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Buying a second-hand car

While the ‘dodgy used car dealer’ stereotype is outdated, you still need to be careful when buying a second-hand car. Our checklist covers what to look for when buying a used car so you can make an informed choice.

While the ‘dodgy used car dealer’ stereotype is outdated, you still need to be careful when buying a second-hand car. Our checklist covers what to look for when buying a used car so you can make an informed choice.

Written by
Rory Reid
Car and technology expert
Last Updated
13 JULY 2023
8 min read
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Where should I go when buying a second-hand car?

Nearly seven million Brits bought a second-hand car in 2022, according to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT). If you fancy joining them, the first question is, where should you buy one?


Dealerships are typically more expensive than private sellers but can offer additional benefits. Unlike private sellers, dealers often offer part-exchange deals and warranties.

Also, if you buy from an established, trustworthy trader you can be confident the car has been checked, which reduces the chances of it breaking down as soon as you get it home.

Bear in mind that used car dealers can range from franchised dealerships to independent garages and sole traders. With larger dealerships, you can typically expect used cars that have been inspected rigorously and come with a good warranty, but that means the purchase price is likely to be higher.

To make sure you’re buying from a trader, garage or dealership you can trust, you should:

  • Check reviews from other customers to make sure they have a good reputation.
  • Look out for a logo that shows the dealership is accredited by a trade association such as the Motor Ombudsman, the Retail Motor Industry Federation or the Scotland Motor Trade Association. You should be able to search for accredited dealerships on the trade association’s website.
  • Buy from a dealership that has their second-hand cars checked by an independent motoring organisation or engineer.

Private seller

You might get a better price by going to a private seller, but you’ll be responsible for checking that the car’s in good working order. You can, of course, hire a mechanic to check it for you, but this is likely to be expensive.

If buying from a private seller, you’ll also have less protection if something goes wrong with your new car after the sale. But there are steps you can take to protect yourself:

  • Make sure you have an accurate written description of the car from the seller. Keep copies of the advert and ask the seller to confirm in an email any details discussed on the phone. Legally, you should be entitled to either the cost of the repair or a full or partial refund if the car doesn’t match the description given.
  • Go to the seller’s home to view the car. Alarm bells should go off if the seller wants to meet in a public place. It suggests they don’t want you to know where they live if there’s a problem with the car.
  • Don’t go alone. Take a friend or family member with you when you view the car. Ideally, rope in someone car-savvy.


Buying a car at auction could save you a lot of money, but it’s also one of the riskiest ways to buy a used car. Sellers are looking for a quick sale and don’t usually offer a lot in the way of protection, like a warranty.

You’ll need to make up your mind quickly at an auction, and that could lead to poor decision making. You might not be able to give the car a proper inspection or test drive before you buy either. 

If you’re buying at a used car auction:

  • Do your research before you go. Check what you’d pay for similar cars at a dealership or from a private seller. And see how much they’ve sold for at previous auctions.
  • Get to the auction early. You’ll normally get a few hours to browse before the auction begins. Give any cars you’re interested in a good look over to get an idea of their condition.
  • Pay close attention when the car moves through the auction hall. Listen to the engine and watch out for any signs that the car isn’t running well.
  • Set a budget and stick to it. Don’t get carried away in a bidding war. And factor in any fees that the auction house charges on top of the purchase price.

Did you know?

Remember that old bargaining chip of ‘It’s still got six months of tax left’? Well, rules have changed. Used-car sellers can no longer pass any unused tax over to the buyer.

When you buy a used car in the UK, you’ll need to get it taxed yourself before you can drive it away. The seller will get a refund on any remaining tax when the car is sold.

What to check when buying a used car

Before buying a second-hand car, always arrange a viewing in daylight, ideally when the weather’s dry. It can be harder to spot damage when it’s dark or raining.

Here’s what to look out for when checking a used car.


  • Check any dodgy paintwork and subtle differences in colour or gaps between the panels. These could be signs that the car’s been extensively repaired after an accident.
  • Look for rust. Even a small amount could turn into a big repair job. Paintwork that’s bubbled is a clear sign of rust damage.
  • Open the bonnet, doors and boot, and check if the metal on the inside is the same colour. If not, it’s a sign the car may have been repainted following damage.
  • Don’t be too concerned about a few minor scratches – it’s a used car, after all. Most small dents and scratches can be easily fixed and you could use them to negotiate on the price.

