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Top tips for buying a second hand car

Carlton Boyce / 16 September 2015 ( 10 February 2017 )

Buying a second hand car – even if you can afford a new one – makes a lot of financial sense as the first owner has taken the initial hit of depreciation, leaving you to enjoy cheaper motoring than would otherwise have been possible.

Second hand car for sale in a used car sales yard
Buying from a garage costs more than buying privately but it does give you more legal protection in the event that problems arise in the future

The two traditional places to buy a second hand car are from a dealer or a private seller. 

Buying from a garage costs more than buying privately but it does give you more legal protection in the event that problems arise in the future. 

However, buying privately is much cheaper and a measure of reassurance can be bought by taking out an independent warranty that you’ve bought yourself for a few hundred pounds. You pay your money and take your chance, but I haven’t ever been put off buying my dream car privately providing the money is right and the owner impresses me as much as the car…

Wherever you decide your ‘new’ car will come, from it’s a process that isn’t without its pitfalls and buying second hand does mean taking a gamble that just isn’t there when you buy new.

However, if you follow the advice in our guide, the risks are greatly reduced helping you to bag a secondhand bargain that won’t break your heart – or your bank balance!

1. Check the car's history

Before you go to see and potentially buy a secondhand car, you should run a couple of online checks first. 

The first is to check what details the DVLA holds on the car. You can do this by logging into the Vehicle Information Check section of the GOV.UK website. This gives you a lot of information including MOT status, vehicle excise duty band and year of manufacture. To do this you need the make of the car and its registration number.

Six tips to help you buy a second hand car online

2. Does it have an MOT?

If the car is old enough to need an MOT, you can also check its MOT history by logging into the MOT Checker. This gives you a history of its MOT tests, including the reasons for any failures or advisory items identified, as well as the recorded mileage at each test. This can be a real help in pinpointing whether a car has been looked after and not ‘clocked’ so is well worth doing. 

It’s also free but you do need the car’s V5 number or latest MOT certificate number as well as its registration number. If the seller refuses to give you these extra details over the phone they might have something to hide…

Read our guide to buying cars on eBay

3. Run a check

You could also consider running a check on the car to see if there is any outstanding finance on it and to find out if it has ever been stolen or written off. 

A number of companies can do this for you (Google ‘HPI check’) but it does cost between £10 and £20, so you might want to limit this to cars you’ve inspected in person.

Saga Car Insurance: Join over a million drivers already benefiting from our outstanding cover and personal service for the over 50s. Get a quote and find out more!

4. Check the VIN

Once you’ve arrived to physically examine a car, you should check the paperwork before you do anything else. 

You’re looking to make sure the car’s VIN (Vehicle Identity Number) matches that shown on the V5 registration document. The VIN can be found stamped on the dashboard (visible through the windscreen) as well as under the bonnet and under the carpet on the driver’s side. 

Check all three locations to make sure they match up.

Read our guide to buying a car at auction

5. Service history

Check the car’s service history next. You want to see lots of stamps in the book and the relevant invoices filed neatly away in a folder. Obsessive owners make great people to buy from!

6. Look at the tyres

Tyres are also a great indicator as to how a car has been looked after: if all four match and have good tread left on them then the chances are the owner hasn’t skimped on maintenance generally.

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7. Some simple checks

Check the oil on the dipstick. Is it up to the ‘full’ level and clean? Ditto the coolant, windscreen washer, brake and power steering fluid. 

Careful owners will keep these topped up, while careless owners – from whom you don’t want to buy a car – won’t.

The same holds true of the paintwork and interior. Does it look cared for and loved? Is it clean and presentable? If it isn’t, how likely is it that the owner has looked after the hidden bits?

8. Go for a test drive

If your insurance covers you, take it for a brief test drive: does it pull to one side? Belch black or blue smoke from the exhaust? Accelerate cleanly and stop squarely? Does it, in short, drive well?

Would you pass your driving test if you took it today?

9. Take your time to make the right decision

If everything looks good so far, take a breather and sleep on it. You should always walk away from buying a second hand car if you have any doubts at all.

For more tips and useful information, browse our motoring articles

10. Haggle

If everything looks good, now is the time to haggle. While no one likes doing it, you can save a fortune. If you smile, keep it lighthearted, and wave cash around you might be surprised by how ready the seller is to negotiate…

That’s all there is to it! Just remember that you have to tax a second hand car yourself now before you can drive it on the public road. 

Of course, to do this you’ll also need to have car insurance in place, which is something we can help with. Our policies are tailored for people just like you, so why not let us provide you with a quote

After all, you’ve just saved money by buying a pre-owned car so it doesn’t make any sense to pay more than you have to!

Next article: Three websites to help you save money on buying a new car

Saga Car Insurance: Join over a million drivers already benefiting from our outstanding cover and personal service for the over 50s. Get a quote and find out more!

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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.