Buyer Beware! – Buying a used car

Posted on December 2nd, 2013 by GEM Motoring Assist


Buying a second-hand car can mean getting a great bargain, but it can also mean stepping into a minefield of costly, or even legal, problems. Thankfully, you don’t need to be a trained mechanic to spot the dodgy deals! Just follow our guide to buying used and make sure you drive away a great deal.

Choose the right car
This has to be the very first question you ask yourself before even considering a test drive. After all, there’s no point in trying out the latest, tiniest city car, when you’ll be ferrying around three kids and a dog. You want a car that best suits your needs, so think of what you will be doing with it. Does it need to serve as family transport, long-distance cruiser for two or simply to get you, and your kit, to the golf club and back? Try not to pay too much attention to image and acceleration if your buying priorities are practicality and economy.

Set a budget, and stick to it
This sounds obvious but a surprising number of people get talked into spending a lot more than they intended by talented salesmen, so it’s really important to have a firm figure in mind before heading to the showrooms. If you are planning to buy privately, make sure the price for your chosen car is in line with normal market values, given the age and mileage. You can do this simply by looking at similar vehicles advertised in the classifieds, or by purchasing one of the used car price guides.
It is also well worth considering the car’s running costs and including this in your overall budget. Will you be able to afford the insurance, fuel and maintenance costs?

The test drive
You’ll be itching to get behind the wheel of your chosen car, but before you do make sure you can legally drive the car. Is it taxed and MOT-ed, and are you insured? If you are buying privately, arrange to view and test-drive the car from the seller’s house – there is less chance that the car is stolen if they are happy to have you at their home address.
Make sure you have plenty of time for viewing and driving the car – don’t be rushed into anything by a pushy seller. Before turning the key, you need to take a really good look at the car:

  • Check the condition of the tyres – note tread depth and side-wall damage. If a tyre has uneven wear, it could be a sign that the wheels are not correctly aligned.
  • Check the body work and underside of the car for rust. Look at the exhaust system, does it look like it needs replacing soon?
  • Open the bonnet – is the engine bay suspiciously clean? It could have been steam cleaned to hide something.
  • While under the bonnet, look for signs of flaking paint and rust around the panel joints at the front of the car. This could be a sign of repairs after crash damage.
  • Does the wear on the interior of the car match the mileage on the odometer? A low-mileage car with very worn seats and pedals could have been clocked.
  • Look down the side of the car to see if all the panels and bodywork line up smoothly. Be suspicious of wavy panels or cars with uneven gaps between panels.
  • Now get into the driver’s seat and make sure you are comfortable. Is it easy to get in and out of the car? Do you have enough head and leg room? Is the seat, and steering wheel, easily adjustable? Use all the mirrors and look in front and behind to check out the visibility. Now turn your attention to the controls – is everything working and intuitive? If something isn’t obvious, don’t be afraid to ask.
  • Try out the back seat as well – can you offer adult friends a lift in comfort, or is it only suitable for children?

It’s time to start the engine! It is a big help if you can take a friend or relative along with you for the test drive. While you’re concentrating on driving, they can pay attention to any untoward noises from the engine, or general rattles, bangs or odours that shouldn’t be there. With this in mind, make sure you start the engine from cold and ask your friend to stand outside the car and look out for any billowing smoke from the exhaust. On the drive itself things to look out for include:

  • A smoothly rotating steering wheel – it should move from lock to lock without any unusual noise or vibration
  • Gears that change smoothly and easily without grinding sounds – a weak or extremely stiff clutch pedal could be a sign of worn components
  • An engine that idles smoothly and revs evenly
  • Responsive brakes

The test drive route
Make sure your drive gives you plenty of time to get a feel for the car and to test it at different speeds, and on different road types. The test drive should, ideally, reflect how you would use the car if you end up buying it. If you spend a lot of time on the motorway, then you really need to see how the car accelerates to, and performs at, 70mph. Similarly, if you live at the end of a rutted track in the middle of the countryside, you need to ensure that your test drive is more than a quick spin in the suburbs.

Does the history check out?
OK, so you’ve found the right car, at the right price and the test drive was great. Before you seal the deal though, it is well worth paying for a history check and a vehicle inspection. The inspection, carried out by a mechanic, will give you peace of mind and may pick up on problems that would prove very costly later on. The history check can tell you how many owners the car has had, if there is any outstanding finance on it and if it has ever been written off.

You should also carry out some belt-and-braces checks yourself. For example, compare the data from your research and the V5C (the vehicle’s logbook) to the car itself – make sure it all matches. If it doesn’t, you could be looking at a stolen car. Ask the seller questions about their time with the car, why they are selling it, and check that they are the owner, or that they have the owner’s permission to sell. Examine the service history, and note the locations of the garages who have carried out work. Does this match the rest of the car’s history? Also, check invoices to see if any other work has been carried out.

Only once you are happy with all of the above should you go ahead and buy the car!