Buying Guides

  • Introduction

    Getting started. Don't be daunted; be excited about buying that new car!

    It's exciting buying a used car, but it can be daunting too, as there are so many things you have to consider. Working out what to buy, where to buy it and how to buy something that isn't a liability can be a minefield, but if you do your homework you can minimise the risks.

    In this guide we'll show you what those risks are and how you can avoid them. With one in three used cars having something to hide, you need to tread carefully before handing over any money.

    One of the ways you can protect yourself is by investing in an HPI vehicle history check, which will flag up whether the car is an insurance write-off, has been stolen or has outstanding finance on it, or if it's been clocked.

    If you come across a car for sale that fits into any of these categories, tell your local Trading Standards office about it. And if you buy a car that proves to be nothing but trouble, there are laws to protect you – especially if you're buying from a trader. If those laws are broken, your local Citizens' Advice Bureau is there to help.

    At the end of this guide is a checklist with a score card, along with a contract for you to fill in at the point of purchase. Fill them out for any potential purchase and that way you can minimise the chances of being landed with a lemon.

  • What To Buy

    How to work out which of the thousands of cars for sale is the one for you

    There are hundreds of makes and models of car to choose from and working out which is right for you may not be easy. Even if your budget is small, all sorts of car types will be within reach, so think about:

    If having fun is more important than practicality, a coupé or convertible might suit. But if you're buying a family car, a hatchback, estate, MPV or SUV will be more appropriate.
    If you cover over 10,000 miles per year, diesel is probably best, but you'll pay more for one, the fuel itself is more expensive and petrol cars are often more reliable.
    Also how reliable the car is likely to be. A good guide to this is at
    Self-shifting gears can be a real bonus with today's traffic levels, but cars with an automatic gearbox tend to be more thirsty, less reliable and more costly to buy.

    Don't be put off by a high-mileage ex-company car, as these tend to be very affordable. They're normally cared for mechanically (you can check the bodywork, interior and service history easily enough), but most of the miles will have been covered at running temperature. Low-mileage cars that have done lots of very short journeys will have been run cold most of the time – and that's really bad news for the engine.

  • Where To Buy

    Which matters more to you; saving money or having peace of mind?

    There are lots of places to buy a used car. The more legwork you put in, the greater the savings. Buying privately or at auction are the cheapest options, but these also offer the least protection. So if you want peace of mind you're better off paying more to buy from a dealer.

    However, some dealers trade as private sellers so they don't have to comply with an array of rules, so be wary of anybody you think might be doing this. A good start is to see how long they've owned the car they're now selling.

    One of the cheapest options, but beware of over-optimistic pricing and there's no warranty. The car must be advertised honestly though, so look out for vague statements or areas glossed over altogether.
    Usually have the newest cars in stock, which will often be better cared for and have lower mileages. A warranty has to be offered and you have protection, but prices also tend to be the highest here.
    Generally offer the same facilities as a franchised dealer, but the cars tend to be higher mileage so they're a bit more affordable. You still get a warranty and the weight of the law on your side as a result.
    These offer low prices as they sell lots of cars ¬and make a small profit on each. They tend to focus on mainstream cars, but there's usually plenty of choice and sometimes they get something in that's a bit more specialised.
    The lowest prices are here, but it's easy to buy a heap if you're not careful. There are lots of good cars too, but you typically get just one hour's warranty covering only major parts of the car. Buy badly and you're almost certainly on your own.
  • The Paperwork

    Never buy a car until you've ensured all of the paperwork is in order

    Before you can make a decision on buying a car you need to ensure that the paperwork is in order. The key pieces of paper you need are:

    Don't buy a car without one of these and make sure it's genuine by looking for the watermark. The V5C tells you how many owners the car has had and who it's registered to, but that person isn't necessarily the legal owner of the car. The name on the V5C is the person to whom any fines will be sent; not telling the DVLA of a change in vehicle ownership is an offence. If there's no V5C to hand, you can apply for a new one – but why isn't it available? If it's been mislaid, the vendor should have applied for a replacement before selling.

