Things to look out for when buying a second-hand car

Cars are one of life’s unavoidable big expenses. Buying a used car might seem the best way to save some pounds, but before you jump into the driver’s seat, read our guide to buying a second-hand car. 

Two girls sit in a car smiling and looking down.

How do I start?

If you’re looking for a new set of wheels, a second-hand car is a great option as they’re cheaper and usually better value for money.

You can buy second hand cars from local car dealerships around the UK, a private seller, (someone just selling their old vehicle) or at a live auction (where you bid either in person or online).

When considering which vehicle to buy, think about what you want your car to do. What size do you need? Will it be expensive to maintain or insure?

Make sure you ask the right questions. When choosing a car, ask the seller about the:

  • Service history: Not every car will have it, so ask to see examples of past repairs
  • MOT certificate: This is an annual test of vehicle safety. If the vehicle is three years old, it’s a legal requirement.
  • Mileage: Check the car’s mileage before to establish whether it’s been overused.

Should I buy a car from a dealer?

Car dealers are a good option if you:

  • Want to talk to someone in person.
  • Want to negotiate on price.
  • Need to part-exchange your old car and swap it for a new car.

Ask the car dealer:

  • Can I take the car for a test drive?
  • Is anything extra included?
  • Check the car’s road tax and MOT are up to date.
  • What does the warranty cover? This is a written guarantee to repair any defects within a certain time period. Make sure the warranty is equal to any charges you could face at a local garage.

Buying a used car at live auction

You have limited rights at an auction because if you buy ‘as seen’ and something is wrong, there’s little you can do. Some auctions offer insurance to protect you in case the car you buy is stolen. Others offer a cooling-off period – although this could be only a few hours.

Here’s some advice from Tim Naylor at British Car Auctions: “Do your homework and find out how much the car is worth and how much to bid. Bring someone with you who knows a lot about cars if you’re a novice.”

What about internet auction sites?

If you want to buy a car from the comfort of your sofa, an internet auction is for you. Downsides are that you can’t view the car in person or take it for a test drive.

Your rights change depending on the different types of sales on internet auction sites. For example, ‘Buy-it-now’ on eBay is not an auction sale, as you’re paying a set price rather than bidding. If you do this, you may well have the same rights as if you bought it from a dealer face-to-face.

Be sure to read through any online auction’s terms and conditions before you buy.

Buying from a private seller

Private sellers can offer good deals, although you have very few legal rights buying this way. The car should match its description and it must be roadworthy.

The seller must have a vehicle registration certificate and be the legal owner of the car. If they break a specific contract term, you may be able to claim against them.

Ask the seller:

  • If you can see proof of identity and ownership.
  • If you can check the car for any problems.
  • For a test drive.
  • To show you the car’s paperwork.

Do I need to pay a deposit?

If you put down a deposit but later decide you don’t want the car, you probably won’t get your money back unless the seller agreed it was returnable. But if you change your mind before you get the car, the seller can’t force you to buy it.

How do I pay for a car?

There are a number of ways to buy the perfect car for you, including:

  • Cash: If you’ve saved up enough this is the quickest way to buy a car.
  • Personal loan: You can take about a personal loan with your bank to buy the car outright and then make monthly payments over one to seven years.
  • Hire purchase: After paying a deposit of about 10% you make fixed monthly payments over a set period of time. You won’t technically own the car until the last payment is made.

There’s a problem with my car

Sometimes purchases don’t work out and you may want to try and get your money back. If your car develops a problem soon after you bought it, stop using it and return it along with its documents, such as:

  • Sales invoice: your receipt for your purchase.
  • Warranty: a written guarantee to repair any defects within a certain time period.
  • Credit agreement: a contract detailing the amount owed and the rules and regulations of the contract.

Depending on the fault and the severity of the problem, you can ask for a full refund, repair, replacement or compensation. You may need to get a second opinion from a trade association. Try the AA or RAC.

If the problem is severe and you part-exchanged your old car then you’re entitled to have it returned if it’s still available, or receive a full-value refund if it’s been destroyed.

If you think the seller isn’t operating in the correct way, contact Citizen’s Advice for help.

How do I make sure I’m not being sold a stolen car? 

If the seller claims not to have a vehicle registration certificate (a V5C), ask them to reapply for another from the DVLA before you buy the car. If you discover your new car is actually stolen, then unfortunately ‘your’ motor still belongs to its original owner.

More information

  • Go to Money Advice Service for free and impartial money advice.
  • Citizens Advice Bureau offer free help with housing, money and legal problems. Find your local bureau.
  • Call Money for Life's helpline for free on 0808 801 0666 to get the support you need on money, debt, benefits and more. Open 11am – 11pm every day.