Driving Advice & Safety

Buying A Used Car: Dos and Don'ts

January 18, 2024

14 min read

Leon McKenzie's avatar

Leon McKenzie

Content Writer

Want to get your licence ASAP?

Our driving courses have been rated 'Excellent' 6,000+ times on Trustpilot.

A blue and yellow used car sign

If you're looking to save yourself some money, then buying a used car could do wonders for your budget. Unfortunately, it can get pretty confusing when shopping around dealerships and private sellers. If you're entirely new to the world of buying cars, you might find yourself caught out. To avoid buying an absolute dud, it's important to know what to look out for when buying a used car.

In this guide, we're going to take you through the ultimate dos and don'ts of buying a used car. By the end of it, you'll know exactly what you should be looking for, what questions you need to ask yourself and how to go about haggling.

DO sort out your budget

Calculator app on iPhone on top of a red organiser and marble folder

Buying a used car isn't something you should ever just jump headfirst into. No matter how excited you are to get behind the wheel of a new-ish car, you need to take great care.

For starters, you need to look at your personal finances and sort out your budget for buying a used car. We'd suggest settling on an amount you're willing to pay—along with how far above you're willing to go, if you see an absolute bargain—which you should write down. By doing so, you're making it a bit more concrete. If you set yourself a budget, you'll be far less likely to be persuaded to go higher or overspend.

If you've decided to share a car, you might be able to enjoy a more flexible budget. Now, it's not as simple as just saying, "I'll set aside £800 for a used car". There are additional costs that will need to be factored into buying a used car. For starters, are you going to pay the full price upfront, or are you going to be paying through instalments? The latter will include high interest rates. Additional costs also include car insurance, tax, fuel and MOTs.

Insurance will undoubtedly be the most important factor you'll need to consider. After all, even if you manage to get yourself a bargain, it's no good if you end up having to fork out for eye-watering premiums, is it? If this is something you want to avoid, you might want to look into getting a car that will be cheap to insure.

DON'T be tempted to ignore your budget

It doesn't matter how much the dealer or private seller tells you that you'd be getting an absolute bargain by going a bit over your budget, you've got to remind yourself: you set a budget for a good reason. You've got to remember that maintaining a car is a costly affair, so, if you can stick to your budget (or, even better, buy a used car that's well below it), you'll be able better afford fuel, insurance and the other costs associated with owning a car. It's a car dealer's job to try and convince you to spend more—that doesn't mean you have to listen. So, stick to your guns and avoid overspending!

DO your research

The best way to make sure you actually get what you want when buying a used car is to do your research beforehand. If you just head out to your nearest dealership or private seller without any prior planning, you'll end up with a used car that probably isn't even suited to what you actually need it for. So, to start with, you'll need to run through a checklist of what you want from your vehicle:

  • Are you interested in a particular brand?
  • Do you want petrol or diesel? Or are you in the market for an eco-friendly car?
  • What transmission do you need (manual or automatic)?
  • Do you need a lot of storage space in the boot?

It's vital that you know what kind of features you'll need in your car. If you've got a big family, for example, then you'll obviously need a car with extra seating and storage. If you have to deal with long daily commutes, then a vehicle with better gas mileage is ideal.

Once you've got a list of requirements, you'll want to divide them up into essentials and preferences. Whilst extra storage might be an absolute must, getting a vehicle in a specific colour might only be a preference. If you've got the memory of a goldfish, you might want to consider printing out your requirements or bringing a small notebook with you when you go to look at potential cars. By doing so, you can make sure you don't forget anything important.

DO figure out where to look

A blue and yellow used car sign

The main ways in which you can buy a used car is to either head to a dealership or try a private seller. With dealerships, you tend to get more protection—you'll likely get warranty, finance options and the vehicle will have been inspected by a third party. Plus, you can haggle! That being said, dealerships tend to be more expensive.

With private sellers, however, you can get cheaper deals. Of course, you won't have any of the protection offered by dealerships—if something goes wrong, it's all on you. A factor that will likely play a role in where you want to go to buy your used car is how you intend to pay.