    All cars need an MoT roadworthiness check from three years after their date of first registration. With the system now fully computerised, everything is logged centrally and can be looked up instantly at If a car isn't MoTed it can't be taxed – and neither will it be insured. You can put a car through an MoT at any time.

    There's no requirement to display a tax disc and the DVLA no longer issues them. When a car is sold, the vendor has to cash in the road tax so you'll have to buy your own. Current rates are listed at

    Ideally the car will have been maintained by the supplying dealer from new, but what you're after is proof of regular servicing. You can also ensure the mileage goes up in the right stages. If there's no service history, you've got no evidence that the car has been maintained.

  • Key Checks

    You don't need to be a mechanic to see if that car is a wrong 'un

    If you're happy with all the paperwork, the next step is to take a close look at the car. You don't have to be mechanically minded to check out the basics, as it may be obvious that the car has been neglected or poorly repaired after a crash.

    If you can't afford a professional inspection but you're really not comfortable making your own checks, get the car MoTed. You can do this at any time and while an MoT isn't as comprehensive as a full professional inspection, it will tell you if the car is roadworthy and is likely to need significant money spent on it in the near future.

    Look closely for dents and scrapes in the bodywork. Any damage will be costly to put right, so haggle accordingly or walk away. If the panels don't line up properly (especially the bonnet), the car may have been crashed then poorly repaired.

    Check for rust that's been painted over, plus filler in the wheelarches. Once rust arrives, it's very hard to eradicate.

    Is the interior undamaged, along with all the glass? Are there any stickers on the windows which may have been put on to cover an old registration number etched onto the glass?

    Do the tyres have plenty of tread, with no uneven wear? If they're worn out altogether you'll need to budget for new tyres. If they've worn unevenly it could be poorly aligned tracking or something more serious – such as a twisted bodyshell because of poor accident repairs.

    Do all the speedo digits line up properly? Are the old MoTs to hand and does the mileage recorded on these forms tie in with what's displayed? If the mileage readout is digital, it can be adjusted very easily, which is why checking the car's mileage throughout its service history is so important.

    Does the chassis number (usually at the base of the windscreen on the passenger side) tie up with the one on the registration document? Also check the engine number, which is usually on the top of the engine, down the one side. And don't forget to make sure the registration number tallies with the one on the registration document.

    Are all the keys available? There should be at least a spare and probably a master as well. Lose the only key and you may have to have everything reprogrammed – which can cost hundreds of pounds.

  • Common Scams

    There are some nasty people about, keen to part you from your money...

    Some unscrupulous villains make lots of money from selling used cars and it's not always that easy to tell that you're being taken for a ride. These are some of the most common scams used by car sellers to con you out of your money.

    Low-mileage cars are worth more than high-mileage ones, which is why some vendors reduce the displayed mileage on the cars they're selling – it'a a practice known as clocking. A car's mileage display is known as its odometer; many modern ones are digital so they're even easier to clock.

    However, traditional analogue odometers have to be removed for the mileage to be wound back, so if the car has one of these, look for evidence that the dashboard has been tampered with. Damaged screw heads is one way of looking, or scratches in the paint around the screws.

    Whatever type of odometer is fitted, check that the wear and tear on the car fits in with the stated mileage. If the pedal rubbers and steering wheel are worn smooth, the car isn't a low-mileage one. Ask for the car's service history and previous MoTs; they'll all have the mileage on, so make sure it goes up steadily and doesn't suddenly drop.

    It has also been known for a car's mileage to be reduced for the selling process, but once you've snapped it up, the odometer then mysteriously reverts to its true reading. That's why you need to check the reading doesn't suddenly shoot up between buying the car and collecting it.

    When you buy a car you're reliant on its identity being genuine. However, it's possible for a car to be stolen, then given the identity of a written-off car. While this should still set alarm bells ringing, at least the car is legal, if not necessarily desirable, when it's merely recorded as previously being a write-off.

