Buying a car privately

Posted on December 2nd, 2013 by GEM Motoring Assist

The classified advertisements can provide one of the cheapest routes to buying a car, but going privately can also mean taking the most risks with your money.  Follow our guide to help you come away with a great bargain, and no nasty surprises.

Your rights and responsibilities
If you decide to buy your car through a private seller, you are likely to get more for your money. However, it is vital that you tread carefully – you have far less legal comeback buying in this way than if you were to buy from a dealer, broker or car supermarket.

Checks that the trade must carry out by law are not compulsory in private sales. You will not be covered by the Sale of Goods Act and the only obligation for the seller is to describe the vehicle truthfully. Even if they don’t, getting compensation can be difficult, time consuming and very expensive.
For this reason, beware of dealers masquerading as private sellers in order to shirk their legal responsibilities.

Regardless of where you buy your used car from, you should still expect the vehicle to:

  • Be capable of passing an MOT (unless the seller states otherwise and you are fully aware of this)
  • Be owned by the person selling it – if it turns out to be stolen, you have no legal right to keep it, even if you have paid a lot of money for it

As a buyer then, it is up to you to protect yourself and your money by making sure you carry out all the necessary checks.

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Vehicle checks
Once you have found the car for you, it is well worth paying for a history check. This background check will confirm the car’s mileage, make and model, transmission, colour and the dates of manufacture and first registration. It will also tell you whether it has been stolen, if there is outstanding finance on it, how many keepers the car has had, if it has had any registration changes and if it is recorded with the DVLA as scrapped or written off.

There are a number of companies offering this service including UK Vehicle, HPI and Autocheck. Cars can be checked online or over the phone. All you need is the registration number, VIN or chassis number and current mileage. Prices vary but expect to pay from around £20.

If you’re not a mechanic, it is also worth considering an independent vehicle inspection. They can be quite pricey (from about £150) but could save you thousands of pounds in the long run.

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The test drive
Once you’ve confirmed that the car is legitimate, it is time to get behind the wheel. Before even turning the key, make sure you’re insured to drive. Aim to spend at least half an hour driving, with more time built in to check over the general condition of the car. On the drive:

  • Make sure that you are able to start the car from cold, as issues with the ignition and general health of the engine are more likely to manifest themselves. If the seller has warmed the engine up for you, be suspicious
  • If possible, choose a route you know well so you are able to concentrate on the car. Try to include a variety of roads – town, country, dual-carriageway or motorway
  • Run through all the gears and ensure that changes are smooth. Check for smoke in the rear-view mirror, especially during braking, and be aware of any strange smells
  • Listen out for unusual noises – knocking or screeching can mean expensive faults are present
  • Try out all the electrical equipment – do the lights/stereo/electric windows all work smoothly?

Viewing the car

  • Never arrange to meet a seller on ‘neutral ground’, always go to their house to view the car, and make sure the address tallies with that on the V5 document.
  • Don’t view a car after dark or in the rain, it’s far too difficult to spot damage or imperfections on the bodywork.
  • Don’t buy a car from someone who will only give you a mobile telephone number, they’re likely to be impossible to find again should something go wrong.

The paperwork

  • Make sure all the documents are present and correct.
  • Most important, ensure there is a V5 and that the information on it tallies with the car and seller.
  • There should also be a current MOT certificate and tax disc.
  • Ask to see proof of the car’s service history and any information relating to any repairs carried out.



  • Avoid paying in cash, as there’s no comeback at all if something goes wrong.
  • Give yourself maximum protection by using a banker’s draft.
  • If a seller is genuine, they will be happy with this.

If things go wrong
When buying privately, it’s a case of ‘buyer beware’ – there is very little you can do should things go wrong. As the buyer, it is up to you to ensure that you are buying a genuine car from a genuine source – the checks listed above are vital.

  • The only legal terms that cover a private sale are:
  • the seller must have the right to sell the car
  • the car must not be misrepresented
  • it must be as described

If the car you buy doesn’t meet with the above conditions, then you have the right to sue for compensation, but proving that this is the case, and in many cases, even finding the seller after the sale, can be impossible.

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Buying privately – FAQs
Q: How can I be sure I’m buying from a genuine owner and not a dealer?
A: Some unscrupulous dealers pose as private sellers in order to avoid their legal responsibilities, especially if they know a car is dodgy in some way. A major give-away is in how they answer your call. When you ring up about a car ask: ‘Is the car still available?’ If they say ‘Which car?’, you’re almost certainly talking to a dealer with more than one vehicle for sale. If they pass the ‘telephone test’ arrange to view the car at their home. If they would rather meet elsewhere be very suspicious. They could turn out to be a dealer. If you suspect a private seller is really a trader contact your local trading standards office. They will be able to take action under the Fair Trading Act.

Q: What happens if I buy a car and it turns out to be stolen?
A: If this is the case, the car is not legally yours. The police can take it from you and return it to the original owner or the insurance company dealing with the claim. You will not be able to get any compensation even though you bought the car in good faith. You can sue the seller for your losses – provided you can find him.

Q: The car I want to buy is located in the north and I live in Devon. The seller has said he’d meet me half way, in a motorway service station, to do the deal. Should I agree?
A: This may seem like an ideal solution but alarm bells should be ringing. If you go ahead with this meeting you are putting yourself and your money at enormous risk. Buying a car away from someone’s home means you are unable to check the address against that in the car’s logbook, and you have no way of tracking down the seller in the future should anything go wrong. You’re also far less likely to find out whether the car is stolen or not and you have less time to test and inspect the car. If the distance is too great to travel to view the car, forget it. There’s bound to be another suitable buy closer to home.

Q: What does a private vehicle inspection entail and are they worth the money?
A: What’s covered by the inspection will depend on the company carrying it out, but most will check the following components:

  • Engine
  • Cooling systems
  • Bodywork
  • Interior trim
  • Driveshaft
  • Brakes
  • Steering
  • Suspension
  • Underbody
  • Wheels
  • Tyres

These examinations are expensive (costing upwards of £150) but are well worth paying for, especially if you have no knowledge of cars, as they could end up saving you a lot of money.

The information on this Site is provided on the understanding that GEM Motoring Assist is not rendering legal or other advice. You should consult your own professional advisers as to legal or other advice relevant to any action you wish to take in connection with this website.