Top Tips for Buying a Used Car

by Dave Humphreys | 8 min read     April 26th, 2018

Buying a used car doesn’t have to be a daunting process. In fact, if you use some of these top tips, you could end up getting yourself a great deal. The first important task is to narrow your options down to a shortlist of potential models. You may be just looking to upgrade a few years, or you might need to find a different type of car due to changes in circumstance, like a longer or shorter commute or the need for more space with a growing family.

Prioritise What it Will Be Used For

When compiling your shortlist of potential models to consider it’s worthwhile to sit down and work out just how you‘re going to use your next car. Leave any emotional factors like a car’s design or styling aside for now; you need to put your sensible hat on. Do you need more luggage space or additional seating? Maybe you need a car that can carry a higher number of booster or child seats. Working out how much you’re going to use it and over what average distances should also be a factor in determining whether you look at diesel, petrol, electric or hybrid.

Get an Idea of Recurring Costs

Factors such as what your monthly motoring budget is going to be and what your average weekly or monthly mileage works out at need consideration. The cost of annual motor tax may differ if you’re getting a different type of car than your current model. Your insurance premium may also go up (or down) depending on the models chosen. It’s also worthwhile to do some research on typical maintenance costs for the models that you are considering. One useful advice in this research is the AA’s cost of motoring section.

Shop Around and Take your Time

It’s a phrase that’s frequently used, but do shop around, especially if it’s a popular model that you’re looking to buy. Taking some time to see a few different examples could make a lot of difference to what you end up paying for your used car. Don’t be surprised to hear dealers mentioning that it may be “their last model in stock” or that “several people are  interested in the car”, these are all sales tactics that are used to try to rush you into making the purchase. Remember, you’re the one in the driving seat here.

Bring a Friend, not the Money

If you’re viewing a car that’s for sale privately, take some simple precautions just to be on the safe side. Most people who are selling a car in the private market are genuine, but it’s important to take certain steps to ensure your safety. Agree to meet in a suitable location, ideally a busy area such as a retail park during the day. Bring a friend along with you and don’t bring all of the money. Most honest sellers will be happy to agree to a deal and accept a small holding deposit. Any pushy behaviour or request for payment in full and upfront should be considered suspicious, so it may be best to walk away at this point.

Take a Test Drive

Taking more than one example of the model you’re considering for a test drive will give you a clearer indication of whether there’s anything askew with it. Always test drive a car before sitting down to make a deal on it.

If you’re going to take a car out from a dealership you will typically be covered by its motor trade policy. However, don’t just assume that this is the case, ask for confirmation and whether you need to be accompanied by a member of staff or not. Don’t be afraid to ask for details on this. Even though the staff may conduct test drives all the time, you don’t, so take that extra few minutes to ensure the correct cover is in place. If you were to have an accident, they may try to push liability to your own personal policy.

Similarly, if you are planning to test drive a car that is for sale privately you need to be certain that you are correctly covered. You may have a policy that allows you to drive other cars, but as is often the case, this may insure you for third party only. Calling your insurance provider to arrange a temporary substitution is the best practice, but keep in mind that if you’re planning a test drive for an evening or weekend that their offices may be closed and unable to facilitate this.

With the insurance cover in place, there are a few things that you should try to ensure doing. If possible, drive on roads that are familiar to you. Ideally taking a route on or close to what your daily commute would be. It’s also worth trying to arrange a more extended test drive.

If you’re trying a new type of car, a lot of it is going to be unfamiliar to you at the start. Make sure that you have sufficient levels of adjustment in the seat and steering to get into a comfortable driving position. Buttons and other switchgear may be in different locations than your car so take a moment to try to see where everything is before driving.

One other thing, if possible, is to start the engine from cold. Doing this may help to highlight any underlying mechanical issues or signal that the battery or starter may need replacing. It is usually easier to start an engine that is already up to operating temperature. Keep the radio off so that you can listen out for any unusual sounds from the car that may signify a mechanical issue with it. 

