How to buy a second hand car

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Hopefully this guide will help the buyer find a good used car instead of a 'dog' I have been a mechanic since 1987 and have bought, repaired and run many cars in that time. I have also inspected cars for buyers and have seen pretty much all the tricks in the book that unscrupulous sellers try to inflict on the unwary buyer.

It's been said that one in every four used cars being sold, (online auction, classified ads, postcard in newsagent window etc), has the automotive equivalent of 'form'.  By that I mean that some 20% of cars for sale could be potentially hiding a dodgy history, been written off and repaired, stolen and cloned or ringed, have outstanding loans, finance/HP still on it etc.

But don't let that put you off from buying a pre-owned car. So long as you follow some basic rules, and try not to let your heart rule your head then you should be okay...

I work on simple rules when looking to buy a used car. These rules should be branded on your memory and repeated over and over again.

The Main Rule  

Do your homework and research the make and model of car you are interested in. There's tons of information online, in magazines, through car clubs etc so there's no excuse for not finding out about the car especially if it has some idiosyncratic problems perculiar to that make and model.  Most cars on the road today all work on the same general principles yet each make has their own particular faults and problems. So do your research.

If it sounds too good to be true - it probably is. In this life there's no such thing as a free lunch and there are con-artists, scammers and hustlers out there that are all too willing to seperate you from your hard earned money.  Just be aware.

Rough areas normally attract rough cars. I know it sounds snobby but over the last 21 years I have directly experienced some 'colourful characters' trying to sell cars from dodgy areas so rough even the pitbulls go round in pairs for safety... If the car looks completely out of place i.e posh executive car on a street that looks like it was twinned with a war zone then just walk away. There are always other cars to look at.

1)Always say when phoning up the seller  "I'm phoning up about the car you have for sale."  If the seller asks 'which one' then chances are they are selling more than one car which means they're a car dealer and as such must declare it on the ad. Normally there's a small letter T at the bottom of the advert. If they don't declare they are car traders, then they are probably trying to sell off a car  either to avoid declaring VAT etc to the inland revenue or the car is hiding something.  When buying from a private seller, you have less rights if something goes wrong or the car turns out to have a hidden past. The main thing to remember with a private sale is that the vendor (seller) must accurately describe the car. If he or she says the car is a 2 litre fuel injected petrol and it turns out to be a wheezing 1.3 then they can be prosecuted under mis-describing the vehicle.  Apart from that, it's very difficult to get any comeback if you buy a pre-owned car in a private sale - unless of course the seller is a trader and is trying to hide the fact.

2)When arranging a viewing , try to turn up early and get a feel for the area, and see if the seller is pre-warming up the car in an attempt to hide a cold start proplem or hide an engine that smokes when cold.  Always ask to see the car when cold. You may hear excuses such as 'I've just used the car to run the kids to school, or go shopping etc. They may be genuine but it's always better to see and hear the car start on a cold engine.

3)Listen to your 'gut instinct' How does the seller seem to you? Does he or she seem welcoming or standoffish or even agressive. (I've met many)  Like I said earlier, if the house looks nice and the seller seems pleasant enough then you can relax a bit but still keep your wits about you. 

4)Is the car as described? Is it accessible? An old trick used since horse and carts is to park a car up against a wall to hide damaged panels, paint or mismatched panel gaps. Obviously if you can walk around the vehicle then so much the better.

5)Check the V5C/logbook and MOT certificates CAREFULLY. The sellers name and address should be on it and the address should be the same one you are viewing the car at. I can't emphasise this enough but NEVER buy a car without the V5/logbook and don't buy a car from a layby, pub carpark etc. It annoys me when someone sells a car on Ebay and says they haven't got the V5 but will forward it. I'm sure some genuine people will but there's a lot of dodgy types out there that won't pass on the V5 simply because they didn't have it in the first place and the car is not theirs to sell. So no V5 don't hand over any money even if the car checks out and drives okay.  I've seen too many people get caught out only to find their new car actually belongs to Avis, Hertz or similar...

