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Your rights

No matter what vehicle you're buying or who you're buying it from, you should never hand over your cash or sign any contract unless you're 100 percent happy with the purchase. Literally millions of second hand cars are bought and sold each year in the UK alone, and there will always be similar vehicles available to you should you not feel confident with the one you're thinking of buying.

If you get a sniff of something up with the car you're looking at, or it's background looks a bit patchy, it's best not to go ahead with the sale. The law might indeed be in your court, but going through the rigmarole of court dates and other timewasting appointments to get your money back is better avoided.

Your actual legal rights depend on who you're buying from, whether it be a nationwide dealership or a private seller. Buying from the big dealers will give you more protection, but will leave a bigger dent in your wallet; buying privately will most often get you a cheaper car, but any legal troubles may be harder to overcome.

Buying from a car dealership

Man haggling with a car dealerBuying a car from an established dealership is often the safest method of getting a new set of wheels. It offers the least amount of risk, and a good amount of legal protection. Dealerships are required to clean and maintain their vehicles prior to sale, and this includes a variety of checks, including checking for any possible clocking.

The Sale of Goods Act (1994)

Purchasing any car from a dealership, whether it be second hand or brand new, is covered by the Sale of Goods Act. Under this act, anything you buy from the dealer must be 'as described', 'fit for purpose' and 'of satisfactory quality'. To put this simply, it must be in working order and as advertised by the dealership.

Also as part of this act, if the vehicle does not come up to the basic standards above, they are legally required to remedy such problems. The dealer must also have the right to the vehicle legally.

'Fit for purpose' means that the vehicle is able to perform all the usual tasks that a car should be capable of, as well as any purposes that you may have informed the dealer about before the sale, and any other purposes that may have been advertised with the vehicle.

'Of satisfactory quality' means that the car must be of a decent standard depending on a number of factors. These factors include the make, mileage, age and history of the vehicle, as well as others. For example, an older car would not be anticipated to perform as well as a young vehicle, but should sill be in a decent condition, roadworthy, and reliable to operate.

Dealerships are liable for any problems with the car that are present at time of purchase. The presence of such problems means that the car was not 'of satisfactory quality'. Also, such problems may only be apparent some time after the sale. Dealerships however can not be liable for standard wear and tear on a vehicle through it's daily usage. They also cannot be liable if they fully described to you any problems or faults that the car may have at time of purchase, and you agreed that you understood this.

The Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations (2008)

Car dealerships also have to follow the rules laid out by the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations (2008), which legally prevents them from participating in 31 'banned trading practices'. To put it succinctly, this prohibits them from giving any false information about their vehicles, or deliberately withholding information about the vehicle's past or any problems it has. It also bans them from using aggressive sales techniques, such as pressurising customers to buy additional products when buying a car.

Remember to ask questions

Always ask questions of the dealership, particularly if you are unsure about anything. Don't be fobbed off with curt answers and half truths. Dealerships should be able to tell you what kinds of checks they have carried out on the car, and the results of such tests. They should also be able to provide you with it's number of prior owners, and tell you whether it has suffered any accident damage or other repair work. You should also check if the dealer is signed up with any codes of practise, and also get details on the procedure should a customer have any complaints. Lastly, remember to get any agreement down on paper in writing, and make a copy of it.

Buying online

Buying a car onlineWhen buying a car online, your legal rights depend on who you're buying from.

By buying online from a dealership, you will have exactly the same rights as normal when buying from a dealership. Additionally, you have the added benefit of the Distance Selling Regulations (2000), which give you the right to cancel any order within seven working days, and receive the full amount of any refund due to you within 30 days.

The Distance Selling Regulations (2000) also cover the description of any product you buy over the internet. All details should be accurate, and include information about delivery costs and arrangements, full contact details of the suppliers, and any taxes that need paying. The seller is also responsible for giving you information on how to cancel any order should you wish.

Should you be buying from a private seller online, you will have exactly the same rights as normal when doing business with the seller face-to-face. This also includes any sales via an online auction bidding site.

Private Sales

When buying privately, you will not have the same level of legal protection that you would when buying from a dealership, and so the usual motto is 'buyer beware'. It is up to the buyer to ask questions, check the vehicle and make sure the eke out every morsel of information about the car from the seller as possible. Using the questions from our used car checklist and other information garnered from our site, you should be in a good position to ask the right questions. It may even be worth acquiring the services of an engineer (preferably not one associated with the seller in any way) to give the vehicle the one over, and even purchase a HPI check report to find out about the car's history.

With a lower level of legal protection involved in private sales, there are unfortunately a number of dishonest dealers who attempt to pass themselves off as private sellers. This is a criminal offence, and there are a number of things to look for in order to unmask an unscrupulous dealer. Firstly, the majority of private sellers will conduct their viewings at their home; be wary of anyone who wants to show you their car somewhere else. Also, the seller's name may not be on the V5C certificate.

Still, there are a number of legal terms that deal with private sales. Firstly, the person selling the car must have the right to sell. This pretty much means they must be named on the V5C. Secondly, the car should be roadworthy at time of sale. Selling an unroadworthy car, unless clearly sold as spares or scrap, is a crime. Lastly, the details of the car given for sale should accurately match the vehicle being sold.

Buying at a car auction

Live car auctions are for veteran car buyers, as the amount of legal protection you will get if you venture down this route is minimal. Each auction sale will have its own terms and conditions, and some may be exempt from the Sale of Goods Act (1994). In this case, the vehicle is 'sold as seen', and you should be very thorough when inspecting and checking it.

Also, in most cases the car auctioneer will not be liable if the person selling it does not have the legal right to do so. This includes if the car is stolen. The only person to aim any legal retort at would be the seller, who would probably have made themselves scarce. A few auction services offer their own guarantees at a price, but such guarantees may not be up to much when it comes down to legal scrutiny.


Your legal rights really do depend on the status of the person selling you the car. If they're a dealership, you'll pay more but be better protected. If they're a private seller, you'll pay less but be at more risk. Both are great ways of getting your new motor, but the choice is down to you.

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