Buying a second-hand car: what to look for

Buying second hand can be an affordable way to get a car, and there are bargains to be had with an approved used car from a dealer - but there are pitfalls too. Find out what to look for and what to avoid.

Starting your search

What's your budget?

You need to know how much you can afford to spend on buying a second-hand car. This may involve investigating car loans, seeing how much you can borrow, for how long, and what level of repayments you can comfortably make. You also might consider saving up some cash before you buy, to reduce the amount you need to borrow.

Which car will work for you?

Once you know how much you have to spend, focus on what type of second-hand car you want to look for. Questions to ask include:

  • What do you want to use the car for? Short local trips, regular drives to work or longer journeys?
  • How much space do you need in the car? Does it need to be big enough for the family? Will you be carrying tools in it?
  • Your preferences - manual or automatic? How many doors?
Before you start looking for your second-hand car, it pays to do some homework.

How much should you pay?

Narrowing down your preferences will give you an idea of what make and model of car to go for. Find out the going rate for the car of your choice by comparing prices in advertisements and on car listings sites.

Who can you buy from?

You can buy an approved used car from a manufacturer's dealer, or buy a car through a private seller or from an auction.

If you buy from a used-car dealership, the car will usually come with a warranty that it is fit for purpose, but you should always read the fine print so that you know exactly what it covers.

Looking at cars

It's exciting going to see cars and spotting one you really like. Before you hand over any money though, it's a good idea to really analyse a new car - even if you loved it on first sight.

How does the car look and drive?

It's recommended to go and see the car in daylight when it's not raining - you won't be able to spot scratches and bumps if you haven't got a good light.

Taking the car for a test drive is essential. You'll be able to see if the car is comfortable for you, and you should also be able to spot any obvious faults. However, make sure you're insured to drive it before you take the wheel.

Several companies run car check services which may be worth investigating - some check the vehicle, others the outstanding finance, write off status and more.

Does the car have the right documents?

The seller should be able to provide you with:

  • the original V5C document also called the log book - it should have a DVLA watermark
  • the service history - check that the mileage matches up with the service record
  • MOT certificates
  • a record of any repairs the car may have had
  • the handbook

You can use the DVLA's free online vehicle information tool to check the car's registration, as well as the MOT and tax expiry dates. Another thing to check is that the person you're buying the car from has paid off any finance agreement - if they haven't, the finance provider could take the car. Several companies offer private data checks on cars.

Check the chassis number

Look for the chassis number - also known as a vehicle identification number (VIN) - under the car bonnet and make sure it matches the number shown in the log book. While you're at it, check that any registration numbers engraved on the windows match the vehicle's number plate.

Are there at least 2 sets of keys?

Computerised car keys can cost as much as £200 to replace.

Road tax is not transferable. You have to tax the vehicle before you drive it away otherwise you might have to pay a penalty.

Paying for your car

Before you hand over any money:

    • confirm exactly what's included in the price
    • get the original of the log book and a valid MOT certificate. If these aren't available, don't buy the car.

    Ideally, don't pay cash for a vehicle. Always use a traceable method such as a banker's draft and ask the seller to sign a receipt.

    Essential car documents

    • the original V5C document also called the log book
    • service history
    • MOT certificates
    • a record of any repairs the car may have had
    • the handbook

    Disclaimer: please remember...

    We're a bank, not a garage. We provide this information as a helpful guide. However, if you're thinking of buying a second-hand car, please carry out your own searches and don't rely on the details on this page being 100% accurate or up to date