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Ultimate Guide to Buying a Used Car

Delays in new car supply caused by the pandemic and a world shortage of silicone chips has led to a booming second-hand car market in the UK over recent years. Choosing a used car over a new one could save you a huge amount of money – it’s often said that a car loses a high percentage of its value as soon as you drive it off the forecourt. Buying a used car isn’t without risks though, and it’s wise to be cautious and check out carefully what you are being sold.

You have a range of options for getting a second-hand vehicle, from going through the local branch of a main franchised dealer, to buying from the used car adverts on the internet. There are advantages and disadvantages too all methods.

Buying a Used Car from a Dealer

If you haven’t bought many used cars in the past, or are just a bit nervous about the whole process, going through a dealer or trader can give that extra feeling of security. Motor traders are defined as anyone who makes money from buying and selling cars. Dealers or traders can range from everything from one person buying and selling cars from their driveway, to the big out of town car warehouse operations stocking thousands of vehicles.

The obvious difference between the large operations and the sole trader is the aftersales support and the level of preparation you can expect for the vehicle before buying. Big warehouse dealers have big overheads too in terms of rent, staff costs and marketing, so in general terms, you can expect to pay more for a car from this sort of trader than from a sole trader operating from home.

A large dealer operation, especially one which is selling used cars on behalf of a particular manufacturer, is more likely to have done some work to assure the quality of the vehicles on their forecourt. They don’t want to get the reputation for selling poor quality cars which quickly go wrong. They will also generally offer some sort of warranty against mechanical problems. This is usually 6 or 12 month, but will depend on the age and model of the vehicle. As a buyer, it’s up to you whether the higher prices you might pay from a large dealer are worth it for the protection you have from knowing the car has been inspected, MOT checked and serviced, and comes with a warranty against future problems.

It might be cheaper to buy a car from a smaller second-hand car lot or individual trader, but these initial savings could be false economy if you end up buying something which quickly goes wrong and costs you hundreds of pounds in essential repairs. All traders have to abide by the law, the Consumer Rights Act in particular. This piece of legislation means that if you do buy a car which isn’t fit for purpose or of satisfactory quality, then you have the right to have it repaired or get your money back. Although your rights might be clear under the law, enforcing those rights is a different matter if you end up buying from an unscrupulous trader, or one who just doesn’t agree with your request. Is a lengthy legal battle really worth the hassle?

One of the main factors in where to buy a car from is what you intend to use it for. If you are in the market for a nearly-new, or ex-demonstrator car which is intended to be your main family car for several years, then buying from a large, reputable dealer offering warranty and after-sales service is the obvious choice. If on the other hand, you are looking for a cheap runaround to use as a second car, then you might be prepared to take more of a risk on buying something from a smaller garage.

Buying a Second-Hand Car Privately

The cheapest option for getting a second-hand car is to source one privately, through the adverts in the local paper, or on a site such as Autotrader. Buying from a private individual often means you can get a better deal than buying from a business which is trying to make a profit on the deal. You might have more room for negotiating. Meeting the current owner of the car also allows you to form an impression of how the car has been cared for and maintained. It’s less likely to have been professionally cleaned and valeted to make a good first impression, and a well-presented car is likely to have been well cared for. Don’t be afraid to ask the current owner why they are wanting to sell the vehicle. Does their reason for selling it sound plausible, or are they just trying to shift a car which has started to cause problems?

One of the downsides to private buying is that owners can often vastly inflate what they think their car is worth. They will price match their car against similar models they have seen on the forecourt of their local dealer, conveniently forgetting that the dealers offer warranties and pre-purchase inspections. If a private sale is priced way above the going rate, as the weeks and months pass the owner will eventually realise that they need to do something about the price. But are you prepared to wait so long?

Unlike cars sold through dealers, private sales are unlikely to have been thoroughly inspected and had their obvious faults resolved before being put up for sale. This means that as a buyer you need to be much more clued up about the pre-purchase inspection and test drive. If you are not confident that your knowledge is good enough to detect a potentially expensive mechanical problem in the future, then it might be better to pay an independent mechanic to carry out the checks for you.

Your legal rights are far less when buying from a private individual, and this alone is often enough to put people off purchasing cars in this way. If the car breaks down with a major fault on the way home, you could well have no rights at all. It’s not necessarily a risky way to buy a car but it does make the checks and inspections you do before driving the car away are so much more important for your own financial protection.

Buying a Used Car At Auction

Buying a used car at an auction is not for the faint-hearted, but it is possible to get a real bargain if you know what you’re doing. Most large towns and cities have a car auction site, but in order to attend and place bids you will have to register with the auction company. A wide range of vehicles are sold through auctions for quick sales. Some might be trade-in cars from larger dealers, others ex-rental cars being sold off at the end of the tourist season.

If you strike it lucky in an auction with fewer bidders and less competition, you might be able to pick up your ideal car at a rock-bottom price. It’s easy to judge the market at an auction, and see what the going rate is for vehicles before placing your own bids. Auction bidding is quick and without negotiation; once the hammer goes down, the car is legally yours and you can pay for it and drive it away, assuming it has a MOT and you have arranged tax and insurance, of course.

Physical auctions are perhaps not as popular as they were a decade ago, with many dealers choosing to offload excess stock through Ebay or other websites such as Cinch rather than putting them into auction. It’s always wise to try to attend a few auctions to get the feel for how it all works before placing bids, it’s so easy to get carried away in the pressure of the auction room and making poor decisions which you live to regret. The other downside is that you can’t give the car a test drive or a thorough inspection before the auction starts – the best you can expect is to have a look round it in the car park.

One good auction tip is to look for particular models or colours of vehicle which aren’t as popular with other bidders, who are often traders buying to sell on. If you’re not too bothered about driving around in a brown or purple car, you might be able to get a real bargain.

Top Auction Tips

If you would like to try your luck at an auction for your next car purchase, here are our top tips for success:

Online Shopping for Used Cars

There aren’t many things we can’t buy online these days, and although second hand car dealers were slow to embrace online selling, the market is now expanding quickly. Auction sites such as Ebay have been used for buying and selling cars for years, and have now been joined by newcomers such as Cazoo and Cinch.

Ebay sales are riskier than buying from an organisation, as you’re really just dealing with another private individual. We’d always recommend trying to see the car and inspecting it before placing a bid, and this also gives you the chance to chat to the seller about the vehicle’s history too. But in terms of warranty and buyer protection, you are on your own. It is possible to get a real bargain through Ebay and other online sellers, but proceed with caution. Many of the large dealers are using Ebay to sell their stock too, and you may get more protection buying in this way.

Sites like Cazoo and Cinch are newcomers to the UK second-hand car market and aim to take the hassle out of shopping for a second-hand car. They are marketed as the “dealer experience online”, offering cars which are inspected and come with a warranty, from the comfort of your sofa. They may offer a range of payment methods too, rather than you being expected to pay the full price upfront. And it doesn’t matter where in the country your preferred used car is located, as it can be delivered to your door.


However you decide to buy a second-hand car, take some time to explore the pros and cons before leaping in and buying. It’s much easier to avoid making a poor purchase than it is to resolve problems with a vehicle you already own. There are advantages and disadvantages to all methods and what worked for your friends might not be the right choice for you. Fully understanding your options will put you in the best place to get the perfect second-hand car for your needs.