A Guide To... Buying a Used Car


UPDATED FOR 2021


Buying a used car is by far the most frequently asked about subject we get at the garage. It can be stressful at the best of times and getting it wrong can be very costly indeed!

To help you through the process, we have produced a guide, based on our 25 year experience at the sharp end of car sales, telling you what to look for and what to avoid.


As ever, this guide is based purely on our own opinions and should be taken as general advice.


You can view the full guide below and also download our handy checklist to print off and take with you on test drives.

Download Checklist >>

Where To Begin?

Working Out Your Budget.

First and foremost, sit down and work out what you have to spend. This will obviously play a major part in the cars you will be looking at. Do you intend to use finance? Look into likely repayment costs to check affordability.

TOP TIP: Check how much it will cost to borrow the money from your own bank. This can often work out cheaper than taking finance from a dealer. Have you got a vehicle you want to part exchange? Check adverts for similar cars to find out roughly what you can expect for it. A local dealer should let you know what the car will be worth as a trade in. Think about whether you should sell the car first or put it in for part exchange, (this option will alienate private sellers).

Choose Your Target.

Rather than spend aimless hours idly trawling the classifieds, it pays to spend a little bit of time thinking about exactly what kind of vehicle you want.


One of the key considerations will be the fuel used to power your new steed. Petrol, diesel, electric or hybrid?

Each has its own pro's and con's. The government are keen to push electric vehicles but the national infrastructure isn't quite up to snuff as yet so unless your commute is measured in tens of miles and not hundreds, avoid. Petrol is a good shout, as is hybrid. Owning a diesel these days carries the same stigma as wearing slippers made from little baby seals but if you need a largish car from the last 20 years or so, this will be where the best bargains are to be found.


Other considerations are; How big? Automatic or manual? 4WD? Does it need to be a frugal runner or capable of cutting a dash in your cul-de-sac? It’s a lot easier to discount a car at this point as unsuitable rather than wait to find this out once you’ve bought one.

TOP TIP: This is where car supermarkets prove useful. Although not the best place to buy from, they are a great place to compare a few different models at the same time. It’s a good opportunity to see if you like the driving position, if the boot is big enough for your buggy or fishing rods, and all those kinds of practical considerations you’re bound to forget until it’s too late.

Research, Research, Research. Once you have whittled the choice down to a particular model, (or a small selection), now is the time to focus your research. At this point, Google is your friend. Find out all about your intended purchase.


Think about what toys you would like, (things like SATNAV, cruise control, ISOFIX), and find out which trim level has them fitted.


See if there are any common problems and if existing owners are generally satisfied with their cars - The JD Power satisfaction survey is a good place to look.


Check out any model specific forums or websites. The more you look into a model, the better armed you’ll be. Start to get a feel for what kind of money the model you want sells for. Check also how varying mileage and spec levels affect the price. It’s also time to re look at the budget. Check things like the cost of insurance and how much the tax will cost. While you're there, look into likely running costs. The internet is a powerful research tool, use it wisely!

Where To Buy? There are a few different methods of obtaining your next car. Obviously, it doesn’t mean you should disregard a car because it’s not for sale through your preferred medium but it’s always a good idea to consider where you would and wouldn’t feel comfortable spending your cash.

Main Dealers. This is normally the most expensive route. Cars tend to be newer, (less than three years old) and prices are almost always higher than average. Don’t assume that because they are the most expensive, main dealers have the best cars. They often don’t. However, if you want an easy life and don't mind paying a premium, this can be a good option.

Car Supermarkets. Like main dealers, they generally sell newer cars, (up to 5 years old). Most rely on high turnover, low margin so whilst sticker prices tend to be attractive, customer service and car preparation generally isn’t high on their list of priorities!

Independent Dealers. These can vary in size from massive sites to rival the car supermarkets, to much smaller traditional garage forecourts. This type of dealer is normally a good balance between price and service.

Home Dealers. People who deal in cars from their home or the side of the road. They’re not all bad but as a rule, best to avoid!

Auctions. Auctions, either physical or internet based, can offer the chance of a real bargain to a lucky punter.


However, more often than not it’s a place to get your fingers burnt. Unless you have a sound knowledge of cars, it may be best to avoid the auction ring altogether. If going the online route with somewhere such as eBay, before bidding go and see the car first and treat it as a private sale.


Remember though, a car sold at auction is almost always done so on a ‘Sold as Seen’ basis, (in fact a lot of dealers dispose of problem cars this way for that very reason). This means if the engine blows its guts apart on the way home, you’re on your own. Caveat Emptor springs to mind!

Private Sellers. Generally the cheapest route. However, be aware that there is little recourse should the wheels fall off, (both figuratively and literally!)

Let's Go Fishing!

Finding a Car. Now you’ve decided how much you want to spend, what you want to buy and roughly the sort of place you want to buy it from, it’s time to go looking!

