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Buying a used car

Couple buying a used carBuying a second hand car can be a fantastic way of slashing the price of your motoring bill, as they are far most cost effective than brand new vehicles, which see their value plummet by as much as half the instant they are driven off the forecourt (especially if you manage to ding your new buy whilst driving out of the showroom as I once did!).

There are however a multitude of risks involved in buying a used vehicle, many of which may go under the nose of the unwary buyer. Rather than rush headlong into a transaction, you should always take your time to make sure the car you're interested in is worth the money, and never let your heart rule your head.

Perils to avoid when buying second hand

Clocking

The value of a used vehicle is determined by a number of factors, and the mileage it has travelled is an important constituent of this. Even just a few thousand miles less on the odometer would be a big increase in value over a similar vehicle of the same model. Clocking is an illegal process that involves tampering with a vehicle's odometer display to make it look like the car has travelled fewer miles than it actually has, and subsequently increasing it's probable value.

Read more about clocking here

Car cloning

Cars can look so similar that it is possible to confuse one for another, unless you check the registration plates. But what if a dishonest seller were to fix the number plate of a good quality vehicle onto a dodgy vehicle of the same type? This is called car cloning, and whilst it is relatively easy to check the authenticity of a car, this practise still unfortunately goes on unnoticed by unprepared buyers.

Read more about car cloning here

Cut and shut cars

When a car has suffered an accident and the damage to it is too extensive to either repair economically or repair at all, then the vehicle is written off by it's insurers and sold as scrap. Some dishonest individuals may take these wrecked vehicles, remove the most obviously damaged sections, and replace them with parts from other damaged vehicles, welding them together with varying levels of skill. The resulting 'cut and shut' car then assumes the identity of one of it's 'donors' illegally, and it's creators attempt to sell it on as a road-worthy vehicle.

The quality of a 'cut and shut' can vary greatly, with some looking pristine from the outside, but hide dangerous faults that can literally cause the car to fall to pieces at speed. There are a number of checks available from providers such as HPI, the AA and RAC that should be able to identify possible 'cut and shut' vehicles. These can give you background data on the vehicle checked and help you single out any feasible problems.

All-purpose buying advice

No matter the car you're after, below are my hints and tips when buying a second hand car.

Set your budget

Do your paperworkThe price of the vehicle is not the only damage that buying a car will inflict on your wallet; there are many more costs to think of. You'll need to know how much tax you'll be paying every year, as well as what the insurance companies will be charging you for their services. As the car is second hand, it may need a bit of work doing, so you should find out how much that is likely to set you back before handing over your money.

If you're going to need a loan to cover the costs of the car, you should make sure that you actually borrow the money you'll be needing. Get some quotes from loan companies before setting your sights on any motors; if you find the car of your dreams, you'd better make sure you have the capital to cover it! Getting loan quotes will also help you work out whether that 'once-in-a-lifetime' finance package offered by a dealer is worth the paper it's written on.

Do your research

Check the price of the car or a similar one using our valuation tool, or look at classified ads for the same model and see how much they are going for. Knowing and keeping to a target price acquired this way will save you from being overcharged or taken for a ride by smooth-talking salespeople.

You should also check forum sites or 'owners club' type sites to see what other people are saying about the model of vehicle, as they are more likely to be vocal about any common problems or niggles they've had with their cars. It is always best to consider that people who are dissatisfied with their buy are more likely to be candid about their experiences than those who are happy with their purchase.

Do your viewing and test drive on a good day

Don't go on a test drive in rainy weather conditionsYou should choose a good day (if possible!) to view any car you're interested in buying, and go during the daylight hours, as many bodywork problems such as dents and chips can be easily missed at low light levels. The same advice goes for viewing a car in the rain or that is wet; cosmetic problems and other bodywork issues can be disguised by water. Take your time when viewing the vehicle and make sure you walk around and look at it from every angle. Possibly take someone else with you too - another pair of eyes could spot something you don't.

Find out the vehicle's service history

No matter how well-kept a car is, there will always be work that needs doing on it though it's lifetime. Any vehicle more than a couple of years old should have a decent stack of paperwork with it; old MOT certificates, service records, garage invoices and more. Looking though these papers, you should be able to spot any patterns. For example, regular bills for parts or mechanical work may indicate a persistent problem, or missing paperwork may mean the seller is trying to cover something up. There may even be no paperwork available for the vehicle, in which case if the seller doesn't have a credible excuse for lacking such documentation, it's best to walk away.

