Buying a used car...

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You've probably read hundreds of various guides, tips, reviews, dos and don'ts etc about buying a used car. I'll give you my own version, some snippets of information that I think everyone should know and consider before making their decision.

Always buy a car that has a logbook, MOT certificate, HPI check, some if not full service history and not too many previous owners. There is nothing illegal about buying a car with no logbook (V5C document) but without this at the point of purchase you can't positively tell if the car is the seller's to sell or how many previous owners has the car had or how long has the last owner owned it. Too many, often changing owners usually means that the car is either troublesome, drinks fuel or hides something nasty which is so difficult to put right that everyone just prefers to get rid of the thing. I personally consider more than 7 to be too many owners for a car up to 8-9 years old. However please note that often when a car changes hands the dealers which sell it may register it on their name and if the logbook shows a car trading (or leasing) business as the owner for a short period of time this is not bad news at all.

There is nothing at all wrong in buying a car without MOT (we in the trade do it all the time) BUT the lack of a valid MOT certificate can be the actual "genuine" reason for someone selling the car and can be hiding a long list of faults that must be rectified before the vehicle is legal for road use. A little tip here: log onto www motinfo gov uk and enter the car's registration and 11 digit document reference number from the front page of the V5C logbook - this will instantly show you the last test and any fail points. This could well swing your decision either way. I've lost count of the number of cars I've bought without MOT only to find out that they actually have 10-11 months test remaining but the certificate was not with them when they were traded in.

A word about data checks now... These are cheap these days and absolutely essential if you buy from private individuals or traders in disguise. The check will show if the car has been written off by an insurer, then repaired and put back on the road. Aside from several "worst case" horror scenarios, most such cars will probably be well repaired, road legal and safe to use BUT because of this record should be 20-30% cheaper for you to buy. And you'll get 20-30% less when time comes to sell on.

The HPI type check will also show you if there is an outstanding finance agreement on the car. TIP: if you are buying a car and the check flags outstanding finance don't walk away! First call the finance company (the HPI check gives you a contact number + agreement number) and ask them if they still have interest in the vehicle: some finance companies are too slow in updating databases so a perfectly legal ex-fleet car sold by a reputable trader may still show as having outstanding finance, although all dues have been paid weeks ago.

An HPI type data check can also show a discrepancy with the national mileage register. In theory this is a good idea but my opinion of this service is rather mixed after a car I sold last year (which was clearly low mileage, with a main dealer history and one elderly owner from new) showed up as having a discrepancy with the NMR data. I called them and they said that they only hold one single mileage entry from three years prior, which showed that the car had covered...wait fot it...760 000 miles. I asked the lady does this sound like a possible mileage for a four year old car and she said "Well, if the computer says so, then it must be". Believe me, it wasn't.

And a word about service histories. The reason these are so important is because if a modern car is looked after properly it can run almost indefinitely and a good and complete history is a good way of telling. A full history will also verify low mileages but don't take that for granted. Some cars are terrific bargain because they come with NO service history - makes them hundreds of pounds cheaper. TIP: It is possible to contact the customer services departments for several car makers (Volvo, MB, BMW among others) and their computers hold central data from all main dealerships so you can find out a full history even without a stamped book. These customer service people are very helpful too, so if you know where to call and what to say they can prepare and send you a fully stamped duplicate service book. Often free of charge.

And now a list of some buying dos and don'ts which I think are very valid:

  • spend as much time checking the paperwork as the vehicle itself
  • NEVER ask a car trader the question "what is the reason for sale?". Well, their reason is that this is what they do for a living and such question tells them that you know absolutely nothing about the used car market and you will be at a disadvantage come haggling time.
  • call the seller just to get a feel about them - think of a question to ask (not the one above though!) and make the call. It's important who you buy from and first impresions are often true
  • don't buy a car on a rainy day if you want to see the bodywork properly
  • drive the vehicle yourself, even if it seems to drive perfectly with the seller behind the wheel
  • don't assume that a yellow engine management light "will just need resetting"
  • take as much time as you need and don't be intimidated by a seller in a hurry
  • don't haggle too hard if you like and want the car - there may already be an offer on the table that you don't know about and the seller may suddenly feel a strong preference for the other buyer
  • keep an open mind regarding the make, model, colour and spec of your next used car
  • don't buy a car that you don't really like just because you need one urgently
  • if you are not sure about anything  - ask
  • don't be put off by high mileage cars if they are in nice condition and with good history
  • test the electrical gadgets - sometimes the smallest faults are most difficult to put right
  • if you are given a warranty with your car, check what is covered
  • don't buy a (pre 2001) Fiat without the Red master key
  • if you are unsure that you want the car walk away - but be prepared to lose it
  • don't buy an automatic Renault without a very very long test drive
  • eBay and some traders offer  free Driveaway car insurance - use it, it really is free, it is fully comp and there are no catches
  • don't assume that german cars are always the best
  • if you have to choose between an A-Class, Polo or a Yaris go for the Toyota
  • don't inspect a car for too long if you are planning to haggle with a dealer
  • be prepared to receive (a lot) less as part exchange allowance than if you sold your old car yourself
  • don't drive without tax, MOT or insurance. The fine is £1000 and the car can be impounded
  • be nice to the seller, especially if you plan to haggle
  • do not ever ask the question "What is your lowest price" when you first enquire for a car. You'll have to work hard to get to the seller's lowest price. Preferably you'll have to visit their premises, see the car, drive it, find some faults that you didn't think were there, then convince the seller that he should reduce the asking price because of these faults, possibly flash some cash and you'll have to be nice during all of the above.
  • It is possible to attempt to reduce the asking price even if you don't find anything wrong with the car. Just like on Dragons Den you can simply say "I like it and I am going to make you an offer.."

I hope you found some of the above helpful. Watch this space as I will be adding more stuff soon. Best wishes. Nick

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