Basic Checks to carry out before the car is started and test driven.

Never EVER look at a potential purchase in the rain, at night or after it's just been washed. Water droplets from rain or a garden hose hide a multitude of sins in the form of defects such as mismatched paint, signs of filler and much more. If you look at a car in the dry but it starts to rain, then take a chamois leather and try to look at all the panels.  Squat down at the front and look down each flank of the car. Any mismatched paint, dented or rippled panels will show up. Do the same from the rear. Then stand at the sides and check all the panel gaps. They should all look parallel but not excessively large. Any gaps especially around the doors and apertures that seem to close up indicates panels thast may have been replaced or repaired or worst case a car with twisted body shell. Don't accept excuses from the vendor that 'they all look like that' because even old Fords or British Leyland products had uniform panel gaps. 

Open the doors and have a good look at the roof line. Look for any ripples, or wavy panels - especially if an after market sunroof has been fitted. These glass sunroof kits are often fitted to hide damage to the roof panel but can also be just a genuine reason such as car never came from the factory with a sunroof.

Open the bonnet and try to look down along the inner wing structure. There should be no rippled panel work that could indicate repaired front end impact damage. Do the same with the rear boot or hatchback area depending on type of car. Lift up the carpet and check the floor panel. If it has a spare wheel in a recess in the panel, ask if it can be removed and check for any rippled or damaged panels.  If the windows have security etched vin number or registration mark then make sure they match the actual number plate/vin plate on the car.

If the outside of the car passes this stage then get in and have a good look around.  Does the interior trim, seats, dashboard etc look in good condition and complete? If the interior smells like a wet labrador, or mildewy etc then feel the carpets for any dampness especially around the front foot wells. Water can leak from outside via blocked drain tubes, leaking windscreen seals or rusty panels surrounding the front screen. Also a wet drivers or passenger side footwell could indicate a leaking heater matrix.

The Test Drive

Make sure you have the correct insurance before going out on a test drive. It's no good if you only have third party if you want to drive someone elses car.  If your insurance doesn't allow you to drive other vehicles then don't be tempted to test drive unless it's on private ground. Which I don't really recommend as you can't get the feel of a car just going around a paddock or a long driveway...

Before starting the car, open the bonnet and have a good look at the engine compartment. Unless the car is a concourse winner, the engine should be oil leak free but not squeeky clean as if it's been steam cleaned to hide oil leaks. A bit of grime is better than an unnaturally clean engine bay. Remove oil filler cap and look for signs of head gasket failure. If you can see a mayonaise looking sludge on the cap and around the rocker cover then it can indicate the head gasket is leaking and coolant is mixing with engine oil. Unless you are capable of fixing engines then just walk away.

Start the car. Preferably on a cold engine. Does it start easily and without fuss? Does it settle down into a smooth idle? Can you hear any loud rattles, bangs, clunks or low rumbling sounds from the engine? Remove oil cap - if you can see smoke/fumes or you can feel lots of air being blased out then this can indicate worn engine. The puffing is excessive crank case pressurisation through worn pistons and cylinder bores or blocked breather pipes. If the cause is blocked breathers ask yourself what is blocking it? If you can access the breather pipe and it's full of the same 'mayonaise' sludge this means the engine has head gasket problems or worse such as cracked or dropped cylinder liners, block etc.  

A simple test is to put the handbrake on, put car into 4th gear and gently let the clutch up BUT ONLY UNTIL THE ENGINE IS LOADED. If the big ends or mains are worn then you will hear loud knocks or rumbling sound as the load on the engine increases. Use caution when doing this for obvious reasons. 

Familiarise yourself with the controls, clutch feel (if manual) seating position. Start to pull away. If the clutch bites only when the pedal is almost up then the clutch has done the miles and is showing wear. If the clutch action feels 'wooden' it can indicate wear to clutch and clutch release mechanism.

