Your Guide to Buying a Used Car

What to know before you start browsing.

Buying a used car can be cheaper than buying a brand-new vehicle. But there are risks involved, too.   

Here, we explore the pros and cons of buying a second-hand car, where to do your shopping, and what to look out for when inspecting and test-driving a used car. 

Ready? Let’s dive in. 

What are the benefits of buying a second-hand car?

There are several advantages to buying a used car:

  • They’re often cheaper: Depending on the make and model, used cars generally tend to cost less than brand-new vehicles. If you’re not too fussed about having the latest registration or the most up-to-the-minute specs, you could nab yourself a bargain. 
  • Less depreciation: From the moment you drive a new vehicle off the dealership forecourt, it loses around 20% of its value. A used car doesn’t lose its value as quickly as a new one, meaning you could potentially break even (or perhaps even make a small profit) if you sell it in the future.
  • Lower insurance quotes: As a rule of thumb, the older the car, the cheaper it is to insure. But it’s always worth double-checking when you’re shopping around for a used car — you’ll want to be sure the total (vehicle + road tax + insurance) is worthwhile. 

What are the downsides of buying a used car?

Of course, there are also a few disadvantages to purchasing a second-hand car: 

  • Sold as seen: The used car market is vast, but often, what you see is what you get. That means you’ll have little choice over colour or other preferences. On the flip side, if you buy new, you get to choose the spec for your vehicle as part of the deal. 
  • Patchy history: If you buy a used car from a private seller, you can’t always be sure if the vehicle’s history is entirely truthful. And although you’ll still have some legal action you can take if you’ve been sold a lemon (more on that later), it can be stressful. 
  • Limited or no warranty: Some used car dealerships will offer warranties and service plans with their vehicles, while others won’t. And if you’re buying from a private seller, this option is off the table. This means you’ll need to budget for servicing and repairs over and above the cost of the car.

How to buy a used car

You have several options when it comes to buying a used car. You can visit a reputable second-hand car dealership, purchase privately, or try your luck at an auction. 

Let’s take a look at each of these in a little more detail.

1. Buying a used car from a dealer

This is perhaps the easiest and most popular way to buy a second-hand vehicle. Using a reputable dealer can lower the anxiety associated with used car shopping.

The best part about going to a dealership is that their cars will be professionally valeted and rigorously inspected before being put up for sale. That means you can drive off in a clean, safe, second-hand motor at a fraction of the price of a new one.

Of course, these extra steps can raise the overall price of the vehicle. But if you’re looking for peace of mind, the safety checks and warranties offered by many dealers can be worth it.  

2. Buying a second-hand car privately

If you want to save money, buying a used car from a private seller can help your budget go further. 

There tends to be more scope for negotiation when buying privately, with many sellers keen to offload their vehicle for whatever they can get as they line up a new purchase of their own. You can also chat with the current owner and find out their reasons for selling, which might shed some light on potential issues. 

The downside to buying privately is that the vehicle probably won’t have the same level of safety checks as those sold by a dealership. This means you’ll need to carefully inspect the car yourself (or bring someone with you who knows cars) before committing to the deal. 

3. Buying a used car at auction

Used car auctions can be fast and furious affairs. But if you do your research, stay calm, and time it right, you could drive off with a bargain. 

The main disadvantage of buying at auction is that you won’t have a chance to carry out a thorough inspection of the vehicle, nor will you be able to test drive it. But if you know what you’re looking at (or you bring someone who does), you could buy a used car quickly and cheaply.

