Everything you need to know when buying your first used car

Buying a new car is easy, right? Walk into the showroom, pick your favourite colour and trim, and wait for delivery. You know it’s going to be fresh, reliable, untouched by previous owners and ready for a journey with you, wherever it takes you.

But a used car? A used car has seen things, gone places. It’s had who knows what kind of owner, encountered all kinds of situations, been pelted with grit and frozen solid through winter. Yet it’s also great value – modern cars are so well made that you’ll often see ten, twelve year old models looking just as fresh as their new counterparts, maybe just needing a spot of polish, or a fresh set of tyres, to look and feel good as new.

Choose wisely and that is almost true, and we’re here to help you choose your first used car, with some tips from people who have bought many secondhand cars. If in doubt, manufacturers offer approved-used schemes that often provide an experience similar to buying a new car – with guarantees that take away much of the risk.

Buying your first used car – find a good seller

You could be buying your first car outright – or it could be that you’ve decided that the amount you spend on a rather average new car could be spent on a dream used car. Each situation is slightly different, but sellers – sellers are just as variable regardless of the car you’re buying. So start by making sure your seller is genuine.

Make sure the details on the logbook – the V5 – match the seller’s name and address unless they are a dealer. Traders could be trading from home, but if they’re pretending to be a private seller, yet the V5 is missing the yellow slip, it’s a reason to be suspicious as they could be avoiding the basic warranty requirements of a trade sale.

If you have the registration, check the car’s MOT history. It’ll flag up areas to inspect when you see the car, as well as showing the mileage per year and giving you an idea of how the car has been maintained (advisories three years ago for tyres/brakes that disappear at the next MOT is a good sign, for example, whereas always having the same advisory suggests the owner has neglected the car).

Get a car valuation (eg. use the Value My Car tool) and a history/finance check to make sure the car is fairly priced, and has no undisclosed accident history or finance. Check the paperwork for sales receipts in the owner’s name, too; while it’s rare to get caught out, the registered keeper is not the legal owner of the car necessarily.

Inspecting your car – your first car

Got a friend who’s into cars? Ask them along too – they’ll probably be happy to help. Failing that, do a bit of research, or even download the handbook for the car you want to look at. Knowing your way around will make unscrupulous sellers think twice, after all. Check the oil, coolant and tyres before driving, and make sure you have insurance cover to drive it. Don’t buy a car without driving it – even if a seller’s test drive shows that it’s a good car, you want to know you’ll be comfortable with it yourself.

Take a torch, some lightweight protective gloves, and something to kneel on. A hat with a torch in can also be handy, even if you feel silly – there’s nothing worse than trying to inspect a car when you’re cold and it’s getting dark. Anything that was on the MOT history, check those areas carefully, particularly if rust is mentioned; you’ll need to get on the floor and take a look underneath.

Once you’re satisfied with the bodywork and test drive, give all the gadgets a go with the engine running – let the car get warm, and if there is a temperature display, watch for it moving from the middle position. Spend about 20 minutes if you can with the car idling and not moving – and listen for a cooling fan, though in winter that may not cut in. Do things like checking the fan on all speeds; if it’s not obvious, ask the seller – and if they don’t know, they’re probably a trader and haven’t had the car long.

Looking at your dream car

Going from running a brand new car to a used dream car can literally be a dream come true. Instead of a Ford Kuga, you could have a Porsche Cayenne or a Mercedes-AMG GLA, for example. But dream cars generally cost a lot to put right, even if they don’t cost a fortune to maintain.

When looking at a high-performance or rare car, get online and research everything. Read every forum, note down every ‘worst case scenario’ that owners describe, and bear them in mind when looking at your car. Some common failures are a good bargaining point when dealing with traders, such as easily-replaced water pumps or alternators that can sound terrible when worn – but other things, like failed timing chains, high-performance diesel engines with design flaws, or supercar-style brakes that have merely reached the end of their life can be unpleasantly expensive.

As a rule, any car under ten years old will be relatively easy to maintain. Parts will be available, even if they are expensive, and dealers will be familiar with the cars. Most mainstream high performance cars will manage ten to 15 years and over 100,00 miles without needing major repair work, just routine servicing.

Cars over 15 years old, pay particular attention to electrical modules, trim and bodywork finishes. If you’re trading your family hatchback for the BMW M3 you always dreamed about, check everything, twice – and ideally get a specialist to look over it, as a small spend in advance could avoid a horrible bill later.

Rergardless of your reasons for buying your first used car, with the end of new petrol or diesel car sales getting ever closer it’s likely that you’ll be buying more. There won’t be a better time to enjoy the freedom of a low-cost car of your own, or finally get that affordable dream car you’ve been putting off.