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Used car buying tips and check list

Even if you don't know anything about how a car works, there are things that you can look out for before you buy your car, to check that it is safe, legal and in a reasonable condition. Use our checklist to make sure that the car is worth buying - and if not, don't be afraid to walk away.

Mechanical condition and safety
Stolen cars
Cars still owned by a credit company
Clocked cars
Checklist - Buying a car

Mechanical condition and safety
Assess the car in daylight as rust spots and dents might not show in the dark. Take it for a test drive. Take someone with you if you don't know much about cars. If a car has been in an accident, it may be unsafe. Sometimes, two damaged cars are welded together to create a new one. There are companies that can tell you whether a car is an insurance company write-off. You can usually find details of these companies in motoring magazines. Selling a car that has been classified as a category C or D write off without making this clear to the consumer is an offence under the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008 and you should report this to your local trading standards. You may also have a claim against the trader where the car fails to correspond with any description given.
Stolen cars
If you buy a stolen car, the police can take it from you to return it to the original owner or the insurance company. You will not get any compensation even though you bought the car in good faith. You can sue the seller for your losses, but this might be difficult if you bought privately and the seller has disappeared.
Also, if you bought the car on credit, you may still have to pay off the loan - it depends on the type of agreement you have.
It can be hard to tell whether a car is stolen. Its identity may have been changed. For example, the identity number and number plate of a legitimate car may be transferred to a stolen one. Vehicle registration documents can be forged or obtained by fraud.
But there are tell-tale warning signs to look out for:
The seller can't produce the vehicle registration document (V5) - a common excuse is that it has been sent to the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) for updating. This may be true - for example, the seller may have changed address recently. But be wary: it means you cannot check the car's ownership and identity details. If the seller claims the car was bought very recently and the V5 is with the DVLA for the change of ownership to be recorded, the seller should have a green slip (this applies only to cars issued with V5s from March 1997). There are spelling mistakes or alterations on the V5, or it does not have a watermark.
The name and address on the V5 are different to those on the seller's driving licence, passport, or recent gas or electricity bill.
The three main identifying numbers listed below don't match the numbers on the V5:
- The vehicle registration mark (the number plate).
- The vehicle identification number (VIN) - this can be found on a metal VIN plate, usually in the engine compartment, and stamped into the bodywork under the bonnet and the driver's seat. As a security measure, some cars have the VIN etched on their windows or lamps.
- The engine number.
The engine and VIN numbers have been tampered with. Areas of glass may have been scratched off the windows, or stickers may cover up etching which has been altered.
The seller cannot show you the insurance policy for the car.
Cars still owned by a credit company
A car bought on hire purchase or conditional sale belongs to the finance company until the payments have been completed. If you buy such a car, the lender can take it back. You can sue whoever sold you the car, but only if you can find them.
There are only a few exceptions to this. If you were not aware the car was subject to an outstanding hire purchase agreement and bought it in good faith, you may be allowed to keep it. This does not apply to stolen cars or cars which are subject to a hire agreement. Contact Consumer Direct for professional advice on this subject.
There are companies that can tell you if a car is clear of any outstanding finance deals. You can usually find details of such companies in motoring magazines. If you are buying from a dealer, ask whether this check has already been carried out.
Clocked cars
Low mileage can be a selling point, but the clock can be turned back to reduce the number of miles shown and falsely increase the value of the car. Dealers sometimes protect themselves by covering up the odometer or issuing a disclaimer saying that the mileage may be wrong in order to disclaim liability for future problems. Examples include, stating that the mileage 'may not be true and should not be relied on' or that the mileage 'is incorrect and should be disregarded'. A dealer should not routinely use such disclaimers as a substitute for carrying out proper mileage and history checks, so be sure to ask the dealer what checks they have carried out on the car and what they have found out about the mileage.
If the mileage is low but wear and tear on the car looks heavy, the car could have been "clocked". Clockers sometimes change pedal rubbers, steering wheels and gear knobs to hide this. Another sign is that the odometer numbers don't line up correctly.
There are several ways you can find out about the history of the car:
Check MOT certificates and service documentation for mileage readings taken by mechanics.
Contact previous owners named on the V5 and ask what the mileage was when they sold the car.
Get mileage information from vehicle check companies that research the car's history (you can find these in motoring magazines or online).
If buying from a dealer, ask whether the dealer has used trade-only database companies such as IMVA and VMC to check mileage.
Checklist - Buying a car
Run through the checklist below when deciding whether a used car is worth buying. If you find yourself answering 'yes' to a lot of questions in one or more sections, it may be best to walk away. If you don't feel confident about carrying out these checks yourself, get an expert's opinion.
The car's condition
Are sills, wheel arches and door bottoms rusty?
Is paintwork failing?
Are there oil leaks or damaged hoses/drive belts under the bonnet?
Are tyres damaged or worn?
Are seat belts worn out? Do they have faulty mountings?
Do door and window seals show signs of leaking?
Are electrics (lights, dashboard warning lights) faulty?
Has it been in an accident?
Have body panels been repaired?
Is colour/texture of paintwork patchy or different on certain panels?
Has welding been carried out on the engine/boot?
Does the boot close properly all the way round?
Have repairs been carried out on the boot (check under carpet)?
Has the car's identity been changed?
Has VIN number been tampered with?
Have areas of glass been scratched off windows, head lights, tail lights, sun roof?
Are windows etched with incorrect VIN?
Do stickers conceal altered etching?
Test drive(Make sure you are insured for the test drive)
Are brakes defective?
Does car pull to one side when you brake?
Do brakes squeal?
Are there other unusual noises?
Is hand brake defective?
Does steering wheel shake/vibrate?
Does car pull to one side?
Is changing gear difficult?
Does gear lever skip when you brake or accelerate?
Does clutch grab or slip?
Does engine sound different if clutch is pressed when car is idling?
Is there a strong smell of petrol or oil?
After the test drive
(Open bonnet and let the engine idle)
Does engine rattle or make other noise?
Are there water or oil leaks?
Is there blue or black smoke from the exhaust (indicating a badly-worn engine)?
Is there grey smoke from the exhaust (indicating water leaking into engine)?
Has the car been clocked?
Are milometer numbers out of line?
Is wear and tear heavy, given the mileage?
Have pedal rubbers/gear knob/steering wheel been changed?
Does the mileage on last MOT certificate contradict the milometer reading?
Does the mileage on service documentation contradict the milometer reading?
Does the mileage when car was last sold contradict the milometer reading?
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Car check elements explained Write-off categories Buying check list Used car buying advice Motoring Links Top
Car check elements explained Write-off categories Buying check list Used car buying advice Motoring Links Top

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