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Guidelines For Buying a Second Hand Car

Buying a second hand car, especially your first car, is very important and research and preparation is the key.  I have compiled a checklist of important considerations before you go to have a look at the car and once you are there in order to help you decide on your future transport.  Most sellers are genuine but unfortunately you may be unlucky enough to deal with one who isn't or is naive so this is designed to help you.  The checklist is by no means a full list or extant for every car but should be used as a guideline. I believe it to be a good benchmark to buying your car, especially if it's from a private seller.  If it's possible a reliable mechanic should accompany you.




Before your visit check that the car is worth the price by using a comparison website or magazine
Check the year of registration, size of engine, etc to similar makes.
Take a mechanic with you if possible.


Initial Questions:
Why are they selling the car?
What is the car used for?  (Pleasure or business)  Pleasure normally means less miles and better driven.
Has the car had a new gearbox and clutch?




Has the car got a tax disc?

Does the registration number on the tax disc match the car?

Is there a long tax? (as close to a year is preferable)

Check the Log Book (Vehicle Registration Document) Does the information match the car and the address where you are? (If the person selling the car is not the owner they may not know anything about the car.)

How many owners has the car had? (If there are a lot compared to the age it may mean the car is unreliable)

Has the car got an MOT? (a long MOT is preferable)Is the Certificate available?

Has the car been regularly serviced?Is the service history book available?

When was the car last serviced? (a service around every 12 to 20,000 miles is normal)


Inspection of the Car (Outside):


(Further to the first impression of evidence of accidents)

* Are there any differences in the paintwork between the doors and sills? *

Are there any gaps in the doors and bonnet / boot?Do the tyres look worn?

Are any of the tyres worn unevenly (If the front tyres are uneven it could mean the suspension or tracking needs checking)

Are any of the tyres worn unevenly (if the back wheels are uneven it could be a problem with the suspension)

Is anything looking loose or about to fall off

Is there any oil on the floor under the engine?


Inspection of the Car (Inside):


How many miles has the car run up? Base this on between 12 to 15,000 miles per year. (if there are more than this then problems may occur sooner than expected.) Diesel cars are usually better at handling more miles.

If the car has done more than 70,000 miles then ask if the cam belt has been changed (See the receipt)Does the car start up straight away? (Trouble starting up may prove problematic in the winter especially)

Does the engine management light stay on once the engine is started (It should go out.

If it doesn't there may well be a problem in the engine.)

The owner may say that it always stays on! (This is not acceptable)

Does the engine sound loud? (is the exhaust blowing?)

When started, did the exhaust blow out blue smoke or steam? (Let the engine tick over for 2 minutes then rev the engine loudly and check the exhaust for blue moke and steam again.)

Any evidence of these may mean problems with the engine.


Test all items: Test all heaters, windows, windscreen wipers and washers, horn, lights, seatbelts and seats

Do the pedals look worn?

Are they as worn as the mileage and age of car suggests?

What is the condition of the car like?

Does it look well looked after?

Do the owners use the car for transporting dogs etc??



Under The Bonnet:


(If the car is a private sale)  Does the engine look steam cleaned?  (An engine should have natural "dirt")  This may suggest the owner is hiding something like oil leaks etc. 
Does anything look rusty?  (Check around the terminals on the battery)
Is there any spilt oil around the engine?
Does anything smell of burning?
In the coolant expansion tank, is there any oil floating on the water in the tank?  (this would normally suggest an engine problem)


Test Drive:


A 20 minute drive is a good idea.  Try to drive up hills and on fast and slow roads.  Do not be afraid to give the car a good work out. 

Are there any rattles?
Do the brakes work properly?  Do they pull to one side?  Do they squeak?
Does the car pull well up hills?
Does the handbrake hold well on a hill (and not near the end of its working travel)
Does the car handle corners well and not feel as though it is losing grip on corners?
Does the controls smooth and no knocks?
Do the pedals respond well to pressure?



Under The Boot:


Check the spare tyre for condition
Does the car have a jack?




