How to buy a used car

Buying a car doesn’t have to be expensive or even much hard work. Venetia Raineyn and Nicky Woolf drive you down the road of chassis numbers, engines and MOTs

A used car

Buying a car doesn’t have to be expensive or even much hard work. Venetia Rainey and Nicky Woolf drive you down the road of chassis numbers, engines and MOTs.

Cars are useful things. They get you places fast and give you the power of flexibility. Of course the slight glitch in all of this is that you need a driving licence, but that aside, having a car can be a real advantage. The obstacle for most is price, but with this guide, you should be able to get a car for anything from £1000 upwards (insurance included), depending on how picky you’re feeling…

Step 1 – Which car?

This is a very personal decision. First think about what you’re going to use the car for. If you’re going to be ferrying friends around, you probably want something small with five doors (one of which is the boot), like a hatchback, and something with an economic engine, like a diesel. Or something more flash, like a saloon. Do you want air conditioning? Electric windows? Rather than bury yourself in a million choices, rule out the things you don’t need before you start.

The best way to do this is to write out all the things you definitely want in a car. Forget about the engine for now, but think about the number of doors, the number of seats, the colour, the style, the boot size, even the stereo. When you have all this organised in your head, you can start thinking about stage two; the engine. First choice to make is petrol or diesel. Petrol is faster, much nicer to drive and sounds a lot better. Diesel, however, is much, much easier on the wallet. Next, decide how fast you want it to go; a 1.1 litre engine will struggle on hills, and a 2.0 will be much faster but you’ll pay through the nose for insurance. Go to an insurance broker like where you can get a free quote, and check how much you’ll be paying for the larger engines. It’ll make you think. Finally choose whether you want an automatic or a manual.

Step 2 – Where to look

There are several places to look for used car listings. Often local newspapers will have a page with advertisements on them, so these are worth looking out for. The internet, however, is easily the best forum for such a search:

All of these sites provide an easy to use search engine where you can type in exactly what you want in terms of car, budget and vendor location. Ignore any results without a picture, and check the accompanying blurb for mention of scratches, dents, engine problems, etc. A contact number should be provided, and when you find a few that tickle your fancy, the best thing to do is to give them a call. Ask any questions that may not already have been answered on their listing (for example, airbags, engine size and anything else you consider important) and trust your instinct about what they sound like. You want to deal with someone friendly, open and genuine, not pushy, dodgy and untrustworthy. If you’re happy with what you hear, then you can arrange a viewing and a test drive.

Step 3 – The test drive

Remember that if you don’t have specific other-cars insurance, you can’t drive it yourself, in which case bring a friend who can, or else ask the seller to drive you. Try to take in some motorway and some smaller, bumpier roads. Press every button and test every gadget. Make sure the steering wheel feels firm and doesn’t wobble or shake, as this can mean expensive suspension or steering rack problems. Make sure all the gears work smoothly, including reverse. Listen out for unusual noises or rattles, and sniff; the smell of a smoker is difficult to get rid of. If the car is still OK, then you’re ready to seal the deal.

Step 4 – Official stuff

There are three main things you will have to deal with when buying a used car: MOT, V5 and insurance.

The legally compulsory MOT form proves that the car is roadworthy, and should have raised lettering where it has been stamped by the servicer. Check that the written total mileage tallies with that on the dashboard of the car, and that everything else looks in order. MOT’s last a year and cost quite a bit, so any extra MOT months on the car are a massive bonus.

The V5 form confirms ownership, and the details should be identical to those of the current owner’s and the car in question. Use their driving licence to check personal information, and check for matching chassis and engine number (ask the owner to show you where this is, it should be under the bonnet). If anything looks at all suspicious, walk away. If they don’t own the car, they can’t sell it to you. When you are satisfied, ownership can be officially transferred by filling out the relevant section of the form. The seller will have to post their part off to the DVLA, and within weeks you should receive your own V5 form confirming ownership.

Insurance is another headache, so research deals before you go to look at a car. Everyone will have different advice for this; Tesco is apparently very good, as is Direct Line. Quotes will vary depending on how long you have had your licence, no claims bonuses, and living area. Search engines like can also be useful. If you choose to buy the car, you will have to ring up there and then to arrange insurance, so its helpful to have a quote set up beforehand which you can then simply activate over the phone.

Finally the payment. Cash is usually preferred, but offers little insurance if something goes wrong. Cheques have to be backed up by a cheque guarantee card, and some sellers may be hestitant about accepting them. The best method is a mixture of cash and cheque. Whichever method you choose, take their address and contact details, and get them to sign a statement laying out the agreed sale price and car details. Try to negotiate the final price, and don’t feel scared to ask for some time to think about it rather than buying that day, although do be aware that good deals get snapped up very quickly.

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