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Buying a used car

This advice applies to Wales

There are steps you can take to help you avoid buying a car that’s been badly damaged, stolen or illegally altered. They’ll also simply help you get a car that doesn’t break down.

Doing the proper checks can help save you distress and money down the line.

It’s worth knowing that you’ll still have legal rights even if you don’t do the proper checks. If there’s something wrong with your used car (eg it’s got a false mileage reading or it keeps breaking down), you may have a legal right to a repair, the cost of a repair, or some or all of your money back.

Make sure a trader is trustworthy

If you’re buying from a trader (a business that sells cars) you should:

  • look for an established firm with a good reputation
  • look for a trade association sign (for example, the Retail Motor Industry Federation or the Scottish Motor Trade Association) or a sign that says they follow The Motor Ombudsman's code of practice - this means you can act through a trade association if something goes wrong
  • look for a trader whose cars have been inspected by an independent engineer or motoring organisation

Buying from an auction

Auctions are probably the riskiest way of buying a used car. You probably won’t have the legal protection that you have if you buy through a trader (for example, the right to returns and refunds).

Make sure you read the auction house’s terms and conditions of business carefully before making a bid.

Check a car’s history

Doing some simple checks will reduce your chances of buying a car that’s being sold illegally or has had major repairs. You can also find out if the current owner still owes money on the car.

It doesn’t take long or cost much. You should consider doing this no matter who you buy from.

1. Check the car’s details with the DVLA

Ask the seller for the car’s:

  • registration number (on the number plate)
  • MOT test number
  • mileage
  • make and model

Use the DVLA’s free online vehicle information checker to make sure what the seller tells you matches the DVLA’s records.

If some of the minor details don’t match, you can ask the seller to clarify - it might be a simple mistake. But if you’re suspicious that the seller gave you fake details then you shouldn’t buy the car.

You should report the seller to the police if the log book (V5C registration certificate) doesn’t match the car on the DVLA records.

2. Check the MOT and history

Vehicles need regular MOT tests to make sure they’re safe for the road. You should check that MOT tests have been done regularly throughout the car’s history (most cars over 3 years old need an MOT test every year).

Check the MOT history of a car on GOV.UK. This is a free service.

Ask the seller about any gaps in MOT - don’t continue with the deal if you’re suspicious of the MOT history. A car might not have needed an MOT if it was unused for a period of time and was registered as SORN (statutory off road notification).

3. Get a private history check

It’s a good idea to get a private history check (sometimes called a ‘data check’) on the car - this will give you valuable information about serious problems the car might have. It will cost up to £20.

It will tell you if:

You can get a car history check from any of these websites that check vehicle details:

Inspect the car and take a test drive

You should arrange to view the car in daylight, preferably when it’s dry - it’s harder to spot damage to the car if it’s wet. It’s a good idea to meet at a private seller’s house so that if something goes wrong after you’ve bought the car you’ll have a record of their address.

The AA has a useful checklist for what to look out for when inspecting a used car and its paperwork. Make sure you ask about the car’s service history.

You should definitely take the car for a test drive. You’ll need to make sure you’re insured to do this.

If you have your own car insurance, check with your insurance company to see if you can drive someone else’s car. If you don’t have insurance, a trader or private seller’s insurance might cover you - you’ll need to ask them.

Don’t test drive a car if you’re not insured. You’ll be liable for any damage you cause and you could lose points on your licence.

Drive for at least 15 minutes on different types of road. The AA has a checklist for what to look out for when taking a test drive.

If you’re still not sure - get an independent report

If you’re still not sure at this stage, it’s probably a good idea to look for another car.

However, you can go a step further and get an independent report on the car. This will give you detailed information about the car’s condition and will cost around £100 to £200.

Independent reports are done by motoring organisations and specialist companies - call the Motor Ombudsman for 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. 

The Motor Ombudsman
Telephone: 0345 241 3008

When you buy the car - the transaction

Don’t be afraid to haggle on the price - start low and let the seller work the price up. Stay calm and only pay what you can afford. Remember you can simply stop the deal if you feel like you’re being pressured into paying too much or buying additional features.

The Money Advice Service has useful guidance on how to negotiate when buying a car.

Make sure you get the original (not a photocopy) of:

  • the log book (the V5C registration certificate)
  • the valid MOT test document

Never buy a car without the log book.

The seller can’t legally transfer any car tax that they’ve already paid over to you (the rules around this changed recently). You’ll need to pay vehicle tax as soon as you buy the car. The seller will get a refund for any tax left on the car when it’s sold.

Ways to pay

There are things to consider when deciding how to pay for a used car.

Consider all your options before getting finance or a loan for a car. It can be an expensive way to pay, and you'll need to make sure you can realistically afford the repayments. Read advice on getting a finance from the Money Advice Service.

If you pay by cash

Consider that:

  • there are no extra fees or interest
  • sometimes you can get a discount for paying cash
  • if something goes wrong with the car you won’t have the protection that some credit arrangements offer
  • you might not feel comfortable or safe carrying cash, especially if it's not a cheap car

If you use a debit card

You might have protection from problems if your card provider has a ‘chargeback’ scheme - contact your bank for more information.

If you use a credit card

Consider that:

  • you can be flexible with making larger payments when you can afford them
  • you’ll get protection for goods costing between £100 and £30,000, even if you only paid for a small part of the cost on credit card (this is called ‘section 75’ protection - contact your bank for more information)
  • the interest rates on credit cards are often much higher than a finance arrangement

If you pay using an electronic transfer

Consider that:

  • your bank will have an upper limit on the amount you can transfer directly to someone else's account
  • you can pay with a CHAPS payment but there will be a charge - check with your bank
  • if you're buying from a private seller they may not feel comfortable giving you their bank account details

If you pay using finance arranged by a trader

Consider that:

  • you’ll have to pay extra for interest, so this will be more expensive
  • this can help you get a car if you don’t have all the money up front
  • you might have extra protection if there’s a problem later, because you can take action against the finance company as well as the trader (or instead of the trader)

If you pay using finance you’ve arranged yourself

Consider that:

  • you’ll have to pay extra for interest, so this will be more expensive
  • this can help you get a car if you don’t have all the money up front
  • once you have the money from the finance company, you can pay by debit or credit card to get extra protection
  • if there's a problem with the car, the finance company won't have any responsibility for helping you solve the problem

Buying a car through hire purchase

Consider that:

  • you don’t own the car until the last payment is made
  • you’ll have to pay a deposit - usually about 10% of the value of the car
  • there will be a fixed monthly cost - so it’s easier to budget
  • the car can be repossessed if you can’t keep up the payments

For more advice on whether a hire purchase arrangement would suit you read buying a car through hire purchase by the Money Advice Service.

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