Tips and Advice

Questions to ask when buying a used car

Asking the right questions is vital when you’re buying a used car. We show you how

Buying a used car should be by and large an exciting experience. You have an amount of cash – or a finance allocation – just sitting there, ready to be used to buy your dream car and now all you have to do is find it. However, before you get carried away with the thrill of the chase, it’s wise to remember there are some pitfalls that can catch out the unwary, particularly when buying a used car privately.

By asking a few important questions you can ensure that your used car dream doesn’t become an expensive nightmare. There are also a few things you can investigate before setting out on your buying journey – your confidence to negotiate will be boosted if you go in with all the right information, and know what to look for when buying used car.

When buying a used car privately, paperwork is all-important. The same is true when buying a used car from a dealer, but in that case there are various legal protections in your favour.

Don't be afraid to ask questions wherever you choose to buy, either. Although there’s no obligation for sellers to volunteer information about a car they’re selling, any questions you ask must be answered truthfully – otherwise the vendor is breaking the law.

As well as asking questions, we always recommend inspecting a used car with your own eyes, or having an inspection carried out by a professional. We've produced a handy guide to help you checking a used car to ensure the car is as it was described.

Use this feature as a 'buying a secondhand car checklist'. It'll ensure you’re fully informed before you buy and will take the uncertainty out of used car buying.

Can the car be legally sold?

A car cannot be legally sold if it’s subject to outstanding finance, so this should be one of your first questions. If you’re buying from a dealer, it must also adhere to the Consumer Rights Act, which states that any product sold must be ‘of satisfactory quality’, ‘fit for purpose’ and ‘as described’.

A seller must also tell you if the car has been recorded as an insurance write-off.

If a car is unroadworthy, it must be described as such and must be sold on the understanding that it’s to be repaired or used for spare parts – hence the phrase ‘spares or repair’ sometimes being used in adverts.

Finally, the seller must have legal title to sell the car. That means you must ensure you’re dealing with the person named on the logbook as the registered keeper. Car dealers are the exception here, as they’re simply moving the car on, rather than keeping it.

Is the logbook present?

Be extremely wary if the seller cannot promptly produce the car’s current registration certificate (V5C) in complete, unaltered condition.

Registration certificates do get lost all the time, but the seller should have contacted the DVLA and requested a replacement before the car is sold.

If the seller only has the ‘green slip’ for the car, it could indicate that they’ve only recently taken possession of the car and a new registration document hasn’t yet been issued in their name. This could also hint that the seller is a dealer masquerading as a private seller in order to circumvent the Consumer Rights Act.

If the registration document is present, but the yellow section is missing, this may indicate the car has been passed to a dealer by its previous keeper. If this is the case, then you’re buying from a dealer – not privately.

If the green ‘new keeper supplement’ is missing from the registration document, the seller will need to order a replacement V5C registration document.

Without the new keeper supplement, you’ll have little proof of ownership of the car, as this constitutes your temporary registration certificate until the DVLA issues you a new one.

Is the seller the registered keeper?

Sometimes a car will be offered for sale privately on behalf of the registered keeper. Exercise extreme caution in this case, as there may be questions that the seller cannot answer. There may also be legal implications if it later becomes apparent that the seller didn’t have proper authorisation to sell the car.

You can visit the DVLA website to see if you can get information about a car’s registered keeper.

Dealer or private?

A car dealer is generally the safest place to buy a used car, as there’s a degree of legal protection implied by its status as a business. A car dealer has an obligation to properly prepare a car before sale, including verifying that its recorded mileage is correct.

Since 1 October 2015, car buyers are protected by the Consumer Rights Act, legislation that replaced the Sale of Goods Act and the Supply of Goods and Services Act. It states that products must be:

- Of satisfactory quality

- Fit for purpose

- As described

- Sold with the legal right to do so

The dealer is liable for faults with the vehicle that would make it ‘not of satisfactory quality’. This includes faults that only become apparent later, but were present at the time of sale.

If you buy from a dealer, you’re entitled to reject it within the first 30 days of ownership if it’s found not to be of satisfactory quality, fit for purpose or as described.

See for more details of the protection afforded by the Consumer Rights Act.

When buying a car privately, you have very little legal protection. A contract for a private vehicle sale is covered by only the following terms:

- The seller must have the right to sell the car

- The car should match the description given by the seller

- The car must be roadworthy. Selling an unroadworthy without making the buyer aware is an offence. Remember that just because a car has a valid MoT, it could still be unroadworthy, having developed faults since passing the test.

