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Our buyers guide to buying a used car

Car Owner Reviewer - Lovecarreviews
March 11, 2021, 11 p.m.

cars services. owners buying used warrarty second hand mileage

Here’s our guide to buying a second hand car. 

Since the beginning of time, we have been presented with tons of information about what to look out for when buying a second hand car. Some of you will remember all of the printed guides like the Loot newspaper and the paperback Parkers guides (if you under 35, you might have no idea what I am talking about). Back in the day these were great and had tons of really useful information about what to look out for, where to go and what to ask. Nowadays things have changed... and changed massively. Sure, most of the information from back then is still relevant, and yes you still need to ask the same questions, but with the massive advances in where and how you can buy a car, I present you with an up to date guide on buying your next used car. Let’s get into it...

1. Where to look

With the days of printed Loot and Parkers guides well and truly behind us, and the internet literally in your pocket 24x7, there has never been more sources to look for cars. Literally every week I see a new site popping up which provides you with a number of new ways to buy a car, new places to buy them from, options on how the cars are delivered to you and much much more. AutoTrader remains one of the best and oldest starting points to look for cars. Having been around forever, they have managed to retain their position near the top of Google rankings and are a trusted location for finding thousands of used cars, from the very oldest to the newest. They also have a great Tablet app, which I have always found useful. You also have recent sites like Cazoo, carwow, Parkers (online), all which provide great starting points to just look for the types of cars on the market and start to get an idea of what type of car you might actually want to buy.

2. How to research your choices

Once you have an idea of the types of cars that you are looking for, the next step is really to start researching your choices. Finding out what others think of the car is a great way to weed out any lemons that may be a horribly regrettable second hand buy. DO YOUR RESEARCH.. It is worth spending the time upfront. One of the big challenges here of course, is the fact that everyone has an opinion online :) even me! Its easy to get caught up in all of the opinions out there and never really get to the actual information you need about the car itself. You can use sites like ours, and others to find out what real owners think about the cars, rather than just relying on professional reviewers who drive hundreds of cars each month. The longer terms reviews are great when you can find them as you really want to know what people think after they have had the car for years, and issues you need to be aware of, and whether this is the right car for you.

3. Finding the right seller

Most of the sites listed in the 'where to look' section are also great places to actually buy cars. AutoTrader, again still tops the list in my view, because of their huge list of used cars sold by many garages. So you are not actually buying from AutoTrader, it really is the eBay of the car world (ironically eBay also sell cars). A few questions to consider in deciding where to buy your car from are: "How far am I prepared to travel" (I have travelled over 100 miles for the car I wanted), and also "Am I prepared to buy from a private seller or dealership". Generally, private sellers (individuals) provide the best and lowest prices, but also come with the highest risks as there isn't much (sometimes any) come back once you have purchased the car (unless you go through a lengthy court battle). Despite what the fables say about car salespeople (some of which may be true), you should aim to find someone that you can trust! someone who is prepared to give you genuine advice and not push whatever they have on their forecourt into your lap. They are out there, trust me, you just need to find them. Don't be scared to walk away from a pushy salesperson. If you have the option, take your time, some sales people will actually be able to source you a car, so you will not need to go anywhere else if you are happy with them.

4. Choosing the right car for you

This may be the single biggest hurdle in this day and age. Once upon a time, things were simple (see my article Its official, we have too much choice). There was a handful of each type of car and a limited number of places to buy them from. Now, however, there are soooooo many types of each car. Want a hatchback? I could probably reel off 50 without even taking a breath! 4x4? sure!, would you like that in hatchback, coupe, saloon, SUV, supercar... you get the point. But regardless, the starting point here is to think clearly about what you want the car to be and do for you. Does it need to be large or small, economical, fast, comfortable, sporty, practical, etc. Yes, we may have too much choice, but doing your research means that the chances of finding the perfect car is better than ever. Its even possible to find one car that does it all these days, especially in the small SUV sector for example. So be as clear as you can be about all the things you want your next used car to be, and then start to look at the manufacturers that offer what you need. 

