs of welding and rust, particularly near the axles and around the engine bay. All panels under the car should be flush - misaligned panels or patching can indicate an accident.

Now – Looking at the interior

Check the mileage and registration, this will give you an idea of how much the car has been used. For example, I have a '93 Cavalier that's done 170k, it's still a good runner which starts first time, yet you can tell it's been used a lot!

Look at the seats, steering wheel, footwells (especially the driver side) and pedals for signs of wear. A car which has only done 50k shouldn't have a sagging seat or a worn-out steering wheel. Look around the speedometer and milometer; an older style milometer (barrels with numbers on) can be turned back to give false mileage. A newer version can be altered using a computer; if in doubt, look at the MOT certificates, service histories and the logbook - it goes without saying that you shouldn't be buying a car without the logbook at least! Check that the seatbelts work; it's a legal requirement for an MOT pass and belts that don't snap on may point to a car that has been in a crash.

Next – Under the Hood

Open the bonnet and look at the engine, preferably when it's cold (another good reason to view at the seller's house). If you're not a mechanic you may feel a little silly doing this, but there are still things the layman can spot. Is the engine covered in oil, or is it reasonably clean? An oil-covered engine is a bad sign that the car either hasn't been taken care of, or that there's an oil leak. Check the dipstick, there should be a good level of oil in there. Then, check the radiator water and (if applicable) power steering fluid - all should be at the recommended level. If any are below the minimum, it's a sign that the car hasn't been taken care of.

Open the engine cap and check the oil inside - it should be a golden colour. If it's black or a sludgy brown it might be indicative of engine damage. Examine the engine cap itself; if there's a white substance around the threads or the hole it could mean a damaged head gasket, which can be pricey to replace.

Most importantly, check the VIN (vehicle identification number) plate, screwed under the bonnet on the engine bay. The number should match the one on the log book, MOT certs. and the VHC (if you had one done), and there should be no evidence of tampering or re-fixing. If something doesn't add up, walk away.

The test drive

Never buy a car without driving it first. Start the car from cold so you can see and hear what the engine is like. Drive it yourself, don't let the seller do it. If you don't have the right type of insurance which covers you for all cars, ask them to drive you to a car park or somewhere else off-road so you can try it out.

Listen to the engine, don't chat to the seller. You're listening for any rattling, clunks or other strange noises. Does the car handle ok for you, is the steering true? The general feel of the car should give you an idea of whether it's the car for you. Try an emergency stop; the brakes should hold up to this.

Finally – Passed?

You may feel silly or even cheeky doing all these checks, but a genuine seller will appreciate your interest in the car, and will have nothing to worry about. Look at their body language; if they appear on edge it might be a warning sign. Either way, don't let them put you off.

Your aim is to make sure the vehicle is worth the asking price. Each little thing can be a potential discount, so don't be afraid to point them out. Anyone who knows what they're doing when selling a car will list it for more than they expect to get, so this gives you haggling room to begin with. Minor faults like slightly worn seat covers won't get you much off the price; more expensive faults like worn brake pads will. If you sound confident a seller will be more likely to knock the price down; at the end of the day they want to sell you their car, so it's in their best interests to meet your terms and not the other way around. If you have to, lie and say you're due to look at other cars as well, or appear uncertain about the price or the condition of the car. It can help if you have the money you're prepared to pay in cash - if, for example, the car is listed at £2500 and you happen to have £2000 in your pocket, that's a big incentive for a seller to accept. Cold hard cash is hard to turn down when it's waved in your face!

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