Driving a bargain

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Buying a used car can be a time-consuming and stressful business. First you have to decide on what you want, and how much you’re prepared to pay. And don’t forget about the cost of running and insuring it.

But let’s assume you’ve worked all that out - you know the make and model you want, down to the paint colour. If you’re buying used, you’ll need to decide where you want to buy.

Forecourt or kerbside? Trader or private?

There are advantages to buying from an established and reputable dealer, especially if you’re not an expert. A main dealer or a big garage will usually put their cars through a rigorous inspection and provide a decent warranty. You might also get more choice when you buy this way. All this convenience and peace of mind come at a price, however. The alternatives include buying from a ‘driveway trader’, at auction, online or from a private owner. There are pros and cons to each of these approaches.

A driveway trader will typically buy cars from auction and sell them at a relatively modest profit, so you might get a bargain. A trader should offer a repair, replacement or refund if the vehicle is deemed not ‘fit for purpose’ - but this is usually limited to 30 days from when you buy it.

Buying at auction could save you the trader’s profit. Remember though that vehicles passing under the hammer are usually being sold for a quick sale, and come with little in the way of a warranty.

You can buy online through sites like eBay, where you place a bid or hit ‘buy it now’. You’ll normally have to pay a deposit via Paypal, but if you’re not satisfied the car is ‘as described’ when you see it in the flesh, you can walk away. If you just change your mind, however, you could lose your deposit.

Then there’s buying privately from the owner. This could get you a great deal, as a private vendor is usually keen to get rid of the vehicle and doesn’t have to make a profit like a trader. On the downside, you don’t have much comeback if the car breaks down when you drive it home.


Viewing the car - what to look for

So you’ve identified a car you like the look of. You’ll want to examine it carefully - especially if there’s no dealer warranty. Now you really have to do your homework. 

You should be able to find specific pointers for most models online - a Google search should turn up some advice. But here’s a general checklist of things to look out for on any car.

    • Dents and dings. It may seem obvious, but check the bodywork in good light, and when it’s not raining.
    • Panel gaps. Large gaps can be a sign the car’s been badly repaired after a crash. Be prepared to walk away if you spot them.
    • Tyres. The legal minimum tread depth is 1.6mm, and anything less than 3mm means you’ll probably have to change them soon.
    • Fluids. Low levels could be a sign the car’s been badly maintained, or indicate an expensive underlying problem.
    • Under the oil cap. Check for a white substance, a bit like mayonnaise. It could be a sign of head-gasket failure - an expensive fix.
    • Electrics. Check the radio, air-conditioning, electric windows and lights.
    • Glass. Check all glass for chips, especially the windscreen, where a chip in the driver’s eye-line can be an MOT failure.
    • Wear and tear. You’ll expect wear to reflect the age and mileage of the car, but worn out upholstery on a car with relatively low mileage might indicate it’s been clocked, so beware.
    • Paperwork. Check the V5C - also known as the registration document or log book. Make sure the make, model and number plate are right. You can also check that the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) on the document matches the VIN on the vehicle.

A quick history lesson

Organisations like the RAC can offer a data check to make sure the car hasn’t been reported stolen or written off.

You’ll want to check the car’s service history and MOT. A full service history, showing the car’s been looked after by a reputable dealer or garage, is a bonus on a cheap runabout. On a more expensive car, it could be seen as essential.

Organisations like the RAC can offer a data check to make sure the car hasn’t been reported stolen or written off, or if there’s outstanding finance on it. You can also now check a car’s MOT status online.

The test drive

This is the fun bit - or at least it should be, if the car’s a good one. But don’t get carried away, because now is the time to do some more vital checks.

  • Comfy? If you buy the car, you’ll be spending hours in it. So you want to make sure the driving position suits you, and the seats are comfortable.
  • A good starter? If the car doesn’t spring effortlessly into life, it might need a battery or alternator.
  • Keep an eye on the gauges. Check the car starts easily when cold and warm. If the seller’s warmed it up before your drive, ask why.
  • Check clutch, gears and steering. Beware of slipping clutches, crunching gears or a heavy wheel. Putting these kind of problems right could cost more than the car itself.
  • Listen. Even if you’re not an expert, you should be able to hear whether the engine is running smoothly or not. So turn off the radio and open the window. While you’re at it, drive over a bumpy road and listen for clunks from the suspension.
  • Stop and go. Check the brakes, preferably by braking hard (when it’s safe to do so). Check the handbrake too. And try putting your foot down to accelerate (again, when it’s safe and legal to do so), because if the car is sluggish there may be an expensive underlying problem.


And take your time….

This is not an exhaustive reference, but our tips should go a long way in helping you buy a sound, good-value used car that will serve you well for years to come.

Before you sign anything or hand over your hard-earned cash, however, consider there are always lots of cars for sale. Unless it’s a rare collector’s item, the chances are there’ll be another one along in a minute that’s just as good. So take your time and make sure you’re entirely happy before you commit.

And remember you have to take out insurance and pay the vehicle licence duty before you drive away!