How to buy a used car

Hunting for a second-hand car needn’t be stressful. Follow our guide to avoid the pitfalls and make sure you get the deal you want...

There are plenty of pitfalls for unwary used car buyers. Second-hand vehicles consistently top the list of most complained-about products at Government helpline service Consumer Direct. But it doesn’t have to be a nightmare.

Put in the legwork, do some research, and there’s no reason buying used should be any more stressful than buying new.

And to help make sure shopping for your next car is fun – as it should be – we’ve put together the ultimate used buying guide.

Choosing your next car 

With so many cars available, selecting the right model can be daunting. Thankfully, Auto Express has you covered. We’ve named our top second-hand buys in a range of price bands. Whether you’re looking to spend £500 or £50,000, we point you to the best models for your budget. We’re going to pick a car and put our tips into practice.

With a budget of £5,000, we looked through our used round-up and decided on a Ford Focus MkII. A glance at the Car Data pages in old issues of Auto Express (when the MkII was still new) suggested the 1.6 or 1.8-litre TDCi diesels mix economy and performance best.

Armed with that information, we then got an idea of what our budget would stretch to. Running searches on classified ad sites such as www.gumtree.co.uk and www.autotrader.co.uk is a great way to get a feel for values. You can also get price ranges from guides like Cap and Glass’s. Our search revealed that the 1.6 and 1.8-litre TDCi models are common, which should make finding a good one easy. It also told us that our budget should stretch to a 2006-2009 car.

Research

Once you know the make, model, age and engine size of the car you want, you need to find out if it suffers from any common faults. That way, you’ll know what to look out for when you go to view some examples.

The people to ask about this are those who know the model best: current owners. That’s what makes the results of our annual Driver Power satisfaction survey essential reading. We’ll publish the results of our 2012 poll in 

the next few weeks, and you can view data from previous years online.

There are also online forums for almost every model of car, so log on to see what common faults are mentioned. You can even ask what to look for. We left a message on the www.fordownersclub.com site and got this response: “I have a 2006 1.6 TDCi. Good cars, but turbos go if not serviced regularly, so get one with a full history.”

We were already planning to look for a full service history – but we now knew to check for signs of turbo trouble, too. If you can’t find what you’re looking for online, you can always call a local specialist garage.

You should also check the Vehicle and Operator Services Agency (VOSA) website for details of any recalls affecting your chosen car. We found that Focuses built between 1 November 2008 and 12 March 2009 were recalled for a brake problem, so we had to make sure that this had been resolved on any car we looked at built between those dates.

Where to buy

If you’re prepared to pay extra for peace of mind, go to a franchised dealer. But we searched several dealer listings, and even five or six-year-old cars came in hundreds of pounds over our budget. The best deal we found was £5,494 for a 2006 1.8 TDCi Zetec. Yet there’s always room to negotiate, and even if you can’t get the price down, you may be able to secure extras like a free service.

Manufacturers’ used schemes usually include a warranty, plus you’ll know your car has been serviced to the maker’s guidelines and that spare keys and service packs will be included.

But make sure you’re getting your money’s worth. Ask for a copy of the technician’s check sheet for proof the multipoint inspection has been done. And check the logbook before buying – that ‘one previous owner’ could have been a rental company, and hire cars often have a hard life.

Second-hand specialists offer the benefits of face-to-face service without a price premium. We saw a 2008 Focus 1.6 TDCi for £3,500 at an independent garage. It was listed as having one previous owner and a full service history (although without seeing the car, we don’t know its condition). But be warned: there are some unscrupulous traders out there. Use a personal recommendation if possible and look for well maintained, privately owned cars.

You shouldn’t be nervous about buying a car online. Web retailers go out of their way to ensure peace of mind, plus they offer great discounts and you’re well protected legally. Tesco Cars, for example, lets you view the car before buying. As well as providing an HPI check and an RAC inspection, the company uploads a video of an RAC technician doing a test drive.

When buying online, you’re protected by the laws governing distance selling, which give you the right to a no-quibble return within seven days of delivery. We found a 2006 1.8 TDCi hatch in Titanium spec online for £4,795, and a 1.8 TDCi estate for £3,725.

But if you’re looking to pick up a real bargain, you may need to buy at auction or from a private seller. Just be warned: you don’t have the same legal protection as when buying online or from a garage. Always bear in mind that if something seems too good to be true, it usually is.

The test drive

It’s a good idea to test a few examples of any car you’re considering, so you’ll notice problems on any one of them. Walk away from any seller who tries to put you off taking a test drive. Aside from the fact they’re probably hiding a problem, failing to test-drive a car that you end up buying affects your legal rights. You won’t be able to reject a car over a fault that you would have noticed had you driven it before buying.

If a car has been warmed up before you test drive it, watch out – the seller could by trying to hide something like noisy tappets or engine wear. Watch and listen for smoke and noise once the engine’s turned on. Before setting off, turn the wheel from lock to lock and listen for groans – that’s likely to be a worn power-steering rack. Go through all the controls, making sure they work properly.

Switch off the engine and turn the ignition key again to check all the warning lights illuminate, then go out immediately. Dodgy dealers sometimes remove or disconnect bulbs to hide any obvious problems.

Switch off the engine again, push the brake pedal a few times and then hold it down. Restart, and the pedal should drop a bit – if it doesn’t, there may be a fluid or air leak in the braking system. Listen to the engine ticking over, too; if it sounds irregular, there’s a problem that should be identified.

Drive for at least six miles to give the car a chance to warm up. During the drive, listen for odd noises from the engine, suspension and gearbox. And when turn the engine off, make sure that the cooling fan kicks in.

Top haggling tips from inside the trade Steve d’Arnaud is the buyer for MD Cars in Long Melford, Suffolk. He’s in the thick of it every day, negotiating discounts and getting deals done. So he’s the perfect person to advise you about haggling.

Steve told us, “The best way to get a deal is to show your intent to buy. Show you’re serious. Every deal is important to dealers right now, so if they know you’re really interested, you’re more likely to get what you want.

“Always do your homework before you go and have a figure in mind. Negotiate on cash – don’t complicate the deal with extras like a full tank of fuel. Have a price to aim for and start a bit below that, but don’t offend the dealer.

“If the car’s up for £6,000 and you offer £5,000, you’ll probably get his back up. You can usually negotiate £250 to £500 off the price if you handle things well.”

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