Doors, windows and boot

Check that the doors, windows and boot open and close smoothly.


Give the car a good bounce by pushing down on each of the four corners, then letting go. You want the car to return to position smoothly. If it doesn’t or it bounces around, you could be in for a rough ride.


Tyres should be in good condition and have a decent tread. If they have less than 3mm, they’ll probably need to be replaced when you buy the car. Anything less than 1.6mm is illegal in the UK.

Check the car has its spare wheel or puncture repair kit, along with everything else you need to change a tyre – particularly the key for unlocking the wheel nuts.

Under the bonnet

Check all the fluid levels, including the oil, brake and power steering fluid.

Make sure there’s no oil leaking and check the colour of it. If the oil looks dirty, it might not have been changed for a while, perhaps indicating that the car hasn’t been properly maintained.

The coolant should be the same colour as anti-freeze and not rust-coloured.

Other things to check when buying a used car:

  • Check that the horn, windscreen washers and wipers are all working properly.
  • Are there any signs of windscreen damage, like chips or cracks?
  • Check the front and rear lights for any sign of cracks or fogging.
  • Make sure the lights and indicators work.
  • Seat belts should fasten and not be cut, frayed or damaged in any way.
  • See if the airbag warning lights work as they’re meant to – the car’s manual should show you what they’re supposed to do.
  • Make sure the heating, air con and ventilation controls work, along with the radio or entertainment system. If the car comes with a sat nav, ask how to use it – doing so could reveal any glitches.
  • You should be able to adjust the seats and headrests, and check any folding seats work too.
  • Check the upholstery for stains and tears. Does the car smell funny? Bad smells like cigarette smoke can be really difficult to get rid of. Check if it smells strongly of anything the owner might be using to mask another smell. If it smells too nice, it might be a bad sign.
  • If you have a young child, will the pushchair fit easily into the boot? How easy is it to fit the child seat?
  • If you’re buying a used electric car, check to see whether the battery is leased or not. And is it compatible with rapid chargers if you frequently travel distances beyond the car’s normal range?

Consider a used vehicle inspection

If you’re good mates with a car mechanic, then it’s definitely worth taking them along to view a used car. Failing that, you could book a used vehicle inspection.

Both the RAC and the AA offer used vehicle inspections. They’ll check that the car is mechanically and structurally sound. The cost depends on whether you want a basic check or a comprehensive inspection.

What documents and details should I check before buying a second-hand car?

Before you consider buying any used car:

Check the V5C registration document

If you’re planning to buy the car, make sure you get the V5C registration document. This tells you who the registered owner is.

Make sure the V5C is genuine. Check for spelling mistakes, and confirm the number plate and vehicle identification number (VIN) are the same on the car and form. Make sure the form has a watermark and take the time to check the car is everything the V5C says it is.

The V5C should also tell you how long the seller has owned the car and how many previous owners it’s had. If it’s changed hands many times over a short period, it could be a red flag that the car has problems. 

Check the car’s history

Check the car’s details using the DVLA’s free vehicle information checker to confirm they’re the same as those in the V5C logbook. All you need is the car’s registration number.

Check the MOT history

You can also use the Government’s MOT checker to get a full rundown of the vehicle’s MOT history, including when the next one is due.

The car should have only been excluded from having a MOT if it was officially declared off road with a SORN.

Check the service history

Get the car’s service history so you have an idea of how well, or how badly, it has been looked after.

Get a private history check

There are websites that offer private history checks on used cars for a fee. These are sometimes called data checks. A private history check can tell you if a car:

  • Has been reported stolen
  • Has been involved in a serious accident
  • Has previously been written off
  • Is showing the correct mileage or if it’s been clocked
  • Has outstanding finance on it.

Test drive checklist for buying a used car

Always test-drive the car to make sure it runs smoothly and to see if you’ll enjoy driving it. Here are some of the main points to look out for:

  • Starting the engine – listen out for anything that sounds ‘angry’ when you start the engine. Funny engine noises signal potentially expensive repairs.
  • The temperature gauge – make sure the car starts from cold and from warm. Watch to see if the thermostat is working correctly and look out for any signs of overheating.
  • Clutch and gears – if it’s a manual car, they shouldn’t be stiff nor should they stick. If the car’s an automatic, the transmission should be smooth, quiet and in line with the speed and engine load.
  • Brakes – check that the brakes and handbrake work properly. The brakes shouldn’t make any noise when you slow down and braking should be easy and effortless.
  • Steering – is the power steering effortless or does it feel heavy? If you take your hands away, does it remain straight or pull to one side?
  • Suspension – is it smooth and comfortable or do you feel every bump in the road?
  • Performance – does the car keep up with traffic or does it feel a little sluggish? Accelerate through the gears and make sure you like the way it drives.