Find an auction near you: Repossessed Car Auctions in the UK: A Guide and List 

What to check when buying a second-hand car

Whether you’re buying from a dealer or pitching up to a private seller’s driveway, here are a few checklists to take with you: 

Used car visual inspection checklist:

Before you get behind the wheel, walk around the vehicle a few times, checking the following as you go: 

  • Bodywork: Are there any dents or scratches? Is the colour slightly different in places (perhaps hinting at a respray or repair following an accident)? Always inspect a used car in broad daylight. Doing so at night or when it’s raining can hide a lot of damage.
  • Tyres: How much tread do they have? If it’s below 3mm, you’ll probably have to spend some money getting them changed fairly soon after buying.
  • Electrics: Make sure you check everything, from the radio and air conditioning to the electric windows (front and back, if included). 
  • Glass: Look out for small chips in the windscreen. A chip can quickly become a crack, and a crack could mean a full windscreen replacement is required.
  • Under the bonnet: Check the fluid levels, look out for any leakage, and make sure everything looks relatively clean and rust-free.
  • Open the boot: If this make and model is supposed to have a spare tyre, is it in there? And does it have the accessories you need to change a tyre in an emergency?
  • Interiors: Is the upholstery clean, or are there any stains or tears? Is there any discolouration on the ceiling, or a noticeable smell? Some odours are hard to get rid of — especially from a smoker’s car.
  • Miles on the clock: Are the miles in line with the level of wear and tear you’ve noticed? A low number coupled with heavy wear and tear could be suspicious. (Read more about the National Mileage Register, which is there to help you from being scammed.)

Used car test drive checklist

Once you’re happy with your visual inspection, it’s time to take the used car for a spin. Here are some questions to ask yourself during or after your test drive: 

  • How did it start? Was it easy to start the engine on the first go? Did it take a couple of tries? If it’s tricky to get up and running, it could hint at underlying problems.
  • How was the clutch? Was it stiff? Was it easy to find the biting point? Did it shudder when you pulled away? Replacing a clutch can be expensive, so pay attention here.
  • How was the gearbox? Was shifting gears smooth or clunky? Did it make any crunching sounds? If the car is manual, did the gear stick move back to the centre when you took it out of gear?
  • How was the steering? Does the car have power steering? Did it work? Was the steering wheel smooth to turn, or did it feel heavy?
  • How was the suspension? Did it do its job? Or was the drive more uncomfortable than you expected?
  • How were the brakes? Were they responsive? Did you go hard, and did the car stop cleanly, without pulling to the side? Did you park on a hill? Did the handbrake work properly?
  • How was the engine? Did it run smoothly? Was it quiet? Or did it sound noisy? A loud engine doesn’t always mean it’s a powerful one. There could be something wrong.

Some used car buying FAQs

Let’s round things off by answering some frequently asked questions:

Is it OK to buy an old used car?

It can be! It all depends on how well the car has been looked after. Use our checklists above to inspect the vehicle’s condition, or bring a car-savvy friend or family member along to help. 

You may find that a car with 100,000 miles on the clock has been lovingly cared for, while one with only 10,000 has been driven into the ground. 

When is the best time to buy a used car?

New registration plates are introduced twice a year (March and September), at which point, the used car market is usually flooded with older vehicles, as owners look to upgrade. 

Try to aim your search around the end of spring or the start of autumn for the widest selection of used cars.

What are my rights when I buy a used car?

Whether you buy a used car via a dealer or from a private seller, the vehicle must be roadworthy (safe to drive), of satisfactory quality, fit for purpose, and as described in the advert or listing.

If the vehicle doesn’t match up to those requirements, you could be entitled to a full refund, repair, or replacement. 

Note: If you were told about a fault when you bought the car, you won’t be entitled to anything.

Visit the Citizens Advice website for more information regarding consumer rights when buying a used car.

What documents should I get when buying a used car?

When you buy a second-hand car, you must get the original (not a photocopy) of the V5C registration certificate (also called the V5C logbook), and a valid MOT test document.

You must never buy a used car without the logbook, no matter how tempting. Someone selling a vehicle without a logbook is trying to hide something (the car could be stolen, for example). 

Err on the side of caution and walk away.

What do I need to do before I can drive a used car?

Finally, before you can drive your new used car, you must be insured. It’s illegal to drive without insurance in the UK. 

If you think there’s a chance you’ll be driving home from a dealership or a private seller’s driveway in a new vehicle, line up a car insurance quote beforehand. Once the deal is done, you can simply log in or call up and accept the quote, making sure you’re fully insured and ready to roll.

Shopping for a used car? Get your car insurance quote here.

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