It’s down to you, the buyer, to ask questions of the seller, as they’re under no obligation to answer questions other than those above. Of course, if they’re unwilling or unable to co-operate, then it’s probably time to look at some other cars.

Will I be able to drive the used car home?

By saying yes to this question and selling the car ‘as described’, the seller is implying that the car is roadworthy. For this to be true, it must have a valid MoT certificate and must be free of any known issues that could cause it to break down on the trip.

If the car is found to be unroadworthy, the seller has breached the ‘sold as described’ part of the sales contract.

Note that you can’t legally drive a car home unless you’ve arranged the road fund licence (road tax) first. In order to do that, the car needs to have a valid MoT and you need the registration document or new keeper supplement. You’ll also need to arrange insurance cover.

Note that any road tax remaining on a car can no longer be transferred to a new owner.

Should I buy a car sight unseen?

Once upon a time, buying a car without seeing it was very unusual. If you’re looking at a car advertised by a private seller or independent garage, it’s strongly recommended that you inspect the car to your own satisfaction before agreeing a deal – with a private seller, you may only get one chance to check that the car is up to scratch before driving away.

However, with virtually every approved used car retailer listing its stock on national websites as well as those belonging to its own dealer franchise group, a buyer in Penzance could well find their dream car online, advertised by a dealer in Inverness. In this case, it would be mutually agreeable for both parties that a deal to be reached without buyer or seller having to travel hundreds of miles. This is where third-party online car suppliers come in.

With the increase in online brokers, car search services and – in an increasing number of cases – direct links to the manufacturer, it’s not at all unusual to order your car and never actually see it until it’s delivered to an address you’ve provided. Where in the country the car has actually come from is irrelevant to the buyer. In many ways, it’s surprising that buying a car sight-unseen through an online supplier didn’t become the norm a long time ago.

The largest online suppliers source their cars from all over the country, having been kept up-to-date by the dealer networks and been furnished with the latest stock lists. This makes buying a used car extremely convenient – and there’s another big advantage in that the price given for a car will typically be extremely competitive, so there’s no need to embark on the intimidating process of haggling.

A car listed on an online supplier’s website will have been described in full by the seller – the supplier is essentially listing the car on the seller’s behalf. If you buy a car from an online supplier, they’ll become your sole contact point for all aspects of the transaction – there should be no need at all to ever contact the dealer from which the car was sourced.

If you’ve bought a car through an online supplier and it turns out to have a defect when it arrives, you should contact them immediately. As they have supplied the car to you, it’s their responsibility to ensure that it matches the description you were issued. Any faults, whether mechanical or cosmetic, should have been stated up front to them by the supplying dealer. It’s up to your supplier to make sure that you, the customer, are aware of – and happy with – the condition of the car.

On reporting a fault, it’s reasonable to insist the supplier makes any arrangements necessary to resolve the situation. They should then make contact with a local dealer to arrange diagnosis or repair, but in many cases they’ll need you to take the car to the dealer yourself. In fact, this is no bad thing, allowing you to get to know the team at your local dealer.

If you arrive at the dealer to find that your supplier hasn’t made contact with them, we strongly recommend that you speak to your supplying contact directly and with urgency.

If all the above sounds like hassle, remember that in the majority of cases an online car purchase goes without a hitch, and is well worth considering for its convenience, huge range of choice and often a significant cost saving.

Does the car have unpaid finance?

We strongly recommend paying for a vehicle history check on any car you’re planning to buy. HPI and Experian are two of the biggest names that do this, although others are available.

These checks will tell you whether the car has ever been declared an insurance write-off or recorded as stolen and whether there’s any unpaid finance outstanding against it.

Unpaid finance means the car isn’t wholly owned by the seller. If the finance isn’t fully settled before you take ownership, it means that the seller wasn’t legally entitled to sell it. There’s a possibility the car could later be seized from you by debt collectors operating on behalf of the debtee (usually a bank or finance company).

Dealers are responsible for ensuring this settlement is made before the car is transferred to a new keeper. A private seller is also committing an offence if they knowingly sell a car with outstanding finance.

Has the car been written off?

Sometimes, if a car has sustained damage due to a crash, flood or vandalism, the insurer can make decide to write it off if it’s not financially viable to repair.

If the car is considered to have been so badly damaged that it should never be returned to the road, it’ll have been recorded as a Category A or Category B ‘total loss’. Category A cars have to be crushed in their entirety, while Category B cars may be stripped for useable parts.

If a car has been recorded as a Category C or Category D write-off, it can legally be repaired and put back on the road, providing its previous status as a write-off is declared to the buyer. These cars can be quite attractively priced and can therefore be good value if the repairs have been done properly – but it can be hard to tell just how well the work has been carried out, and if it isn’t up to scratch, safety could be compromised in a crash.

