1 in 3 have a hidden history
1 in 7 are insurance write-offs
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Tips for Buying Used Cars

You don't have to know the workings of the internal combustion engine or how ABS brakes work in order to know what to look for in a second hand car. There are numerous points to look at when shopping for a used vehicle, making sure it's in decent condition, is legal to drive and what's more is safe. Below are some hints and tips for you to make sure the car you're interested in is indeed worth your money.

Overall Condition and Safety

Checking the tyres of a carWhenever arranging to view a car, you should always insist on seeing it during daylight hours, and preferably during decent weather. Darkness or rain can easily hide dents, nicks and patches of rust, along with mismatched paint, which is usually a sign of low-quality work having been done on the car. Always take a vehicle out on a test drive, and make a note of anything that seems off. Are there strange noises coming from the engine or gearbox? Does the steering drag to the left or right? It also helps if you can take along a friend or relative who has some knowledge of cars.

Cars are sold for many reasons; one reason may be that it was involved in an accident. Depending on what happened, and what damage the car took, it may not be safe to drive. Often, damaged cars are picked apart and reassembled Frankenstein-style, to create what looks like a new, safe vehicle. Most decent car check services will offer to check if a vehicle has been the subject of an insurance claim, or if it has ever been written off by an insurance company. The selling of any vehicle with a category C or D rating is illegal without this information being made clear to the person buying it. Any dealer not imparting this information faces legal action if reported.

Avoiding Stolen Cars

A car thief in the actShould you be unfortunate enough to buy a car that has been stolen, you will soon lose it; the police will in time recover it from you to give back to the original owner, or insurance company that paid out for it. It is also unlikely you'll receive any of your money back, as the seller will no doubt have disappeared back under the stone they crawled out of.

Should you be double-unlucky and buy a stolen car on credit, then you will probably still have to pay off the loan you took out for the vehicle that you no longer have. Dependent on the loan agreement you may be covered however.

Ascertaining whether a vehicle has been stolen can be difficult. Many savvy criminals can attempt to change a car's identity using cloning or ringing, where they steal the VIN number and number plate of another vehicle and attach them to the stolen one. Vehicle documentation may also be stolen, or otherwise forged. There are some points to be aware of though that may help you spot a stolen vehicle:

  • The vehicle's V5C registration document is not available to view with the vehicle. The usual excuse for it's disappearance is that it has been sent off to the DVLA for admin purposes. Whilst there may be a thread of truth to this, such as the seller has moved house recently and needed to update their address, you should remain on guard and wait until it turns up.
  • Another excuse for a lack of V5 document is that the car was only purchased by it's current owner a short time ago, and so it has been sent to the DVLA in order to record a change of ownership. In this case, the vehicle's current owner should have a green slip to show you.
  • Look for spelling errors or any changes that have been made to the V5C document, and always check for a valid watermark.
  • Check the seller's address as printed on the V5C is the same as on their driving licence, or other valid document with their address details on.
  • The V5 document should feature the number plate of the vehicle (the vehicle registration mark), the vehicle identification number (VIN) and engine number. Check these match the ones on the vehicle.
  • Check for any tampering of the engine number or VIN. Scratches in the metal surrounding them, or parts of the windows that have been scratched off, may mean that they have been tampered with.
  • Make sure the seller can show you a valid insurance policy for the vehicle.

Avoiding Cars still on Finance

A great deal of cars these days are bought with some form of financial assistance. Whether it be a hire purchase or other agreement, the finance company will usually retain legal ownership of the vehicle until the loan has been paid in full. Should you purchase a used car that still has outstanding finance, they can legally repossess the vehicle from you. You may be able to get your money back from the seller you bought it from, but they may well have made themselves scarce.

There are a few special cases where you might keep hold of your car. If the seller did not disclose any hire purchase agreement on consultation, and the vehicle was bought in good faith, the finance company may allow you to keep it so long as you continue payments. This will not apply to a stolen vehicle. For further advice you should contact your local Citizens Advice Bureau.

Most comprehensive vehicle checks will show whether a car still has outstanding finance on it.

Avoiding Clocked Vehicles

A low mileage is a desirable feature of any used car, but you cannot always trust the figure on the vehicle's odometer. Unscrupulous sellers can use various methods to 'wind back' the mileage of a car, making it look like a better deal than it is. Its not only private sellers that can follow this practise. Some dealers will try to hide the figure on an odometer, or include disclaimers in their documentation, saying that the vehicle's mileage may be inaccurate. A legitimate dealership should never have any of these caveats as part of their contracts.

Should you be looking at a vehicle with low mileage, there are some points to check out to make sure that mileage is valid. Is the amount of wear and tear on the vehicle what you would expect from one that has done so few miles? For example, are the pedals and driving seat worn? Conversely, does it look like the pedals and/or steering wheel have been changed recently? This could have been done by a clocker looking to cover their tracks. How about the display on the odometer - are the numbers displaced?

A decent car check service will give an option to check recorded mileages. You can also do this manually. Check any documents that come with the car and check for any recorded mileage. You can also attempt to contact the vehicle's previous keepers, as they may have kept records on what mileage they sold the car with.

Edmunds Developer Network