    You can guard against buying a ringer by inspecting the registration document closely and ensuring that the chassis and engine numbers on it match those on the car you're viewing. Make sure you're looking at the car on the seller's drive – at the address on the registration document. Those involved in ringing tend to be part of organised gangs that vanish without trace once you've paid for the car and taken it away.

    If you do buy a ringer, don't try to sell it on as you'll be liable to prosecution. Tell the police and in the case of a purchase from a dealer, also tell Trading Standards. It's essential that you don't get taken in by this scam, because if you do you'll lose the car (which belongs to the insurance company) as well as your money.

    An increasingly common scam is the theft of a vehicle's identity. It's called cloning, it works very simply and it's very easy to get caught out by it. Cloning works by thieves stealing a car and giving it the identity of a legitimate vehicle. Although the car you're looking at is stolen, you don't know its real identity because you're checking the identity of a different vehicle.

    The best way of ensuring you're not caught out is to:

    • Ensure the car's chassis number matches the one on the registration document.
    • Always pay by bankers draft rather than cash; a legitimate seller will be happy with this, but car thieves won't be.
    • Inspect the car at a privately owned residential address, and make sure the seller isn't just using the drive of a house whose owners are away. Also ensure that this is the address shown on the registration document.
    • Get a land line number for the seller – never rely entirely on a mobile number.

    If you're not careful, you could end up getting two cars for the price of one when you next buy a used car. Unfortunately, to be more accurate, you're getting two halves for the price of one whole, because you could end up buying a cut and shut.

    Such vehicles are the result of two written-off cars being used to create one apparently good vehicle. It works by welding the front half of a rear-ended car to the back half of a car that's been in a serious front-end smash. The cars are literally cut up then welded together to create a car that looks straight. However, while the car may look fine, it's a rolling death trap that'll disintegrate in the slightest impact.

    To make sure you don't get taken in by this scam, you need to look closely along the top of the windscreen as well as underneath the seats. It won't take much to see the join from underneath, unless copious quantities of underseal have been plastered everywhere. Also look out for badly mismatched paint as well as overspray on the glass and trim; these suggest the car has been repainted at some point. Mismatched trim inside the car is another giveaway.

  • Professional Inspections

    Worried about buying a lemon? Then call in the experts to check it over

    Cars are becoming increasingly complicated, and even people who are happy poking about under the bonnet can easily be daunted by modern vehicles. That's why it can be worth calling in the professionals; a qualified engineer with all the right tools and test equipment will give a written report on how good a car is.

    Such checks aren't cheap as they're usually over £100, but you could end up saving a lot more than that if you're considering buying what turns out to be a liability. If you're a member of a major breakdown organisation you should be able to get a discounted vehicle check, but it'll still be quite a chunk of cash.

    HPI recommends an AA vehicle inspection. You can choose between the standard inspection which looks at 155 items, or the 206-point comprehensive inspection. As with many such professional inspection services, not all vehicles are eligible. The types of car that aren't eligible for professional inspections include imports, older cars or anything particularly valuable. As a result you may need to call in a local mechanic to look over one of these instead.

    If you do call in the experts but then have a major problem, you should be able to claim against the company that did the inspection and there should be some form of financial redress available.

    A cheap alternative which looks at all the key areas is an MoT. You can put a car through an MoT at any time, and for relatively little money you can establish if there are any serious faults with the vehicle.

  • The Test Drive

    The final hurdle. If the car passes this test, it could be the one for you

    You should never buy any car without taking it for a test drive first, for which you'll need to be insured. If you're comprehensively insured on your own car you'll probably have third party cover on anything you test drive, as long as it's already insured by the vendor – but you'll need to check first.

    While this route ensures you're legal, it also means that if you're involved in a scrape that's your fault, you'll have to pay out of your own pocket to fix things. That's why a better bet is to invest in some day insurance, which covers you comprehensively for your test drive. You'll need a different policy for each car you test though, so if you want to try out several, the costs will quickly add up.

    Once you've ensured you have insurance cover, launch into the test drive.

