Used cars: How to buy the best

A sound purchase of a used car can bring you significant savings – so long as you don’t later end up paying for pitfalls you didn’t spot. New cars lose around 40% of the value in the first year, making one-year-old used cars a particularly good buyer’s option.

But watch out. A review undertaken by Citizens Advice reported that dodgy motors were the problem most complained about. Over 84,000 such complaints were reported to them in the 12 months up to November 2013, reporting the cost to drivers of these cars to be over £363 million.

So with such a complex market to navigate, how can you be sure you’re getting a good deal on a used car? Help is at hand! Follow our tips in this guide, and you should be able to side-step the common pitfalls, and snag yourself a bargain.

Before you start

It’s a good idea to spend a little time looking at running costs and price guides before heading out to look at the cars themselves. Be clear on your budget and get an idea of insurance and car tax rates.

A glance at the classifieds can start you off and What Car? and other similar price guides are useful. Honest John is a great site for identifying common faults and ‘what to look for’ tips.

Reputable sellers

If you’re buying from a reputable dealer (you can find many using Perry’s Used Car search tool), your purchase will be covered by the Sale of Goods Act. This means that the car must match the description given, be roadworthy and fit for purpose. Selling a car that’s not fit for the road is a criminal offence. You can also ask dealers for money back or a repair if you later find there was a problem with the car when you bought it.

But you may find the car of your dreams is being sold privately, for example online, at auction or in response to a newspaper ad. Private sales are not covered by the Sale of Goods Act. So you can protect yourself by checking the paperwork and making online checks about the car’s identity and history. And if anything does prove to be faulty, see our guide to how you can act on this.


Be aware that car-cloning does take place by replacing the number plates with those from an almost identical vehicle. Verify the car’s identity by asking for the V5C registration certificate. The DVLA website will also give you the car’s year of manufacture, date of registration, engine capacity, colour, and tax expiry date.

Ask for the car’s service history and record of MOT checks. Check that the mileage is consistent with the service record and the car’s age. You can follow up the MOT history online too.

One of the biggest servicing items to check is the cam belt. If your car has a belt rather than a chain, it’s important that it’s replaced when recommended. If it’s not and it breaks, repairs can cost thousands of pounds.

If you want to make further checks you could consider paying for the AA car data check or a private history check. They will show you the correct mileage, whether any outstanding finance is owed, and if the car has been reported stolen or been in a serious accident.

Test drive

A test drive is essential to check out how the car handles. View the car in good light and not on a rainy day. Rain can mask faults which would otherwise be visible.

Don’t let that stop you checking out the windscreen wipers however. You want to know they do their job too. Check out the tyre tread, boot size and whether there’s any staining on the seats and carpets.

Have a look under the bonnet. If the engine bay is pristine, could it have been power-washed? Sellers will sometimes do this to hide signs of fluid leaks.

If you are buying privately, avoid meeting the seller anywhere other than the person’s main address. You want to know where they live (where you can contact them easily) if you later have a problem – and avoid any possible scams.

Signed and sealed – final details

If you’re happy that you’ve found the car for you, it’s a good idea to confirm exactly what’s included in the price, plus any work the seller has agreed to do.

Ask for these details to be included in a signed and dated receipt, which should also show the price, terms of sale and the seller’s details.

You should also take away the ‘new keeper’ section of the V5C registration document, the MOT certificate, for cars more than 3 years old, receipts for repairs, the manual and a note of the code for the radio.

And finally, you could save yourself some stress by making sure you understand how the security system works and that you have the adaptor for the locking wheel nuts if your car has these, and the spare key. These can be expensive to replace.

At Perry’s, we are proud to have won the Used Car Dealer Group of the Year award in 2014, and we aim to support making the best used car purchase for you.