5. HPI Checks

A HPI check, is online search tool that allows you to check the history of a used car. For a small fee, you can get important information about the car you are looking to potentially purchase. HPI checks can include information about your car's past, who owns the car, recorded mileage, MOT status, write off status and more. Dealerships will generally do these checks to ensure that they are not stocking lemons, however, its worth doing your own checks, especially when buying privately, as its not likely a private seller would have done this. 

6. Total Cost of Ownership

The total cost of ownership for a car is not something everyone thinks about when buying a used car. Yes you can pick up some REALLY high end cars these days for next to nothing, however, you need to consider all of the costs that come with owning a used car. Especially once your warranty expires and the car starts to age. You don't want to imagine how much it might cost to maintain a 10-15 year old Porsche Boxster, regardless of how little they might be to pick up. Do a little research and try to get an idea of servicing, parts, extended warranty, petrol, insurance, road tax and any other costs related to your car. Electric cars for example, might require home charging units to be installed in your house, which may be a cost you need to consider. 

7. Paying for your car

There's nothing better than being able to purchase your cars for cash outright. For the rest of us, it's common to buy your car using one of a number of financing options. Most dealerships, especially main dealerships, will offer finance options where you can pay the car off fully (Hire Purchase) over a period (12-60 months) or you can pay off some of the cars value, and either pay a balloon payment or simply hand the car back at the end of the agreement with no penalties (PCP). Research your buying options and make sure you know what is possible. The age of the car often has an impact on the finance options, with some dealerships only offering finance packages on cars if they are less than a certain age at the end of the agreement.  One thing to keep in mind is that, even though dealerships offer finance packages, there are plenty of independent finance companies and banks out there that can provide alternative finance options. Have a think about how long you plan to keep the car, how much it is likely to depreciate over that period and then decide which purchase option is right for you. 

8. Owners 

The number of previous owners a car has had can be a good indication of whether or not you should buy that car. The general rule is 'the less owners the better'. This is because, most people believe that if the car has only been owned and driven by one or two owners, it would have only been driven and cared for in one or two ways. The more owners, the more chance of one or more of those owners having not taken good care of the car. Its not a science though! Some cars could have had many careful and considerate owners, whereas a one owner car could have been driven by a careless hooligan. Back in the day, everyone wanted the car advertised as having 'one careful lady owner'. This was the most treasured prize in the used car market. These days... Have you seen the girl racers out there? Heavily tuned cars, matching and passing any boy racer out there. Buyer beware :) ! The other thing to keep in mind is that some showrooms might need to buy the car, which means an additional owner gets added even though they are only ever going to have the car on their forecourts. 

9. Service history

Most cars will require a service every 1-2 years. A 'service' is essentially periodically scheduled maintenance work carried out to keep the car in good shape. It will include changes to things like oil, filters, tires, belts and other wear and tear items. Whilst it is advised to get cars serviced as per the recommended maintenance schedules, not everyone does. When buying used cars, cars serviced by main dealerships throughout their life tend to be a little more expensive, but also can be a little more reliable and have a bit of extra life. Again this is not always the case and there are many independent garages who carry out services using genuine manufacturer parts, but charge less for labour. One consideration here is that when you come to sell on your used cars, most main dealers will give more money for cars that have been maintained by one of their dealerships. Aim for a car with full service history or as complete as possible. Usually there will be a service book that has stamps from the garages that have serviced the car. Always ask for this (although some might be electronic these days).    

