Buying a second-hand car: ten questions you must ask
Get the right answers - and buy with confidence, using the motors.co.uk essential guide
Buying a used car. For most of us, it’s not something we do often. And when the time comes, there’s so much to remember.
Managing a purchase smoothly and well comes down to one thing: asking the right questions before you buy. And here at motors.co.uk, we’re about to make things easy for you: here below’s a list of key things we think you should ask about. Whether you’re buying privately, from a small-scale used-car trader, a car supermarket or a big, glassy dealership – the process is the same. Keep what’s here handy and you shouldn’t go far wrong.
Can I see its registration document, MoT certificate (if needed) and service history?
If the paperwork’s not right, or is missing, you probably won’t want to risk buying the car. Don’t be fobbed off with excuses such as: ‘it’s in the post, ‘or, from a dealer ‘it’s at our other branch’. Once you have the relevant stuff, check that it belongs to the car by checking that the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) shown belongs to the car. Look at the base of the windscreen on the passenger’s side, where it is stamped under the glass.
Do the same with the service book and the MoT certificate, remembering that cars need MoT testing only once they reach three years old.
How long have you owned it?
If buying from the car’s owner, check that it’s his name on the registration document and that the answer he/she gives agrees with first registration date or that of the last change of keeper. If he or she gives a vague answer, be suspicious – is he or she really the owner?
If buying from a dealer, ask how long it has been up for sale.
Has the car ever been in a crash?
On average, a car will require body repairs once every 50,000 miles. That means, with older cars, it’ll be odds-on that at least one panel has had new paint. If the work is good, this shouldn’t matter. But a car rebuilt and returned to the road after a serious crash is another matter. A motors.co.uk free history check will show if the car was officially recorded as badly damaged to give you peace of mind. Even so, it never hurts to ask the seller.
Is there money owed on the car (to a hire-purchase company)?
If there’s an unpaid loan linked to the car, the owner may not be free to sell it. And, if you buy, you could end up with the debt as well as the car. History checks help avoid this problem by checking if there is any outstanding finance on the vehicle. For more information, visit motors.co.uk. Don’t rely on any history check report produced by the seller, whether he or she’s the owner or a sales person in a dealership. Any such report is only good on the day it was run – and a loan problem may show up after it was obtained.
Is the mileage genuine?
Cars are now so well made that a cared for 100,000-miler won’t look worn out. It’s tempting for crooks to wind back mileages because doing so adds hundreds of pounds to a car’s market price. And you won’t spot a ‘clocked car’ just by looking at it. A surer way to tell is, again, to look at the paperwork. Compare the car’s maintenance records with its mileage: do they match? Look at MoT certificates, past and present, too. We’d be suspicious of a car with an unusually low mileage for its age if it’s sold without any service records or garage receipts, unless the seller has a corker of a reason why that’s so.
What’s the car been used for?
Owned by a retired lady vicar and used solely for trips to church, or packed full of sales samples and gunned the length of the UK’s motorways? If you’re buying privately, you can gather clues by checking out the current owner and his or her home. Smart, clean people with tidy homes tend to look after their cars. Scruffbags with chaotic homes don’t. If you’re buying from a dealer, there are fewer clues available.
But check the ashtray to see if the car has been smoked in, while a strongly fragranced air freshener may be there to mask a doggy whiff that cleaning just won’t shift.
Can I test-drive it?
You should drive it for at least half an hour before buying. Don’t settle for a quick whizz round the block. Drive in every gear (not forgetting reverse) and check that all the controls work. Vary the route to take in faster roads as well as town. Leave the radio off and listen for knocks from the suspension or a noisy exhaust. If you’re buying privately, check that the seller’s or your own insurance covers you.
I’d like to buy the car but not at the price. Will you accept £?????
Some car supermarkets operate a fixed-price sales policy. But everywhere else, bargaining over the price is all part of the fun. Be firm, stay polite and ask for a discount twice as big as you think you’ll get. Get it right and you and the seller should meet halfway. If buying from a dealer, also ask for a free tankful of fuel or floor mats, if the car hasn’t any, to sweeten the deal.
You’ve agreed to sell it for £????. When can I collect it?
Make firm arrangements before you leave the buyer. Get them to promise a handover date and time in writing. Leave only a small deposit – 10% of the sale price should do it – and get a receipt for it, which should also state the sale price and any extras included, or that you’ve agreed to buy.
Can I have a bill of sale/receipt, please?
Proof or purchase is essential – and it’s good only if signed by buyer and seller. The order form used as standard by the car trade ds the job admirably. But if you’re buying privately, a hand-written note describing the car, confirming the sale and giving the details of both parties, is all you need. Beware any seller who is shy of committing his or her name to paper.