    Before you start the engine, make sure you can get comfortable and that you're happy with the all-round visbility. You'll have to live with this car every day, so make sure you can do so.

    Start the car from cold, and make sure it ticks over happily. Let it warm up and ensure the cooling fan cuts in before taking it for a decent run.

    See if there are any flat spots from the engine or if it misfires. If so, there's a problem with either the ignition or fuel systems, and finding an effective fix could either be long-winded or expensive. Or both.

    On the drive, go through all the gears as well as the major controls, brakes, steering and suspension. Do the brakes pull to one side or judder when you apply them?

    Does the car jump out of gear or does the clutch slip? The latter is given away by the engine revs rising when you press the throttle, without the car gaining any speed.

    Ensure all the electrics work – try everything. It's the same with the instruments – do they all read as they should?

    Is the exhaust chucking out soot? If so, the engine may have had it, although some diesels can be pretty sooty even when healthy.

    Press all of the buttons to use all of the equipment, including the air conditioning if fitted. Items such as electric windows and mirrors or central locking can be a pain to fix, so make sure they all work.

  • Doing The Deal

    How to haggle, how to pay, how to minimise the chances of problems

    When it comes to negotiating, ensure you pay less than the initial asking price. Any seller should set the price above what they're prepared to accept – so don't pay a penny more than you have to. Any discount on the initial asking price is a victory though, so don't be too greedy. Once you've settled on a price, remember these points when handing over your money:

    • Private sellers are required by law to describe the car honestly and accurately. However, that's the only requirement as the car only has to be 'as described' and you have no redress.
    • Getting your money back from a private seller or sorting a problem will be difficult, so check the car thoroughly before buying.
    • Use a banker's draft, as paying cash offers little comeback. Any genuine seller will be happy with this.
    • Make sure you have everything you need, including all the keys, the right tool to undo any locking wheel nuts and any fobs to activate any security systems.
    • Pay by credit or debit card, as it brings extra legal protection from the card company. A banker's draft is still a good way to pay here, too.
    • Dealers have a duty to describe the car accurately and it must meet a standard expected of a car of its age, mileage, price and condition. If it doesn't, you have protection under the Sale of Goods Act for the dealer to sort the problem, provide an alternative vehicle or even refund your money.
  • Warranties

    Worried the warranty you're getting isn't very good? Then buy your own...

    Most drivers assume that to enjoy any kind of a warranty they have to buy a car – new or used – from a dealer. Not so; there's a bunch of companies out there that'll sell you a warranty on your car, even if you've owned it for a while. What these companies offer is effectively an insurance policy, separate from your regular car insurance, that pays up in the event of some major part failing.

    Unlike the insurance you must have to remain legal, the price of this cover isn't affected by your age, driving history, where you live or anything like that. But the premium you pay will be dictated by what sort of car you drive and how many miles it's done, so while it might save you a fortune, it might not.

    The UK's biggest provider of aftermarket warranties is Warranty Direct. As with its rivals, there are limits on what Warranty Direct can cover. So while you can claim as many times as you like, up to the value of your car, your vehicle must be less than 12 years old and can't have covered more than 120,000 miles.

    When you're shopping for an aftermarket warranty, also look at whether you can claim for a hire car or overnight accommodation in the event of your own vehicle breaking down. Finally, check if wear and tear is covered, if there's a maximum labour rate at any garage that's called in to put things right and also if the policy is transferable if you change your car.

  • Insurance

    Before you drive your car away, buy the right insurance cover for you

    Once you've bought your car you'll need to make sure you're properly insured before you drive it away. There's a huge number of things to consider when buying insurance; the key thing is to shop around to make sure you get the best possible deal.

    The obvious place to start is an online price comparison website, but some of the best-value insurance companies don't sign up to these sites so you can sometimes get a better deal elsewhere.

    Don't focus too much on the premium you're paying though, as there are lots of other considerations too. These include:

    How much will you have to contribute in the event of you making a claim. It's typically £100-250.

    Is it included, how comprehensive is it and are you covered if you take your car to mainland Europe?

