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Whoever says buying a car was the second most important financial decision in your life has no idea. A house might be the biggest investment you make, but you're far more likely to flush cash down the toilet on a used car. Get it right and you're a shrewd buyer. Friends and family will flock for advice on what to get, what to pay and what to look out for. Mess it up and you'll live the nightmare with each turn of the key.
Thankfully for you, IVE Inspections is here to help. We've pulled together a comprehensive guide to the used car-buying process, covering all the important stuff in seven easy chunks.
Use the list below to scroll down the page to relevant section:
What to buy
Where to buy
When to buy
Used company car?
History and paperwork
Checking the car
Used car inspection checklist
After the deal is done
What to buy
Every facet of human life is on offer in the used car market, from bargain banger to dream machine. Your job is to buy the best car for your budget, separating the thoroughbreds from the donkeys.
A trawl through the classifieds will throw up any number of potentials. Make a list of your wants and needs and check these off against any car that takes your fancy.
Then consider these factors:
How much space do you need - a Micra may be cheap, but will the dog fit?
How many miles do you cover? If it's loads, think about a diesel. If not, petrol powered cars are usually cheaper to buy
How often do you really carry passengers? That sports car might not be as daft as you think
Remember to factor in running costs and insurance - do your homework first A three-door hatch might look good, but will you break your back lifting the child seat in and out? Maybe the five-door is a better bet
A low-riding sportscar might be just the ticket in your dreams, but what about streets littered with speed bumps? You never know, maybe a 4x4 does make sense
Just because a British summer is made of three days of sunshine and a thunderstorm, a convertible can still be fun even in winter. Kids love kicking the backs of the front seats and smearing chocolate-coated fingers over car interiors. A dark colour will hide the mess better than cream leather.
Heaven forbid you tow a caravan, but if you are partial to articulated holidays an automatic gearbox makes life easier. And think about which engine will give you enough grunt for you not to becomes a rolling roadblock.
Where to buy
Where you shop for your used motor depends mainly on how lazy you are. The more effort you put in, the more you can save.
Buying from a dealer, for example, is low hassle but prices are higher. Go to an auction instead and you'll more likely bag a bargain.
Here are your options in detail: Buying privately is generally cheapest, but beware of over-optimistic pricing from greedy sellers. They won't give the same back up as a dealer. And just because they give you a nice cuppa, don't be put off asking awkward questions
Franchised dealers usually have the newer cars in stock, which will often be better cared for and have lower mileages. The downside is they also charge the most in general
Independent dealers have long since shed the sheepskin coat and most offer the same facilities and experience as a franchised dealer. Cars here may have a few more miles under their bumper, but expect good quality service and cars as independent dealers live by their reputations. They're also more likely to be open to haggling than franchised dealers
Car supermarkets rely on quick turnover. This means their prices are lower than other types of dealer, but there's little room for haggling. Their stock can vary in age, but it's mostly cars up to three-years old and will be made up from mainstream models, so not the best places to look for unusual choices
Don't forget auctions. These automotive parades offer rock bottom prices, but it's easy to get carried away. If you know what to look for, have done your research and are confident of the car, a bargain awaits. Otherwise, it's possibly better to shop elsewhere.
When to buy
Sunny weather encourages people out and about, so the run up to summer is a busy time.
This also gives you the advantage of lots of lovely sunshine in which to inspect a car all over.
Convertibles are more popular in the summer, but the difference in prices between summer and winter for open tops has dwindled, so don't pay over the odds when the sun pokes out.
Winter means dark times all round. Rainy weather can hide any number of battle scars on the bodywork, so wait till a dry day when you're shopping.
For the best nearly new bargains, wait until a registration change has taken place and go hunting towards the end of the month when a dealer has plenty of trade-ins.
They'll be keen to shift these to boost the month's sales figures, so a keen offer can secure a great buy.
Used company car?
