Buying a second-hand car: what to look for

Buying a second-hand car can be an affordable way to get on the road. There may even be bargains to be had with an approved used car from a dealer, but there are pitfalls too. See the key questions to ask, as well as what to look for and what to avoid.

What's your budget?

You need to know how much you can afford to spend on buying a second-hand car. Are you planning to save the full amount? If so, when you need the car and how much you’re able to save will set your budget.

If you’re considering getting a car loan, it’s important to consider how much you can reasonably afford. Start by drawing up a budget to see how much you have available for repayments.

Explore more: How to create a budget

Keep in mind that you’ll need some money spare to cover things like petrol and repairs. And if you do decide to borrow, it’s still a good idea to save up as much as possible to reduce the amount you need to borrow. This will save you money on interest payments and can also get you into the habit of putting money aside to pay for the car.

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?
  • how much space do you need in the car? 
  • your preferences - manual or automatic? 

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. Make sure to read the fine print so you know exactly what it covers.

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. 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.

How much should you pay?

Find out the going rate for the car of your choice by comparing prices in advertisements and on car listings sites. This will mean when it comes time to make an offer you have a good idea how much similar cars are selling for.

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.

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