What to Ask When Buying a Used Car

Buying a car, whether it’s new or used, is a major purchase for anyone so you’ll want to make sure you know exactly what you’re buying. By asking a few crucial questions when looking to buy a used car in particular, you may avoid some very expensive problems in the future. The vendor is obliged to answer your questions truthfully, or they will be breaking the law.

Here is a list of key questions to ask the seller when you’re buying a used car and a couple that you should be able to answer yourself when you inspect and test drive the vehicle. 

Can the car be sold legally?

This is the first thing you’ll need to know. If you’re buying a used car privately, you need to be dealing with the registered keeper. Make sure they are named in the logbook, otherwise they do not have legal title to sell the car. 

The car cannot be sold if it has any outstanding finance and if it’s unroadworthy, it must be described as such. If this is the case, the car should be sold on the understanding that it is to be used for spare parts or it is to be repaired. Look out for the phrase ‘spares or repair’ in adverts. 

If you’re buying from a dealer, you’re in a better position legally from the start as there are several protections in your favour. The dealer must adhere to the Consumer Rights Act, which means that the car they sell you must be as described and that the car has been properly prepared prior to sale. The car must be ‘fit for purpose’ and be of ‘satisfactory quality’.

Can you see the logbook (V5C)?

If you’re buying privately and the seller can’t produce this document, this should immediately set off alarm bells. If they have lost it, they can request a replacement and should do so before selling the car. 

If they do produce the V5C and you notice that a section is missing, this should also indicate that there might be a problem. For example, if the yellow section is missing, this usually means that the car has been passed on to a dealer and you’re not buying from a private seller at all. If only the green section of the document can be produced, this usually means that they haven’t been in possession of the car long enough to have been issued a V5C. In which case, you must ask why they’re selling a car that’s been in their possession for so short a time. 

You will need the green section of the V5C in order to prove ownership of the car until the DVLA issues a new registration certificate. 

How many owners has the car had?

If a car has had a lot of owners it will generally be cheaper than if it has only had one or two. It’s worth checking this to make sure it’s reflected in the price. If it’s had a lot of owners and it’s a relatively new car, this may be an indication that there’s something not quite right and it gets passed along quickly. 

Can you see the service history and does the car have a current MOT?

Even if the seller cannot produce a full service history, any documents they can give you, such as receipts for work completed or new oil, are worth looking at. This will give you a good idea of how well the car has been looked after. If the car has been to a main dealer’s official workshop regularly, this is a good sign that all necessary work has been completed. If not, can the seller account for any gaps in the servicing history?

If you’re at all worried about the servicing history, it’s worth checking the MOT certificates and seeing whether any advisory work noted by mechanics has been carried out or if there’s a lot of work that needs to be done at some point in the future. Consider these costs when you’re thinking about how much you’d be happy to pay for the car. 

If the car doesn’t have a current MOT or there’s a short time left before the next one is due, ask the seller to get the car tested before you buy it. If they refuse, it’s probably a good idea to keep looking. 

Has the car ever been in an accident?

If the answer is ‘yes’, the car might still be perfectly good for you to buy but you’ll want to find out exactly what happened, what damage occurred and what repairs were made. Make sure there was no internal damage that the seller hasn’t listed in the description and check that it wasn’t written off as this might mean it’s not legal to sell it on.

Is the car ‘as described’?

If you’re buying from a private seller, you’ll want to have a good look at the car before you commit. Cars are generally ‘sold as seen’ in this scenario and if you miss something the seller will have no obligation to fix it after the sale. If you’re buying from a dealer, this is less important as they must comply with the Consumer Rights Act. However, you’ll still want to make sure there aren’t any cosmetic faults. Take the listing along with you when you go to see the car to make sure everything matches up and look out for the following things:

  • Take a look at the exterior of the car and see if you can spot any panels which look a slightly different colour from the rest of the car. Ask the seller why this is if it’s not immediately obvious from the service history. You’ll also want to check for scratches and dents.

  • Open and close all doors, the boot and the bonnet to check that they’re all functioning properly and there are no panel gaps that indicate repair work not noted in the service history. 

  • Is the car sitting squarely on the road with bumpers matching on either side?

  • Check the tyre tread. If they’re getting close to the minimum, take the cost of replacing them into account.

  • Are there any chips in the windscreen?

  • Do all the electrics work? Test everything: wind the windows up and down, test the radio, turn on the air con. 

  • Take a look under the bonnet. Low fluid levels could indicate poor maintenance.

  • Does the general level of wear and tear seem about right for the mileage?

Can you take it for a test drive?

You’ll probably want to get behind the wheel and see how the car drives before you decide on whether or not it’s the car for you. You’ll be able to get a feel for how it steers, the condition of the brakes and suspension and if the engine feels smooth. If the seller doesn’t want you to test drive the car, this might indicate that there’s something wrong. 

Can you drive it home?

If the seller confirms that you’re able to drive the car home, it is roadworthy and has an MOT (and you have the correct insurance sorted out). If this isn’t the case, these issues should be fixed before you purchase the car. If you find out this isn’t the case when you’ve broken down on the way home, the car hasn’t been sold ‘as described’.  

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