Check the V5C

Always make sure the seller shows you the correct vehicle registration document (V5C) for the car. This will show you who the registered keeper of the vehicle is, along with details about past owners. Firstly, you should make sure the person who is selling you the car is it's registered keeper, and if not then why not. Secondly, you should make a note of the previous keepers' details if possible. Previous owners are likely to know if the car has any longstanding problems, and may also be able to tell you about any work that has been done to the car in the past, what sort of mileage they covered during their ownership of the vehicle, and more. A significant number of different keepers in a short timeframe can also tell you that the vehicle could have problems.

Check the MOT

A vehicle without an MOT is not a great purchaseAny vehicle over two years old should have a collection of MOT certificates; one per year at least. If you have the car's V5C reference number to hand, it is also possible to view it's current MOT status online here: http://motinfo.direct.gov.uk/internet/jsp/ECSID-Internet-Status-Request.jsp. It is also possible to view historical MOT reports this way to, but only as far back as 2005.

You should make sure that the vehicle's mileage record increases at a steady rate with each recorded MOT. If there are any discrepancies, or even cases where mileage goes down (see Clocking above), then you should question the seller why this is so.

Be on your guard

My usual advice in life is "If something looks too good to be true, then it probably is". This goes doubly when buying a used car. What might look tempting with miniscule mileage and a low price is probably best avoided. That is not to say that you can't find a bargain, just that you should be wary of anything that looks too good a deal.

Cam belts

Along with the regular servicing that all cars should receive at least every year, there are important components in every vehicle that suffer wear and tear, and subsequently require replacement or repair at certain points in a vehicle's life. The most important of these is arguably the cam belt.

If you've ever suffered from a broken cam belt, you'll know how out of pocket it can leave you. You should check a vehicle's service records and make note of when the last cam belt change was. If it doesn't seem to have been done for a long while, you should check when such a change is due, and make sure the belt is up to date, or else put your engine at risk.

Get a handbook for the vehicle

When buying a second hand car, check the glove box for the vehicle's handbook, or ask the seller for it. It should ideally come with the car, as a replacement can be expensive to buy. Using this handbook, you should study the workings of the vehicle's security system. When you know how it is supposed to work, you should make sure it actually does.

The handbook should also be able to tell you what cars came with the car when bought new. Today's cars use ever more technological keys, and these can cost upwards of a hundred pounds to replace. Used cars are often sold with a spare key or two, but there is no actual legal requirement to govern the number of keys supplied. If there is no spare key included, or you need more than one, you should ask the seller about them, as you may be able to get them to include additional spares in the price.

Go on a test drive

A test drive is the perfect time to check how a car performs for you. First hand experience of driving a vehicle can give you the answers to many questions. Are the controls easy to use, and easily accessible? Is the driver's seat comfortable, and can you easily adjust it to your needs? Does the boot have enough space for your usual luggage?

Read more about test drives here

Be observant

Always spend a decent amount of time looking around the vehicle, and always enquire about anything you're not sure about. Can you smell the remnants of spray paint, or see any droplets on the trim or windows? This could mean that the vehicle has had 'repairs' done to it recently. Slight mismatching of colours on the bonnet and doors can also indicate this.

Be wary of a car whose engine bay has been power-washed before your viewing. This is often used to hide any fluid leaks that the car may have. The best time to check for this is after the test drive, as the evidence is more likely to be visible.

Interior fabrics

You should check the interior of the vehicle for any damage or stains on the carpets or seating. You may need to get them cleaned or replaced, depending on the severity of any damage or staining. You should also check beneath any seat covers, as they may have been put on to cover damage. Seating and carpets can be replaced, but depending on the features of the seats (heating, motors, airbags etc) they can be expensive.

Don't bow to pressure

The used car market is a buyers market, and there are many more cars around that could suit you. If the one you're looking at is giving you the wrong signals, then you should walk away from it. One typical tactic used by sellers to tug the heart strings is to offer a sob story about why they are selling their vehicle. Don't let them sway you, as at the end of the day you're not spending your money for their benefit, but for your own.

Don't hand over your money so quickly

Before parting with your hard-earned cash, make sure you've agreed with the seller on a number of points. You should make sure the seller has told you exactly what you'll be getting for your money, including all documentation and keys. If any repairs needs doing on the car, confirm to what extent the seller will be liable for this work. Be sure to get a receipt including the details of the car and any additional inventory, the terms of the sale, the agreed price, and of course make sure you have the full contact details of the seller, including a full address, not just a mobile number.


Don't rush into anything when buying a second hand car. Sure, they're good for cutting costs of your motoring, but they can also be a mire of problems if you don't take precautions. Happy hunting!

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