You’ll need to make sure you’re insured to drive the car before you take it for a test-drive. If you have your own car insurance, check that you’re covered to drive someone else’s car. If not, check if the dealership or private seller’s car insurance covers you.

Don’t test-drive a car if you’re not insured. You’ll be liable for any damage you cause and you could get points on your licence.

If you decide to buy a used car

Used cars aren’t always perfect. What’s important is that you know what you’re getting for the money and that there won’t be any nasty surprises down the line. If you’re happy with the car and decide to go ahead, don’t be afraid to haggle for a lower price.

Paying for the car

Only hand over money when you’re totally happy with what you’re buying. Although you can sometimes get a discount for paying in cash, it’s safer to use a method of payment that can be tracked, such as a credit or debit card.

If you use a credit card, your purchase may be protected by Section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act, as long as your new car costs more than £100 and less than £30,000, although this isn’t guaranteed. If you use a debit card, check if your provider has a chargeback scheme that could protect your purchase.

However you pay, ask for a receipt for the purchase including the date, car registration number and mileage, and a written acknowledgement of any work that the seller has promised to carry out before you collect the car.

Can I return the car if I’m not satisfied?

Yes. Under the Consumer Rights Act, all cars bought from dealers must be fit for purpose and as described. Section 75 of the Road Traffic Act 1988 states that it’s illegal for anyone to sell a vehicle that’s not roadworthy.

In addition, the Consumer Rights Act 2015 gives you the right to ask for a full refund in the first 30 days after buying any product that proves to be faulty, including a new or used car.

If you reject the vehicle within the first 30 days after taking delivery because of a fault you can demonstrate, you’re entitled to a full refund or replacement within a reasonable timeframe. From the 31st day until the first six months, you’re entitled to a repair or replacement.

The burden of proof will be on the dealer to prove the fault didn’t exist at the time of delivery. If the repair or replacement doesn’t address the fault, you’re entitled to a refund or price reduction.

From six months, you’ll have to prove that a fault was present when you bought the car to get a repair or replacement. To do this you’ll likely need to get an independent expert to examine the car and provide a written report.

After six years, you’re not entitled to any legal remedy in England and Wales (after five years in Scotland).

Sort out your tax and insurance

Before you can drive your new car away, you’ll need to get it taxed and insured. This is a legal requirement.

You can tax your car using the green ‘new keeper’s slip’, which you’ll find in the V5C logbook. You can do this online at GOV.UK or by phoning the DVLA on 0300 123 4321. Alternatively, you can tax your car at a Post Office. 

Thankfully, insuring your used car is pretty simple. Just tell us a little bit about yourself and your car, and we’ll compare quotes from a variety of insurance providers to help you find car insurance that’s right for you.

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Frequently asked questions

What should I do if the information given to me by a seller doesn’t match DVLA records?

If you find that the information on the V5C registration certificate doesn’t match DVLA records, you should report the issue to police straight away.

How old should a second-hand car be?

Second-hand cars come in all different ages, styles and models. Some may only be a year old. Others may have been manufactured in the previous century.

In general, the older the car, the lower the purchase price. But it’s not a linear depreciation. New cars tend to drop in value quite quickly, so you could save by choosing a new-ish car that’s around one to three years old, with a few miles on the clock.

Does mileage matter when buying a used car?

Mileage can be an important factor when deciding whether to buy a second-hand car. As well as age, mileage is key to understanding how much a used car is worth.

The more miles a car has done, the more wear and tear you can expect. But on top of that, certain parts of a car, like the suspension and timing belt, are built to last for a certain number of miles. That means once a car gets over a particular mileage, the cost to keep it running could increase significantly.

Rory Reid - car and technology expert

Rory Reid is a car and technology expert. He serves as the main presenter on Auto Trader’s YouTube channel and was previously a host on BBC Top Gear and its sister show Extra Gear. He is also a presenter on Fifth Gear. Previously, he hosted Sky TV’s Gadget Geeks, CNET’s Car Tech channel, BBC Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition and on the YouTube channel Fast, Furious & Funny.

Learn more about Rory

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