Once the car is on the move how does it feel? Does it wander or pull to one side? Does the steering feel vague as if it's linked to the front wheels via a town council comittee? Some old classics with power steering do have vague steering but not that vague.  Does the car accelerate smoothly without undue engine noises, clunks, bangs etc. Check for smoke if any when accelerating hard. (when safe to do so). If you can see blue smoke then when you lift off the accelerator this can indicate worn valve stem oil seals but if you see blue smoke when accelerating or just cruising, this can indicate worn cylinder bores, pistons and valve guides. The blue smoke is oil being burned within the engine. 

On a quiet road, see how the car stops when braking. Does the car lurch and pull to one side under heavy braking? If it does pull to one side then one of the calipers (or drums if car is really old) isn't working properly.

Check instruments. Are there any warning lights on and does the engine temperature gauge sit at normal? Be aware, some cars don't have a temperature gauge! They only have a warning light which comes on when damage has already been done. Renault Fives and Peugeot 106's spring to mind.

So once you return back to the sellers house and the test drive went well leave the engine running and once again look under the bonnet and sniff - yes sniff! Use your senses. An engine in good condition shouldn't smell smoky or drip oil. Look for any green crystalline deposits around the radiator and hoses. If you smell a hot water or sickly sweet smell, then it could indicate a coolant leak.

Look around the back and see what is coming out of the exhaust. A fully warmed up engine in good condition shouldn't be showing much at all. If the exhaust smells sickly sweet and looks wet then coolant is getting into the cylinders and is being burnt. Headgasket faults or block and cylinder liner problems can cause this.

To summerise;

Research the type of car and do your homework first.

Don't look at a car in the rain or at night.

Try to take someone else with you when you look at a car.  Preferably someone who is mechanically minded. -

Don't look at a car unless it's at the vendors home address.  Sometimes the seller will say you can view it at his or hers place of work but unless you are 100 percent sure they actually work there then it's always preferable to view car at their home address.   Make sure the seller actually is living at the address where the car is being viewed.  If the sellers name and address are not on the V5c ask why?

Don't be afraid to ask questions. If you feel the seller is trying to rush you or seems hesitant, or seems incapable or unwilling to answer questions then make a polite excuse and leave. There's always other cars to look at.

A car in good condition with MOT shouldn't smoke, make loud clunks, rumbles or rattles when driving or stationary.  It should steer, accelerate and brake in a controlled and smooth manner. If you're not mechanically minded, take someone with you who is. Try to look at other cars of the same make and model just to see how they are and how they drive.

Always carry out an HPi check or similar. There's quite a few companies that will do background history checks for a fee. It's a small price to pay for peace of mind plus it's better to pau out fourty or fifty quid then being pulled over by the police because the car appears on the PNC as stolen or has outstanding warrants on the previous driver.

Which leads me on to the next important tip.

When buying or selling a car, always insist on a receipt with time and date of transaction. Get them to sign it. This is because if you send off the V5 part and the new owner decides to drive through every speed camera or go into London without paying the congestion zone fee or emission zone (if you have sold a diesel van or truck) then the fine or bill will go to you as the DVLA won't have processed the new owner details. As long as you have a signed, dated and timed receipt then you have some sort of back up. I learnt this the hard way when I sold my van a few years ago. The new owner drove through London then went on holiday. Guess who got the warning letter and bill for failing to pay for the congestion zone fee. Yep, me. Because I had posted the V5 the database still showed me as the owner. Luckily the new owner left his phone number and as it turned out he was genuine and he payed the fine but it could easily have meant a bailiff turning up on the door step. So always get and give a receipt no matter if buying or selling your car, van, bike or truck.

Hope you find this quide useful. It's by no means exhaustive but should cover the basics. I am working on the ultimate How to guide and will probably post it on this site later when I get more time.

 

 

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