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Your guide to buying a used car

Buying a used car can save you money, but it’s not without risks. Find out how to protect yourself and bag a bargain.
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Uswitch guide to buying a used car
Your guide to buying a used car

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2021 - the year of the used car

The average price of a new car rose by 4.4% to over £15,000 during the second half of 2020, according to the motoring website Auto Trader

Auto Trader’s research found that the lifting of first lockdown in May 2020 led to an increase in sales of used cars. 

Demand, outstripped supply, so that by July 2020 the price of a used car was 4.4 percent higher year on year.

It means the average price edged up over the £15,000 mark, standing at £15,025 by early July 2020. 

Despite Lockdown 2.0 and 3.0 people used car sales continued to rise, as car dealers worked around sales restrictions

While sales of used cars rose people appeared to be going with what they knew. Before and after lockdown the most popular used cars sold include the Ford Fiesta, Ford Focus and Vauxhall Corsa models.

  • Sales of used Ford and Vauxhall models were up 8.2% year-on-year 

  • Sales of high end used cars were up 2.2% year on year (to June 2020)

Before buying a used car, you should always price in the cost of your car insurance. A used car may seem cheap – but if it comes in a higher car insurance group, any savings you make could eventually be wiped out.

Read about new cars in 2021

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How do I find the best used car?

Here are the key things you need to be looking out for, and what can make the difference between having a faithful reliable family vehicle or an old banger.

1. Get a full service history

A car is designed to be maintained at regular intervals. If this is done well and by reputable and qualified people, a car can last for several years, says Helen Robinson, marketing Director for Euro Car Parts.

Robinson notes that there are still a few motors driving around from the 1960s. She says: “The chances are that unless they were put together using magic, it’s because they’ve had regular servicing carried out by specialists.”

“A car that hasn't had a full history of servicing is likely to have developed additional wear and tear.”

How do I check a car’s service history?

A private history check – also called a ‘data check’ – can tell you if the car has been in an accident, reported as stolen, even if it has been written off.

  • A data check will cost up to £20.

  • You can search for a website that check vehicle details.

You also need to check your car using the DVLA website using the information:

  • Registration number (on the number plate)

  • MOT test number

  • Mileage

  • Make and model

You can go online and used the DVLA’s free online vehicle information checker 

The information the DVLA holds should match the dealer’s/seller’s information.

2. Check when the MOT is due

Robinson says: “It doesn’t seem crucial but think about it - most people know when their car is going to fail its MOT.”

So, if a vehicle is out of MOT or only has a few weeks remaining, there is a good chance that the person selling that car knows full well that it won't pass or has significant issues that are going to cost them a lot to fix. 

  • A short MOT should set off alarm bells because there's a possibility it means that something is being covered up

  • A long MOT also gives you a little extra time to put some cash aside to cover the next one

How do I check my used car’s MOT

Vehicles need regular MOT tests to make sure they are roadworthy you can check the MOT history of a car for free on

If there are any gaps in the MOT history you may want to think twice about going ahead with any purchase.

3. Check your paperwork, and the advert

Before viewing a car you’ll probably have an idea how much its worth, especially if you’ve been researching a particular make and model.

Robinson says: “Checking the specification of the car against what was advertised is just as important, particularly as cars are becoming complicated beasts with more gadgets and toys than a smartphone.”

“Some people, if they are private sellers, can accidentally advertise the wrong specification, so it’s something you should really be aware of.”

Note: this also applies to the paperwork and documentation. Check that what has been promised is all present to avoid any issues later on.

4. Take your used car for a test drive 

“It might seem basic, but since the rise in websites like eBay more and more people are taking risks by buying a car they haven’t test driven or, worse yet, even seen before,” says Nick Francis, senior editor at YesAuto.

“Taking a test drive is the only way to know if a car is in working order so never buy one without doing so.”

  • Arrange car viewings for the day, and at the seller’s home if possible. Try not to go when it’s dark or raining as this can hide defects, such as dents and scratches

  • Check beneath the car and under the bonnet for rust and any signs that the car’s been in an accident

How to take your used car for a test drive

Make sure you are insured to test drive the car. This could be if you already have driving other cars cover on your insurance or by taking out temporary car insurance. Always view the car in dry weather in the daylight. If you are buying from a private seller, do so from their home so you have their address.

  • Drive for at least 15 minutes on different types of road and try and drive for an hour if you can.

  • You may want to get an independent report this will give you detailed information about the car’s condition and will cost around £100 to £200

  • The Motor Ombudsman will have advice on where to get an independent report in your area. The Motor Ombudsman is a government-backed self-regulatory body for the motoring industry. 

5. Check the inside

Checking the state of the interior is often the best way to tell how much a car has been driven says Robinson.  “The mileage count on many vehicles can be altered, and it's an infamous problem on the used car market.”

What to look for inside the used car

Assess the seating for excessive wear around the edges and the quality of frequently pressed buttons and knobs within a car.

Pay particular attention to the steering wheel, if it’s shiny in places where hands would usually rest, that could be a sign that this car has spent a long time with somebody in it.

Robinson adds: “The clock can lie, but the condition of that interior space certainly won't.”

6. Make sure you see the V5C (logbook) 

The V5C is crucial as it offers proof that the person selling you the car owns it, says Francis. “If they don’t own it, you need to ask the question below.”

The car’s V5C registration document gives details of the registered keeper and all the car’s previous keepers.

  • This is a red document issued by the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) 

  • If the log book - V5C registration certificate - doesn’t match the car on the DVLA records you need to report this to the DVLA

Don’t forget your used car’s Vehicle Identification Number (VIN)

When viewing a used car, look for its VIN (Vehicle Identification Number), which can usually be found at the base of the windscreen, under the bonnet, and stamped into the framework under the carpet by the driver’s seat. 

Always make sure the VIN matches the VIN found in the V5C registration document.

Other questions to ask

Why are you selling the car?

This is a good way to gauge any problems the car has, which may be the motivation for the owner selling it, says Francis.

“Obviously they could lie but you will at least get a chance to suss out whether you think they are being genuine or not. Always ask this.”

Do you own the car?

Francis says there’s nothing to stop someone selling a car on behalf of a friend or family member. If the V5C isn’t in their name you need to be satisfied that they have permission to sell it. 

“Where possible you should always meet the actual owner once, but at the very least you should speak to them and hear them explain why their friend/family member is selling the car.”

“The next thing to determine is how well they know the car, as they might not have driven it much, if at all. If that’s the case, they aren’t qualified to answer your important questions so you should make contact with the owner again.”

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