Now, if you head to a dealership, you'll likely get the option of a finance plan. Whilst interest rates will be high, this may be better for your budget short-term. If you go private, however, you'll have to pay it all upfront. If you don't have the cash on hand to afford this, you may need to take out a personal loan.

Depending on where you head to, you'll also want to consider when you want to start looking. Many dealerships have massive sales at different times in the year to coincide with quarterly sales. So, if you're savvy enough, you could save hundreds just by waiting a couple of months. If you don't want to wait around, you might be better suited to heading in on a weekday—it'll be much quieter than going at the weekend.

DON'T buy the first car you see

Whether you're heading to a dealership or taking a look at a car you saw online, you should never settle. Even if you're just desperate to get it over with, you've got to remember that you're looking to buy a car that will, ideally, still be in good shape a few years down the line. If you just buy the first one that vaguely matches your requirements, you could end up with an absolute dud on your hands. You need to take your time and look through everything that's on offer—bringing us to our next suggestion...

DO compare your options

Regardless of whether you're buying a used car from a dealership or private seller, it's important to compare your options. Once you know what kind of car you're looking for, or a specific brand, you can head over to different dealerships and sellers to shop around and see which one will offer you a better deal. If you've only got vague vehicle requirements in mind, you can still compare your options.

Simply have a look online to see where your local dealerships are and visit them when you have the time. Bring a notebook and note down any vehicles that stand out—if you find any similar ones at a different dealership or seller, you can cross-check the price to see who is offering the best deal.

DON'T forget to check the car thoroughly

A mechanical looking under the hood of a bright orange car

Once you find a car that matches your requirements, it's now time for you to check it thoroughly. A few glances won't be able to tell you whether the vehicle's actually in order or not. And, whether the seller is merely ignorant or malicious, they might have missed something vital.

Give the vehicle a physical inspection

Check the bodywork. Walk all the way around the car to check for any dents or scratches. Bear in mind that you won't be able to do this well at night, so, try to schedule it in daylight. If there are a few mild imperfections, you might be able to negotiate a lower price.

Look at the tyres. If the tyres aren't in shape, you might as well just write the vehicle off entirely—you'd have to replace them otherwise. Check that they have at least 1.6mm tread depth—the minimum legal requirement.

Have a look under the hood. What are the fluid levels like? Are there any visible leaks? If anything looks remotely out of place or work, you should ask the dealer or seller about it.

Check the mileage. Most experts agree that the average is around 10,000 miles a year, give or take. If the vehicle's mileage doesn't seem right, you should ask the dealer for more information. If it doesn't add up, it might have been tampered with.

Test the electronics. You should sit inside the car and check that everything works. Wind the windows up and down, and check to see that the radio and AC work properly.

Take a closer look at the interior. Is the upholstery in good condition or have you spotted stains? Do you notice any weird smells? Are all of the seatbelts working correctly? If you're not entirely sure what you should be looking for when inspecting a vehicle, you might want to consider hiring a third party to have a look. Alternatively, if you're looking to save money, you could ask around your friends and family to see if anyone has any expertise with vehicles. A second set of eyes could end up catching an issue you've missed.

Look at its history

Typically, if you're buying a used car at a dealership, the car's history should have already been checked. If you're buying privately, however, it's something you'll definitely have to look into. After all, you don't know if the seller is trying to trick you into buying a faulty vehicle or not. When buying from a dealer, you have a few rights if the car turns out to be faulty. If you're buying privately, however, it's on your head to check it's in order.

Fortunately, the DVLA are firm believers in transparency when it comes to buying used cars. That's why they allow people to look at a vehicle's history using their handy 'get vehicle information' tool. You can cross-check any information you get, such as mileage and MOT history, against information from the DVLA (as long as you have the registration number). You can also check the MOT history of a car with the DVLA. There's no such thing as being too careful when you're buying a used car.

Additionally, you should ask to see the vehicle log book. If the seller says it's not available, then you should wave goodbye then and there. The DVLA caution drivers to never buy a vehicle if it doesn't have a log book. If you do have a look at it, check to see that the name and address of the seller matches the details in the log book. The log book is also a good way of checking how many previous owners there have been—if there have been quite a few in a short amount of time, this could indicate a problem with the vehicle. Don't forget to check if the car has been recalled too.

