10 top tips before buying a used car

Posted on: 07 May 2010 by Mark O'haire

To make sure you get the best deal - and don't get ripped off - here's our guide to buying used cars.

Buying a new car is far less daunting than buying used, so it seems. For a start, there's the welcoming environment of a shiny showroom full of gleaming cars. More importantly, there's also the peace of mind of a brand new car and the long warranty that comes with it.

By comparison, used cars are a minefield of dodgy forecourts, 'sold as seen' runabouts and suspicious odometer readings. That's not the reality, mostly, but buying used is definitely a daunting task. To make sure you get the best deal - and don't get ripped off - here's our guide to buying used.

And so you know you're getting the best advice, we've enlisted the help of the RAC.

View the car in daylight, and ideally in dry weather

No matter what the seller says, always view a car in proper light, because bad paintwork and panel dings are hard to spot. Rain can cover blemishes too.

Check the car's documentation

Every car should have a V5 registration document from the DVLA, plus a valid MOT certificate if it's more than three years old. Check the VIN (chassis number), which is usually located below the windscreen under the bonnet - it should match that on the V5 and MOT certificates.

If you're buying from an individual, check that the address of the seller and that on the V5 match. For that reason, it's best to view a car at the seller's address.

Look for signs of clocking

The wear and tear should match the mileage on the odometer. A shiny steering wheel and worn seats and pedals are high-mileage giveaways. Make sure the mileages on older MOT certificates match up too.

Check the tyres

Are they worn evenly? Uneven wear (thinner rubber on one side of the contact area) can show problems with the wheel alignment, that the tyre pressure is too low, or that the car has been driven 'enthusiastically'.


Is there a spare key? A replacement can be costly. If there are different keys for the driver's door and boot it can indicate accident damage.

Go on a decent test drive

Drive the car on as many types of road as possible, including motorway. Some problems - like smoke pluming from the engine bay and exhaust - are obvious. But listen for knocking sounds from the suspension and engine. Are there fluids leaking to the floor? Is the gear change smooth? Is the clutch slipping or the bite point too high? Try not to be distracted on the drive and look out for anything odd.

Check the history

An RAC car data check costs £14.99 (or £24.99 for three) and will tell you instantly whether the car's been stolen, written off or has outstanding finance on it - all issues that should make you walk away.

Have an inspection

This is more expensive, at up to £200 per go from the RAC, but if you're buying a pricey or particularly exotic car it could be well worth it. That limited edition Subaru Impreza might be the car of your dreams, but there's a good chance it's been driven hard by its three previous owners. Best to check.

Shop around

Unless your heart is set on a very rare car in a specific colour there should be plenty of examples of the car you're looking for on the market. Do your research, see and drive as many as you can before choosing one. It'll give you a feel for which ones are better and you're likely to bag a bargain too.

Perhaps most importantly...

If it doesn't feel right, walk away. That's always an important factor in any used car sale. You know what they say about something that looks too good to be true. "The advice is the same whether buying used for the first time or the fourth time," says the RAC's Lucy Haughey.

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