You may not be able to cheat the taxman, but you can play him at his own game - and buying a used company car is one tactic.
Plump for something that's over 15-years old and the Inland Revenue will deem it a classic. So that dream of a Porsche 911 can make sense.
The taxable value is what the car is worth in the current market place, rather than original list price.
Its tax liability, or the percentage of its value you stump up every year, is based on engine size rather than carbon dioxide output.
Think carefully before choosing this route. Classic cars are like 15-year old children: costly to run, time intensive and not always keen to work.
Here are some good used buys to consider:
Nissan Micra, Skoda Fabia, Honda Jazz, Volkswagen Golf, Mini Cooper, Vauxhall Zafira, Skoda Octavia, Vauxhall Vectra, Honda CR-V, Seat Alhambra, Mazda MX-5, BMW 3-Series, Volvo XC90, Mazda 6, BMW 5-series, Mercedes S-class
History and paperwork
Test drive or stuffy paperwork? We know which we'd rather be doing, but the small print is important.
Any seller, dealer or private, not willing to show documents should be avoided like a rabid pitbull.
First off, if the car's more than three-years old, it must have an MoT certificate to prove it can start, steer and stop.
Check the MoT has raised lettering where it's been stamped by the test station, and that the mileage on the certificate tallies with that shown on the car.
The V5 should be present and correct. It proves ownership of the car. Take a good look at it and check the following:
Are the details correct? If not, walk away
How many previous owners are there?
Call the most recent one and ask them to verify the car's history
Check the engine and chassis numbers match those on the car
Remember - if you have even the slightest doubt, leg it.
A full service history is ideal, with a service book crammed with dealer stamps. Don't panic if this isn't present with older cars, but ask for receipts to prove any claimed recent work has been done - and phone the garage to check.
Use one of the car history check companies to make sure the car is not a write-off or still subject to someone else's finance deal. You can lose the car and your money if either of these nightmares comes true.
Don't forget to check your insurance - or the seller's - before you test-drive the car. No point getting nicked before you've even bought it.
Checking the car
Four wheels? Check. Engine works? Ditto. That's that then. Er, no - a more thorough inspection is in order, even if the seller is your great aunt Dorothy's bestest church-going friend. To make sure you don't get stung, follow these basic steps:
Look along the car's flanks for dings and dents, check the bumpers for scrapes, and scrutinise the wheels for kerb contact. Is the paint a consistent shade all over? Any of these can show a careless owner and offer a bargaining point to help lower the price.
Does it look too shiny? What's the seller trying to hide. Honest grime is no bad thing, but look for excessive oil or fluid leaks - from the car, not the seller.
Some rust will be obvious to spot, but feel under the wheelarches, doors and bumpers for rough edges - a ginger finger will give the game away. While you're crawling around, look at the tyres for excessive or uneven wear.
Inside, does it reek of a chain smoker? Does the general wear and tear tally up with the car's mileage? Worn seats and shiny steering wheel and pedals on a low mileage car are giveaways.
Make like a curious child and press every button to see all of the electrics work, and listen out for any rattles or unusual noises on the test drive.
Take a lengthy test-drive. Look, listen and smell for anything untoward. And don't fall into the trap of paying for fuel for a seller because the needle is further south than Antarctica.
Still confused? Then print out the checklist coming up next and take it with you.
Used car inspection checklist
There's more to inspecting a used car than tyre kicking.
It's always best to take someone with you when you look at a car - not only because four eyes are better than two, but also because it helps you keep a level head.
If you're not still not sure, it's probably best to pay for a professional inspection and thats what we will do for you......
Still up for it? Then here's a guide to all the main points to look at:
Scratches or scuffs?
Do they line up with surrounding panels?Front wings/bonnet
Do the panels all line up evenly?
Do the headlights/foglights line up evenly?
Do the lights work properly?
Are the lights chipped?
Do all of the doors open without any creaks?
Do the doors close smoothly without being slammed?