DO ask plenty of questions

There's no such thing as a dumb question when it comes to buying a used car. Whether you're interested in the car's mileage or wondering about that tiny scratch on the front windscreen, it's important that you ask any question that come to mind. If the seller can't give you a solid answer, then you know that you should probably look elsewhere.

Not sure what kind of questions you should be asking? Here are a few examples:

  • What's the mileage?
  • Has the car been in any accidents?
  • What does the warranty include?
  • Can I look at the MOT certificate and log book?

Remember, you can check to see if they're telling you the truth or not by cross-checking with information from the DVLA.

DON'T forget the test drive

An over the shoulder shot of a male driver

It's not enough to just look over the vehicle, you need to actually experience how it runs. If you're testing a vehicle at a dealership, they'll usually deal with the insurance cover for test drive. If you're looking at a private seller, however, you might need to sort out short term cover yourself.

Once you're behind the wheel, it's time for you to really concentrate—you need to be aware of everything that's going on. You don't want to miss any issues that might be plaguing the car, and it's very important that you're able to adjust to driving your new car. For starters, you should try to drive around a variety of road types and features to ensure the car can handle everything, such as hill starts, motorway driving and roundabouts. You should also try your hand at a few driving manoeuvres.

While you're driving, ask yourself a few questions:

  • Are you comfortable?
  • Are you able to adjust the steering wheel, the seat and the headrest?
  • Does the clutch feel right? What about the other pedals and the handbrake?
  • Are the mirrors in order?
  • Can you hear any strange or annoying noises?

If anything seems amiss, make sure to ask the dealer or seller about it. Also, if you're comparing cars across dealerships or private sellers, make sure you test drive them all—it might look perfect, but it could have an underlying issue that you wouldn't be aware of until you tried it out.

DO haggle

One of the main reasons that people opt to buy a used car is to save money. So, why wouldn't you try to haggle? Even if the thought of doing so makes you sweat a little, it's something that could help you shave hundreds off the overall cost of your car. If you've done extensive research, you should be able to tell if a dealer or private seller is trying to dupe you into paying a higher price.

If they are, give them a lower offer and walk away if they can't meet it. Similarly, if one dealer is offering you a better deal, ask the other if they're willing to match it or offer something even better. Whilst you might find it more difficult to haggle with private sellers, some are willing to offer discounts just to get the vehicle off their hands.

When checking the vehicle over, you should make a careful note of any blemishes or issues—you could use them as ammo to get yourself a slight discount.

DON'T buy it if it's not right

The back of a bright orange car

We can't stress this enough—do not buy a car if it's not the right fit for you. It doesn't matter how much the seller is willing to knock of the price, if it's not what you need, you're just throwing away money for the sake of it. Even if you've spent an hour haggling over the price with a dealer, you shouldn't ever feel obligated to buy the vehicle just because you feel bad.

After all, if you're not careful, you could end up needing to replace the car not long after buying it! Remember—there's always something better out there. If you don't find what you want at a certain dealership or seller, keep on looking—you'll find something eventually.

DON'T get tempted by anything extra

If you're looking for a used car at a dealership, odds are, the dealer will attempt to steer you towards the higher end of whatever vehicle type or brand you're looking at. They'll also likely try to throw in additional features just to bump up the overall cost. Whether it's a sat nav, cruise control or alloy wheels, you've got to ask yourself: do you really need it? If the answer's no, don't be afraid to shoot them down—they won't take it personally!

DO check the paperwork

A marble folder with sheets of paper and a sign here note

Unfortunately, buying a used car means having to look at a lot of paperwork. Even if the though of leafing through it all makes you want to cry, it's something that you need to do before you start signing anything.

