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6 tips to help you buy a car online

Carlton Boyce / 10 February 2017 ( 07 November 2019 )

We’re here to help, so here are our six tips to help take the fear out of buying a car online.

Someone buys a secondhand car online on a laptop

Buying a secondhand car online is big business; estimates vary, but it’s thought that more than 7 million cars changed hands in the UK in 2016, averaging around £6,500 per sale.

But it’s a big business that might well have escaped you. A YouGov survey of 2,000 adults undertaken for Carsnip shows that 44% of over-55s did not use any car search websites when they bought their last car; that percentage rises to 51% for retired motorists, meaning you might be missing out on some of the best cars on sale in the UK today.

Fear of the unknown is probably one factor, along with the internet’s (sometimes well-deserved) reputation as being unregulated.

But we’re here to help, so here are our six tips to help take the fear out of buying a car online.   

Narrow it down a bit

The first step is to do a little bit of research on the cars you fancy buying. Of course, your first step might be to see what we’ve had to say about a car when we’ve driven it.

You could also check websites like Parkers, What Car?, and Autocar to see what their reviewers think too.

This should enable you to narrow your search down to just three or four cars, making the next stage much easier.

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Do your research

If you’re thinking of buying a secondhand car - and there are some very good reasons why you should - you could then Google “common faults” along with the make and model of the cars on your shortlist. 

This will give you a list of dozens of websites with buyers’ guides, checklists, and a list of known faults, which might help you narrow the list of potential cars down even further.

Please do try to maintain a sense of perspective though; most cars are very reliable, despite what some angry keyboard warriors might write.

Four reasons to buy a second hand car

Time to search online

You can now do some online searching. Remember, it’s free and easy to do, so don’t be afraid to have a play around on the various websites. (You can’t break the Internet, I promise).

I normally use Autotrader and Pistonheads, but there are others including eBay, Carsnip, What Car?, and Preloved plus a myriad of classic cars websites.

You simply type in the details of the car you’re hoping to buy, narrowing it by fuel type, price, age, etc. Press return, and you’ll be given a list of dozens of cars that match your search criteria.

Some will even let you filter by price and size, for example. This can be very handy, as it will find every car within a specific radius that fits your budget, which might open you up to a make or model of car that you hadn’t even considered.

Six secrets of car dealers

Get a feel for prices

You can now use your findings to get a feel for the price you can expect to pay. 

However, those of us who grew up reading Exchange and Mart and the local newspaper free ads might be surprised by how little wriggle room there is in the asking price. 

Given the ease with which anyone can search the whole of the UK’s used car market, there is simply no point in pricing a car on the high side because no one will bother coming to see it.

Do some online checks

It’s time to hit the keyboard again now you’ve got a list of three or four individual cars that you think you might be interested in buying.

The first check is an online MOT search. Providing you’ve got the car’s registration number to hand you can find out if it’s got a current MOT, plus anything the car might have failed a recent test on, along with a list of items that the MOT tester thought were worthy of comment. 

This is invaluable information as it gives you an idea of how well the car has been maintained and whether there are any big bills on the horizon.

You should also do an HPI check to see if the car has ever been stolen or written-off, and whether there is any finance outstanding on the car.

I always do both of these checks before I go and see a car in person and both have saved me from more than a few unnecessary journeys.

Six ways to beat MOT stress

Go and see the car you'd like to buy

That said, at some point you’re going to have to go and see the car, but now you’ll know what it’s worth and what sort of condition to expect to find it in.

Running through our tips for buying a secondhand car will help keep you safe and make it almost impossible to buy a complete lemon!

Next article: Three websites to save money on a new car >>>

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.