Find a clear and straight section of road and loosen your grip slightly on the wheel to see if the car is pulling to one side or another. It should track straight. Similarly, also do this while braking. If it's moving to one side, the wheel alignment may be out. It could be a simple fix, but be aware that it may be a more serious issue. Afterwards park the car up and turn the wheel fully from lock to lock, listening out for any irregular sounds. Use this opportunity to check for any uneven tyre wear, as this may also indicate an issue with the car’s tracking.

Take a Good Look Around the Car

Most of the time when you’re viewing a car that's for sale it will be quite clean. Nevertheless, do have a thorough look at all the panels and bodywork. You want to be on the lookout for anything that may indicate if the car has been repaired, possibly as the result of an accident. For example, if black plastics on the rear bumper are slightly faded from age but those on the front are shiny and newer looking the car may have had a new bumper fitted. Minor repairs aren't an issue, especially if they've been carried out correctly, but it's better to know everything about the car before you buy.

The car’s paintwork should be all one consistent colour. It’s not unusual for a car’s paint to lose some of its vibrancy over time, but this should be uniform throughout the car’s exterior. Take a look at the panel gaps around the car to see if any spacing or gaps look off. Are they too big, crooked, etc? .

Another important thing to consider, especially if viewing a car that you may be buying privately, is to inspect it visually in the daytime and when it’s dry. It can be easy to miss visual details in the paintwork and on the car’s body otherwise.

It’s not uncommon for some older cars to have an odd spot of rust or a bubble underneath the paint. Where you don’t want to find rust is in the sills of the car (the floor section between the front and rear wheels), and the wheel arches. These areas can prove costly to repair or replace and will likely lead to NCT-related issues further down the line. Learn more on  how to prepare for your NCT.

Be just as Thorough Inside


Take a few moments to take a good look at the interior of the car. Check that every button and switch is functioning correctly, including air-conditioning, electric windows, lights and the stereo.

If a car has recently had a dead battery or it has been replaced, some modern cars may require a radio code to be inputted to reactivate the stereo. Should this be the case, it may be a sign that something has been done with the car. Ensure that the radio code is present, as if it isn’t it can be a further expense to get it from an authorised garage. This code may already be present in the car's handbooks, so look for these too.

It’s also a good idea to check that the seats can be adjusted in whatever way they’re meant to, especially in the case of electrically adjustable ones. For cars that have heated seats check that this function is also operating correctly.

Finally, pay close attention to any warning lights or symbols that may be present on the instrument display. It may be the case that something simple like a brake or headlight bulb is gone, but if there’s a more serious one such as engine management or airbag warning lights on, it’s best to walk away.

Check Under the Bonnet and car

When you get back from a test drive, pop open the bonnet and give it a quick visual inspection. You don’t need to be a mechanic, just look out for any areas that indicate any leak or fluid loss. Then have a look underneath to see if there are any drops of oil coming from the car. Most smartphones nowadays have a bright LED torch on them, so this may help. If not, it’s no harm to bring a small pocket torch with you to help see.

Do a History Check

If you’ve narrowed in on a particular car that you’re keen to buy it is important that you do a background check on it. Most reputable car history websites such as can confirm details of a vehicle such as the chassis (VIN) numbers, last recorded mileage and any information relating to whether the vehicle has a previous history of being a write-off. These reports don’t cost much money and can be done quickly using only the registration number of the vehicle. Given the money that you’re going to spend on the car, it is well worthwhile doing this check for added peace of mind if nothing else.

Make sure the Paperwork is Right

When completing the purchase, it's a good idea to have a checklist prepared in advance. You want to ensure that you're getting any spare keys that come with the car and the necessary motor tax discs, assuming the vehicle is currently taxed. Take a good look through the Vehicle Licensing Certificate (VLC) for the car to double check that the details match.

Changeover your Insurance

Finally, before you drive away in your new car don't forget to notify your insurance company. It's easy to forget in the excitement, but you need to ensure that you have sufficient insurance cover in place before hitting the road.


Information correct as of date of publishing. This blog will not be updated or edited so the information may become outdated.

Dave Humphreys
Motoring journalist on 2 & 4 wheels. Road Test Editor @CompleteCar, Editor @50to70 & @EngineRoomShow. Writer for @CE_editorial & more. AUTOBEST Jury member