10. MOT 

An MOT is an annual safety check carried out by an authorised garage, which confirms that your car is roadworthy. This is a mandatory requirement for all cars on the road. Ideally you should look for a car with a long MOT, which means that it would have been carried out recently. This is a good way to avoid some annoying bills early on, including issues with lights, seatbelts, tires, brakes, wipers, exhausts and more. Avoid cars being sold with short or no MOTs, or request them to be done before you will purchase the car. In the UK, you can check the status of a cars MOT on the government website

11. Warranty 

Used cars purchased from main dealerships tend to come with 1 plus years of warranty. This means that if something happens to the car (based on a list of things they agree to cover), you will be able to take it to any approved garage and have the fault repaired at no additional cost. Main dealers tend to provide the most comprehensive cover as part of your purchase. Independent dealerships also offer packages, sometimes at no additional cost, other times for a fee. These packages are generally not as comprehensive, but can still be useful. You can also purchase warranty packages from independent suppliers, which its worth shopping around for. On high end cars, warranty packages can come across as expensive (£500-2000 per year plus), however, when you compare that to having to replace a gearbox for example, this is a fraction of that final bill.    

12. Condition of car

Depending on many different factors, the condition on the car will vary greatly. There are many things to check when assessing the condition both inside and out. For used cars, you should look over a number of areas including, but not limited to: 

  • The bodywork - scratches, dents and other damage
  • Tires - Good tread 
  • Lights - not cracks or condensation
  • Engine bay - generally clear and leaf free
  • Interior - clear and tear free

Its possible to get your car checked/inspected by a company like the AA or RAC and this can be a good idea when buying cars from independent dealerships and more so in private sales as private owners are less likely to have these checks carried out. If you have the chance, always go and see the car before you purchase it. Photos are not always the best way to judge a cars condition because, like with people, we want to capture the cars good side and may conveniently omit certain damages or issues. Many dealerships now offer full walk around and personalised videos, which are very useful and good salespeople will point out anything of concern. But nothing can beat seeing the car in the flesh, and if possible, with a person who knows about cars, or can at least give you a second pair of impartial eyes.

13. Mileage

If maintained as per the manufacturers guidelines, a car will happily jog on for hundreds of thousands of miles...BUT, the more miles a used car has, the more wear and tear would have occurred to all of its parts. Even if the car has been maintained well, as it ages, there are likely to come some bigger bills for long wearing parts. This can be anything from various belts to little bits that keep your gearbox moving. Whilst not quite as critical as it once was, when buying a used car, the lower the mileage the better. A good rule to use has always been that a car should cover on average, 10-12,000 miles per year. Diesel cars can be a bit of an exception to this rule as generally people buy diesel cars because they cover high miles year on year. So its not uncommon to find a one year old diesel car with 25-40,000 miles. There is nothing wrong with these cars, and they are designed to cover high miles, however, when you come to sell on your used car later, those extra miles may come back and bite you in the backside. If possible, stick to the 10-12k per year mileage guideline, or if you are prepared to go for a high miler, try and ensure those extra miles are reflected in the price (i.e. the car should be cheaper). 

14. Test Drives

DRIVE THE CAR BEFORE YOU BUY THE CAR. I am not sure how much I can stress this point. For anyone that has ever asked for my advice when looking at a few options, this has been my reply. There is no end to the value you get from driving a prospective car, that might on paper look like the car of your dreams. My recent test drive of what I thought was the perfect car (GLC 63 AMG Reviewed on test drive) turned out to be my nightmare. A test drive can show you so much about the car you are looking to buy, including: 

  • Driving position, space and comfort
  • Driving controls 
  • Ease of controlling the car
  • Pedal distance and spacing 
  • Gears - where and how heavy
  • Visibility - out of all windows and mirrors
  • Rear leg space 
  • and more

15. Deals

When buying a used car, its always worth a little bit of a haggle. Most main dealerships will tell you that they can't do a deal and the car is priced to go. This is not always the case and a little diligence and patience can go a long way. I am the first to admit that I can be a bit of a sucker when it comes to getting the car I want, which in the past has sometimes meant not getting the very best deal. However, I still know that some haggling is the right way to go. You are more likely to get a great price when buying privately, as there are no algorithms and big bosses setting the prices, however, that also comes with all of the risks of buying privately too.


In the end, there are many considerations to take into account when buying a used car, however, with new car premiums and what I consider to be ridiculously high first year road tax rates, buying a second hand car is still a great way to purchase your next car, which may turn out to be the car of your dreams. 

Happy hunting. 

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