Do the locks work properly?
Are there any scratches on the outside paintwork?
Rips, scuffs or stains on interior of doors?
Do the windows go up and down smoothly?
Are there any scratches on the glass, or front and rear 'screens?
Are there any scrapes on the bottom edges of the doors?
Do all of the panels line up evenly?
Do all of the lights work properly, including the foglight?
Are there any dings in the boot?
Is the exhaust damaged from poor reversing?
Excessive soot on the bumper from the exhaust?
Wheels and tyres
Are they all the same type of wheel?
Are they the standard wheels for the car?
Are the tyres evenly worn?
Any nicks or cracks in the edges of the tyres?
Are the tyres all the same make or mix and match?
Tears or rips?
Stains or scuffs?
Any rattly or loose seats?
Are the seatbelts in good condition and run smoothly?
Do the seatbelts hold tight when given a firm pull?
Is the driver's seat excessively worn for the indicated mileage?
Are the steering wheel and foot pedals excessively worn?
Is the indicated mileage backed up by MoTs and service records?
Are the carpets damp from leaky doors or sunroof?
Holes in the dash form mobile phone holders?
Holes in trim from aftermarket speakers and stereo?
Does it smell of cigarettes?
Are there any cigarette burns?
Does every button work as it should?
Is the steering wheel straight when wheels are aligned ahead?
Are all of the keys present?
Is more than one key needed for ignition, doors and boot?
Does the air-conditioning, if fitted, work properly?
Is the hood of a convertible in good condition and leak free?
Is anything hanging loose or caught on the underside?
Does the engine start easily and settle to an even idle?
Does it rev freely when you press the accelerator?
Are there any obvious noises from the engine?
Are all of the fluids to the correct levels?
Remove the oil filler cap with the engine off. Is the oil clean?
Is there any white sludge - this could mean water contamination?
Do all of the pedals work smoothly?
Does the gear lever engage smoothly in all gears?
Does the gearbox or clutch make any unpleasant noises?
Does the clutch take up smoothly?
Does the clutch slip? Accelerate hard in a high gear to test this
Does reverse gear engage and work smoothly?
Do the brakes work strongly?
Do the brakes pull to one side when the pedal is pressed?
Any noises from the suspension?
Push down hard on the suspension. Does it settle quickly?
Does the car roll too much in bends or feel too firm?
Is the exhaust quiet? Are there any rattles from it?
Is there any smoke from the exhaust?
Are all of the documents present? If not, why?
Is there a full service history including MoTs?
Do the MoTs run concurrently? If not, why?
Does the seller's name match the details on the logbook?
Is any work on the car backed up by receipts?
Are viewing the car at the address on the logbook?
Do the chassis and engine numbers match those on the car?
Does the colour, fuel type and engine capacity match?
After the deal is done
Shake hands, splash the cash, job done. Ideally, this is just how it happens, but it's better to be cautious.
Remember these tips when handing over your money:
For private buys, use a banker's draft - paying cash offers little comeback. Any genuine seller will be happy with this
At a dealer, a credit or debit card brings extra legal protection from the card company. A banker's draft is still a good way to pay here, too.
And if it all goes wrong don't just put it down to experience. You do have rights:
Buying from a dealer:
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 refund your money within reason.
Buying from a private seller:
There's more risk here, but they are still required by law to describe the car honestly and accurately. Getting your money back from a private seller or sorting a problem will be much more difficult, so check the car thoroughly before buying (did you see our checklist?).
Protecting your investment
One way to ward off potential evils is an independent warranty. Many dealers provide a warranty, and offer extended cover as they're paid a commission for selling longer periods of cover.
You can buy these yourself, but be careful to check the small print of what exactly is covered.
With your new baby tucked up in the garage, protecting its value is important. Keep it clean and regularly serviced, deal with any problems as they appear, and keep receipts for all work carried out as proof for when you come to sell.
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