  • Vehicle log book (V5C): typically, both parties will sign the relevant sections in a vehicle log book and then post it over to the DVLA, who will then send you a new and updated log book. Alternatively, you can be registered as the vehicle's new keeper online. Do not buy a vehicle if it doesn't have a log book.
  • Car manual: if you ever run into any technical problems with your car, it will save you a lot of time and energy if you have the correct car manual to hand. You'll be able to use it to find the answer to most of your questions.
  • Contract: though it might seem obvious, it's important that you have a copy of your contract to prove that the deal has gone through properly and that you've paid for it—or have sorted out the instalments. Check to make sure it has your correct details on it, e.g., your full name and address.

DON'T forget to arrange tax and insurance

Once you're the new keeper of the vehicle, it's, unfortunately, not as simple as just driving away from the dealer or private seller. You have two main things to sort out: car insurance and tax. You can't legally drive your newly purchased used car unless you're covered by insurance. Some dealerships might include short term insurance to essentially cover you for your way home, however, it will vary depending on where you go. It's your responsibility to sort out your car insurance—you could end up with a hefty fine and points on your licence if you're caught driving without insurance.

Not sure what you need? We've got some top insurance guides to help:

You'll also need to tax your car. To do this, you'll need the 'new keeper' slip from your vehicle log book. If you have it, you'll need your number plate and the 12-digit reference number from your log book.

Haven't received your vehicle log book? That's fine, you can just apply for a new V5C.


Why should I buy a used car?

If you’re looking for ways to save money, you really can’t go wrong with buying a used car. Nowadays, you can get a pretty decent second-hand car that meets your budget and still gives you room to afford insurance, fuel and all the other associated costs. It certainly can’t hurt to look—so get out there. If you don’t find anything, you can start looking at new cars instead. Not sure which is best for you? Read up on our guide to buying a new or used car.

What’s cheaper to buy, manual or automatic?

Manual cars tend to be a lot cheaper than automatic cars. That's because it's usually more expensive to repair automatic cars because of the parts involved. If you’ve only got an automatic licence, you’ll either need to fork out that bit extra for a used car or look into getting your manual licence.

How do I avoid buying a used car with faults?

It’s pretty simple really. For starters, do a thorough inspection of the car—check the exterior, interior and under the hood. Then, take it for a test drive and make sure you take the car on a varied route that will give you plenty of opportunity to test its full capabilities. If you’re not very car-savvy, bring along someone who knows what they’re doing.

What do I need to look for in the vehicle’s log book?

For starters, look at how many owners the vehicle has had—if there have been many, it could indicate an underlying issue with the car. Then, look at its mileage and cross-check it with the information given to you by the dealer. If you’re buying privately, check to see that their name matches the name of the registered keeper.

Is it better to buy privately or from a dealership?

Whilst you might get a cheaper deal from a private seller, you don’t get as much protection as you would with a dealership. You won’t get warranty or a finance plan, and if something goes wrong, it’s mostly on your head. Of course, if you keep our dos and don’ts in mind, you should be able to wade the waters of buying from a private seller.

Will I need extended warranty?

As we’ve said, dealers are always looking for ways to bump up the overall cost of the exchange. As such, they’ll likely try to push extended warranty on you—which can be pretty darn hefty. If you think it’s worthwhile, then it’s definitely something to consider—it is an investment after all. That being said, many drivers who purchase extended warranty never end up using it.

Can I drive my new car right away?

If you have insurance cover, yes! Every driver on the road is legally required to insure and tax their vehicle. If you’re caught driving without insurance or tax, you could get fined, penalty points and even disqualified from driving altogether. So, make sure you’ve sorted out both insurance and tax before you get behind the wheel!

Would I be able to get a third party to check a used car?

Yep! You shouldn’t have an issue with bringing along an expert to have a look at a used car you’re interested in. Whether it’s a private seller or a dealer, if they kick up a fuss at you bringing in a third party, then you know there might be something they don’t want you to know. It definitely couldn't hurt to have a second set of eyes.

Subscribe for driving advice, offers & more

We'd love to let you know about our courses, news and offers via email. You may unsubscribe at any time.

Star Genie Limited trading as PassMeFast. Company number 10093359

Copyright © 2024 owned by Star Genie Limited

PassMeFast, Blue Tower, MediaCityUK, Salford, M50 2ST