    If you're taking out comprehensive cover on your own car, will you automatically be covered to drive other vehicles, albeit on a third-party only basis? As long as you've got the permission of the other car's owner, you'll never have to worry about driving uninsured.

    Will any legal advice or fees be covered, in the event of you incurring any uninsured losses?

    In the event of your car being out of action, will your insurer provide you with alternative transport while it's being fixed?

    HPI works with Lloyd Latchford, which offers a wide range of policies for car, caravan, truck and van owners. As a broker rather than an under-writer, Lloyd Latchford can find the best deal for you from a wide range of insurers.

  • When It Goes Wrong

    Need to know what your rights are in the event of you buying a lemon?

    Trading Standards get more complaints about used cars than anything else. Sometimes it's because buyers are unrealistic, sometimes it's because they've failed to take care when buying, but often it's because a trader isn't playing fair.

    If you bought from a private seller you have no legal right to expect that the car is of satisfactory quality or fit for its purpose, but there is a requirement that it should be 'as described'.

    If you bought from a dealer you're protected by the Sale of Goods Act (1979) so you may be able to get your money back, the car repaired or a replacement car. The Sale of Goods Act says the car should be:

    • Of satisfactory quality
    • Fit for its intended purpose or a purpose that you made known to the dealer
    • As described

    If the dealer claims they were up front about any faults before the transaction, you may not be able to complain. But you may still be able to get the dealer to do something if they'd played down the scale of the problem. You might be entitled to a refund if:

    • The fault is serious
    • It's within a reasonable time of the sale and
    • You've stopped using the car.

    A partial refund might be more appropriate; either way you'll have to prove the car isn't of satisfactory quality. If you're asking for a repair, replacement or refund it's the trader's responsibility to prove the car is of satisfactory quality.

    If the fault is minor and repairable you could ask for the car to be repaired or replaced. The replacement should be of a similar age, mileage and model as the car you're handing back. If you accept a repair for a major fault you can still claim a refund later if the repair isn't of a satisfactory quality.

    The responsibility is normally on you rather than the dealer to prove that a car is faulty. However, it's the dealer's responsibility to prove that the car was of satisfactory quality when you bought it, if you discover the fault within the first six months and you're asking for:

    • A repair or
    • A replacement or
    • A full or partial refund where a repair or replacement isn't possible, would cause significant inconvenience to you as the buyer or would cost a disproportionate amount to the dealer.

    If you discover the fault after the first six months, you should contact the dealer you bought the car from, to give them the opportunity to inspect the car and where possible to fix it. The responsibility is on you after six months to prove the car was faulty when sold. The best way to do this is to get an independent inspection on the car – and probably a second opinion too, from another independent professional.

    If the garage refuses to put things right, check whether they belong to a trade association with a code of practice setting out standards of service they must follow. You can use this to show the garage that they must put the problem right.

  • Assess a Vehicle

    You've now read through the guide and you're equipped to go out and buy a used car. To make things even easier for you we've developed a pair of vehicle assessment tools. Just answer each of the multiple choice questions and we'll rate the vehicle for you. There are three possible outcomes: Good, Questionable and Walk Away

    We've put together two vehicle assessment tools for you. One is for if you're buying from a trader while the other applies to private sales. They're very similar, but they do differ slightly, to reflect the different buying processes.

    Your aim is to notch up the highest score that you can. The closer you get to 95, the more likely the car is to be genuine – drop below 65 and the chances of you having problems are that much higher.

    Assess A Vehicle
  • Your Contract

    Protect yourself further with a signed contract between you and the seller

    There needs to be a degree of trust on both sides in any transaction, but the stakes are higher than normal when buying a used car so you need to protect yourself as much as possible. One way of doing this is by asking the seller to sign a contract – whether they're a trader or a private vendor.

    The contract here is self-explanatory. Suffice to say that if a vendor isn't prepared to sign it before they sell you their car, they clearly don't have much faith in it – so why should you?

    Download Car Purchase Contract