The previous owner of a Cat C or Cat D car should have sent off for a replacement vehicle registration document (V5C), which will be updated to display a record of the car having been written off and what category it’s in. All documentation concerning the repair work should ideally be made available to you, too.

Remember, though, that however attractively priced a written-off car may seem, its value will remain lower than an equivalent car with a clean record when you come to sell it on. Category C and D cars can also be more expensive to insure.

Read our guide for an in-depth view of Category C and Category D repaired cars.

Has the car ever been in a crash?

Whether this is anything to worry about depends on the severity of the incident. Minor bumps and collisions happen all the time and – assuming the car has been repaired to a good standard – there’s no reason that it should present a problem, as long as the seller is honest and provides documentation to confirm the repairs.

What should I look for when buying a used car?

There are a number of visual giveaways that can show a car has had bodywork repair, including – but not limited to – the following:

- Does the car sit squarely on the road or does it appear higher at one end or on one side?

- Are there any body panels that appear a slightly different colour to the others?

- Do the the gaps around the doors and between body panels appear even?

- Do the bonnet and bootlid close squarely and easily?

- Do the front and rear bumpers sit with the bodywork squarely at both sides?

- Are there any decorative trims that are cleaner or newer on one side of the car than the other?

A well trained eye will be able to detect whether a panel has been repainted by comparing the paint finish with that of panels elsewhere on the car.

Although evidence of a previous repair doesn’t necessarily mean a car is unsafe, it could affect the value of the car when you come to sell it on.

If you’re at all uncomfortable about the repair history of a car, walk away. There are plenty of others out there.

We always recommend getting an independent inspection carried out prior to buying a car. If you’re a member of a breakdown service such as the AA or RAC, they may be able to offer this service.

Does the car have service history?

Depending on a car’s age and value, the value of a stamped manufacturer (main dealer) service history can vary.

If you’re buying a used car that’s still within the manufacturer's warranty period, we advise that you confirm it’s been serviced at the correct intervals by a main dealer’s official workshop. If nothing else, this is a good indicator that the car has had care lavished on it. Also, if a car has been regularly visiting an official workshop, any updates, recalls and service measures due should have been performed.

Older cars may not have a full workshop service history, but it’s always reassuring to see a maintenance record of some description, even if it amounts to a collection of receipts for oil and spare parts. Any history is worth having, as it provides a good clue of how well a car has been looked after.

Does the car have a current MoT?

If you’re looking at a used car and it doesn’t have a current MoT, ask yourself why. The official maximum fee for an MoT is currently £54.85 and many test centres charge less, so there’s no real reason for a seller to not MoT a car.

If the car is advertised as roadworthy yet doesn’t have a current MoT (or has a very short one) ask the seller to ‘put their money where their mouth is’ and have the car tested as a condition of sale. If the seller doesn’t agree to this, we’d advise you to find another car.

Is the car what I’m told it is?

With the seller obliged to sell the car ‘as described’, it’s worth checking that the specification of the car matches its description.

Make a note of any specific features advertised and confirm their presence in the car when you look at it. If the car is advertised with metallic paint, check carefully that this is true. Does the car have air-conditioning if it’s described as doing so? And does it work properly?

It’s worth asking the seller to substantiate all the features they’ve indicated, as well as confirming whether they were factory fitted or added at a later date – the latter can often be the case with stereo systems.

Am I happy with the car’s condition?

It’s the responsibility of the buyer to accept the condition of a used car. Any used car will have been subjected to a degree of wear and tear. Before you agree to buy, be careful to inspect the car as thoroughly as you can.

Once the buyer has signed their acceptance, there’s very little obligation (apart from discretionary good will) for a dealer to repair cosmetic faults that are discovered later on.

There’s virtually no comeback in a private sale in this regard, as cars are essentially ‘sold as seen’.

Does the car have a warranty?

If the car’s age means it’s still under the manufacturer’s original warranty, this should transfer to the new keeper automatically. Private sellers have no obligation to provide a warranty, but the car must be ‘as described’.

Dealers are also under no obligation to provide a warranty, although as explained above, you do have a greater degree of protection than in a private sale, thanks to the Consumer Rights Act 2015. If the dealer is unwilling to offer a warranty, ask them why.

Aftermarket warranties are available from a number of suppliers, at various costs and offering various degrees of cover. Before choosing a policy, it’s worth checking for any specific exclusions and also whether you’re free to choose where you get the car repaired if you have to make claim.

Read our guide to car warranties.

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