Tips on buying a used car

Buying a used car is a great way of cutting the cost of your driving as most new cars lose around 40% of their value in the first year.

But there are risks so it’s important to take your time rather than rush into any deal, and to buy as far as possible with your head rather than your heart.

Pitfalls to watch out for when buying a used car

Clocking is the illegal practice of winding back the odometer on a high–mileage car to increase its apparent value and asking price. Every 1,000 miles removed increases the value substantially.

Car cloning

Sometimes one car is given the identity of another by replacing the number plates with those from an almost identical vehicle – same make, model and colour.


This is when the remains of two or more cars, which have usually been accident–damaged and written off by insurers, are welded together, then illegally given the identity of one of the wrecks.

The cosmetic work is often outstanding, and it’s usually very difficult to spot a ‘cut–and–shut’ from the outside.

General advice
Budget carefully

Get insurance quotes and check car tax rates before signing on the bottom line, and remember to factor in the cost of any work that might be needed too.

If you’re going to borrow money to buy the car it’s a good idea to get loan quotes before you go out to view any cars.  That way you’ll know what you can afford and will be able to tell whether any finance a dealer offers you is good value or not.

Do your homework

Check price guides and compare similar cars in the classifieds so you know as much as you can about the value of different cars to avoid being overcharged.

Having a quick Google can be a useful source of information on ‘common’ faults and ‘what to look for’ tips but bear in mind that the few who’ve had a poor experience are likely to be more outspoken than satisfied customers.

Don’t view a car in the rain, in poor light or at night

You won’t be able to check the condition of the car properly if it’s wet – water hides scratches, dents and other problems. Make sure you can see the vehicle clearly and from all angles.

Ask about service history

Most cars require some work during the year so the owners of a car a few years old should have amassed quite a sheaf of garage bills for work or parts as well as previous MOT certificates, and records of regular servicing.

  • If there’s no history then ask why
  • Does it look like there might be a persistent fault that still may not have been fixed?
  • Does the history tell a consistent story
Check for outstanding finance

Buying, leasing or hiring a car on finance is more popular than it’s ever been.  This means that a large proportion of vehicles on the road are actually owned by finance providers until their customers, the driver or keeper, pay off the finance agreement in full.

If you buy from someone who’s not paid off their finance agreement, the finance provider could recover the car, potentially leaving you out of pocket and without a car.

This makes it more important than ever to carry out a Car Data Check, particularly if you’re buying from a private seller or online auction/advertising site.  Most reputable dealers will have carried out a vehicle check before putting the car on the forecourt, but we’d advise you to check with the dealer that it’s been done.

V5C registration document

Insist on seeing the V5C vehicle registration document – this shows the registered keeper and not the legal owner.

Is the present keeper the person selling you the car?  If not, then why are they selling the car for someone else?

The V5C shows the details of previous keepers too. Why not contact them to find out more about when they owned the car, what work was done and how many miles they covered?

Previous keepers have no vested interest so you should be able to rely on their comments

  • Did they service it regularly?
  • Did they do much mileage in it?
  • Did they have any major servicing work done it?
  • Did they modify the vehicle in any way?

If the car is three years old or more make sure there’s a continuous series of annual MOT ‘certificates’.

If you know the vehicle’s registration number and the document reference on the V5C you can check a vehicle’s MOT status and history (back to 2005) online too.

Recorded mileage should increase steadily with age and be consistent with the service record. If it doesn’t then you’ll want to hear a good explanation as to why not.

Buyer beware

Be wary of anything that seems like a real bargain, or has a very low mileage for its age.  There are bargains to be had but in general, if a deal looks too good to be true then it most likely is.

If you know what you’re doing then use our DIY inspection checklist to help make sure you look the car over thoroughly.

Cam belt

As well as regular (usually annual) servicing there are major items like brake fluid, antifreeze or cam belt renewal that car manufacturers specify should be done at a certain age or mileage.

If a cam belt breaks the resulting damage is likely to run into several thousand pounds and often a new engine is the most economical option.

Some engines have a chain instead of a belt and these normally last the life of the vehicle but if your car does have a belt you must make sure it’s replaced when due.

If a belt change was due but the service record doesn’t show clearly that it was done then the belt will have to be renewed as soon as possible for peace of mind.


Make sure the handbook is in the car as they can be expensive to replace if not.

Look to see how the security system works – and check that it does – and find out what keys were provided when the car was new. Modern car keys can cost £100+ to replace so if you need more than one key and there’s only one available you’ll need to bear that cost in mind.

Coloured ‘master’ keys provided by some manufacturers to programme new spare keys for the car are even more expensive to replace.

There’s no legal requirement but cars are generally sold new with at least one spare key.  If there’s not a spare now ask why not.

Test drive

The test drive is your only opportunity to check the car’s general mechanical condition and to find our for sure that it meets all your needs:

  • Is the driving position comfortable?
  • Can you reach/operate all the controls easily?
  • Do the child seats fit?
  • Does the golf bag or pushchair fit in the boot?
Look carefully

Misaligned panels or mismatched colours on doors, bonnet and tailgate can indicate that the car has been repaired after a shunt.  Traces of spray paint on door handles, window seals and mouldings can indicate repairs too.

If the engine bay looks like it has recently been power-washed clean the owner could be trying to remove evidence of fluid leaks.  A check under the bonnet after a lengthy test drive should reveal any problems.

Other quick checks can be:

  • The close-up: Inspect each body panel for scratches, dents, or rust. Masking-tape marks ­under window sills or fender edges indicate paintwork.
  • Straight and narrow: Uneven panel gaps around the fenders, doors, hood, and trunk can indicate shoddy repair.
  • Blend well: Be sure the paint color and finish are uniform, and check inside door jambs for dull-looking overspray.
  • Attractive personality: Run a magnet along doors and fenders. If it doesn’t pull toward the car, there may be body filler under the paint, indicating body repairs.
  • Crystal clear: Check for moisture fogging in the lights.
  • Tread lightly: Make sure the tyres have even tread wear. New tyres may hide problems.
  • Rust bucket: A coating of rust on bolts or hinges inside the door jamb is a clue that the car may have been submerged.
  • Sniff test: A musty, moldy smell in the interior or boot could indicate water damage.
  • Check the exhaust: Black, greasy residue inside means the engine is burning oil.
Seats and carpets

Seats and carpets can always be cleaned, or even replaced, but stains on internal fabric head–linings are impossible to remove completely.

If seat covers have been fitted, check underneath them for signs of damage.  You can get seats replaced but this can be very expensive, particularly if they contain electric motors or airbags.

Locking wheel nuts

Adaptors for locking wheel nuts have a habit of going missing. If locking wheel nuts are fitted, check to make sure that the special adaptor required is included with the toolkit and that it fits the nuts.

Don’t be pressured into buying

There are always other vehicles out there so if this one doesn’t feel right in any way it’s time to walk away.

Be wary of and don’t be swayed by  ‘sob stories’  like change of job, break-up of relationship, moving aboard, new baby on the way and so on.  The bottom line is that you’re buying a car to help yourself, not anyone else.

Before you hand over any money
  • Agree collection/delivery arrangements
  • Confirm exactly what’s included in the price
  • Confirm any work that the seller has agreed to do
  • Make sure you get a receipt showing vehicle details, price, terms of sale and the seller’s details.

If you are looking at purchasing a used car, go to West Lancs Motors, top for used cars in Preston.

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