If something doesn't work or the owner doesn't know anything about the problem, then don't buy it until it is fixed!
If something is on the car then it should work.
If this is the car you like then suggest to the owner that you would like to take it to a garage to have it checked out by a professional. (£40 or so here is better than losing out a lot more financially!!!)
An increasingly common problem with buying a used car is unpaid finance. When someone buys a car with a loan, whether from a bank or other finance company, the car remains the property of the company who has leant the money and remains so until all monies have been paid back. Some people sell their cars while still owing money on them. If you buy a car that has an outstanding loan on it when you go to get insurance the company who is stilled owed money will track the car and will in all likely hood repossess it from you. To avoid this happening it is wise you get a car history check.


First Car Safety


As new and young drivers you road experience is limited. You are far more likely to be involved in an accident then an experienced driver. So when buying your first car it is wise to buy a car that has as many safety features as possible. Look out for
Air bags - designed to cushion your body during a crash. Driver and front passenger airbags are common. Side and rear passenger airbags are less common.

Anti-lock brakes (ABS) - under heavy braking ABS prevents the wheels locking up. This allows the driver to steer and brake at the same time giving better control and decreases the chance of skidding.

Traction control - this automatically monitors the amount of traction (grip on the road) that your car tyres have. If it detects any loss of traction then it automatically acts to counteract it.

Active head restraints - provide better protection from whiplash than standard head restraints.

Crumble zones - protect the occupants of a car by absorbing the energy created by a collision.

Euro NCAP star rating. This is an overall measure of how the car performs in a crash. You should aim to buy a car that has been given for or five stars.



Making The Decision: 


Is this the car you want?

Do not accept the first price.  Prepare to barter!!!!  Example:  If the price is £1100 then they will probably accept £900 to £1000.

...and finally

This is your life and this is a major decision.  Be sure it is the right one and do not be afraid to walk away if you are not satified.  There is always another car for you!


First of all decide how much you can afford to pay for your first car. Not just the sum to buy the car itself but also the running costs - car insurance, MOT, road tax, petrol, repairs and servicing.

With a figure in mind consider what category of car you want your first car to be in. As new drivers this is likely to be a small car or maybe small family car.

Then do your research. Magazines such as Parkers and The Which Car Guide rate, review and price all types and models of cars. Road tests will give you detailed information on performance, reliability, handling and other important points. When you come to negotiate the purchase of your first car such information will prove vital. You will know the price you should be paying, whether the model has any common faults, specific issues to look out for etc.

Now with a model and price in mind you're ready to shop. So what are the options when it comes to buying a first car?

Franchised Dealer


Usually better quality used cars but at higher prices. Good after sales services and assistance. Buying from a franchised dealer gives you maximum legal protection. Of course dodgy franchised dealers exist so look for an established company with a good reputation. Ask family and friends for recommendations. Generally speaking using a franchised dealer is a good option when buying a first car.

Independent Dealer

Often a wide variety of potential first cars at lower prices. However, variable used car quality and after sales service.


Potential to pick up a first car bargain. Car quality can be inconsistent however, and some dodgy cars can be bought. There is also little chance of financial comeback if the used car develops any serious faults. To get the best out of a car auction it is best to go with someone who knows about cars. Your usual legal rights may not apply if the seller issues a disclaimer, i.e. 'sold as seen', which excludes all or some of those rights. Read the auctioneer's conditions of business carefully to check whether this is the case.



Lots of used cars to choose from and low prices. However no after sales service and you could get ripped off. If you buy your first car privately you have fewer legal rights. The car must be as described but the other rules don't apply i.e. there is no legal requirement that the car is of satisfactory quality or fit for purpose. Car dealers will sometimes pretend to be private sellers to avoid their legal obligations and get rid of faulty or over-priced cars. Be suspicious when ads give a mobile number, when you see the same phone number appearing in several ads, when the seller wants to bring the car to meet you.



Never pay the ticket price. Always negotiate. If the seller won't drop the price then walk away, leave them your phone number with the instruction to give you a call if they change their mind and drop the price. Also don't be afraid to ask for a free or extended warranty, even a full tank of petrol.

Used Car Inspection


To help you decide whether a used car is worth buying take a look at this printable checklist. The checklist not only assesses the used car's condition but also the likelihood of it being a stolen or clocked car.

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