Once again, the internet will prove invaluable. The main place to start will be the Autotrader. It’s the country’s largest car sales sight and you’ll find most cars for sale on there. EBay is also a good option, (although for reasons mentioned above, stick to the classified ads rather than the auctions). If the car you’re looking at is a little more specialist, try Piston Heads. They tend to be far better for performance and prestige cars. Also check out Google as they will list other sites to check out.

TOP TIP. An old selling technique is to use a back story as a reason for sale.’ I’m moving abroad’, ‘Need a bigger car due to family’, ‘Company car forces Sale’. Look at the car for what it is. You are buying a car for you, not to help a stranger out.

When looking online, use the filters on the search function to your advantage. Cap the price of the results you want to see - there is no point sifting through a pile of cars you can’t afford.


Also, give some thought to the maximum mileage you would be happy with as well as the distance you are willing to travel to go and view a car. Whilst for a Ferrari, you might have to cast the net wide, if you’re looking for a 5 door Fiesta, there is little point travelling to the Outer Hebrides when there are 30 for sale ten minutes down the road! That said, if a car looks particularly good, don’t disregard it if it’s a little further away than you’d like. If you turn down a cracking car that will last you several years for the sake of an hour or so travelling to go and see it, you may end up regretting it.

TOP TIP: This is one of the most important pieces of advice you’ll ever receive: SHOP TO YOUR BUDGET!!!

Whenever we see customers that have problems with a car they’ve just bought, nine times out of ten, it’s because they’ve fallen into the age old trap of trying to snag a bargain.


If you have 2006 Audi A3 money to spend, look at the best 2006 A3 you can find, or in other words, buy the one at the top of the pile. The absolute worst thing you can do is buy the 2010 one you’ve seen for the same money. It’s cheaper than all the other 2010 models but it must be OK because it’s newer right? No. Wrong. Very wrong. It’s cheap because it isn’t any good. The tales you hear down the pub or at the hairdressers about somebody picking up a fully loaded BMW for Fiesta money simply don’t exist.


It will end badly. It always does.

Initial Checks. Once you find a car you like, there are some checks you can make before you’ve even left your seat. Firstly, pick up the phone and ring the seller. Find out if the car is still for sale and ask a few questions about it. Although the information might be in the advert, it will prove a useful indication of how much knowledge the seller has about the car. If they speak confidently about it, you’re probably onto a good firm. If they hesitate or are unsure, it can be a sign of a disorganised garage.

TOP TIP. There are hundreds of doorstep traders that advertise their cars as private sales, (this means there is no comeback should something go wrong). When you phone up, ask if the car is still available. Don’t mention the make and model. If they ask which one, you’re talking to a trader. Also, ask the seller’s name. This can be checked against the V5C, (log book), for a match at a later date.

If it’s not visible in the photos, ask for the registration number. From this, you can order an HPI check. These are useful to let you know if the car has any outstanding finance, if it has been in serious accident or if it’s reported as stolen.


You can also check the vehicle's MoT history online (link below). This can be a good indication of the car's general health. For example, if the car has been advised, (or even failed), each year for corrosion, you'll have a fair idea that the bodywork is hanging on for dear life. Another potential red flag should be repeated failures on the emissions test as it can be a sign of a problem engine.


Check MoT history here If the car is at a dealer, Google them. See if there are any horror stories floating around the internet about them. This is not always the most reliable source of reviews but it may give you a warning to look for potential problems. Check Google Maps to look at where the car is located. You’ll want some idea of a decent test drive route, taking in a mixture of fast sweeping A roads and windy slower B roads. Most traders will have a preferred route, normally the one with the least pot holes!

The Inspection

The Whole Package.


NOTE:

Post covid, a lot of dealers offer 'click and collect' meaning you can't actually test a car before buying it. Sounds dangerous but in fact, distance selling rules are very much stacked in the buyers favour. Simply complete the following steps after the car has been delivered. If something doesn't stack up, send it back!


As the old saying goes, buy the seller not the product. If buying privately, have a look at who has been the former custodian of your intended purchase. Although horribly generalist, first impressions can sometimes be the most accurate. Not every car you look at will be being sold by the local Earl, having spent its life cosseted in his stone built, heated detached garage nestled amongst his expansive grounds but if you pull up to a place that wouldn't look out of place in a Dickensian slum, be wary. As a rule of thumb, if the car you’ve come to see shares its driveway space with a mattress or a washing machine, walk away.


This approach works equally well if it’s a dealer. Have a look at the place. Anywhere that’s falling to bits around them should start alarm bells ringing. Worse still is if they ask to meet you by the side of the road or in a car park somewhere.

TOP TIP: Look at the other cars they are selling. If the one you’ve come to see is the most expensive by a clear margin, beware. Sellers of ‘cheap’ cars tend to treat anything they’ve got with the same approach, ‘Just enough is good enough’. It might be a part exchange passed on by a bigger dealer, or something they’ve been lumbered with for a friend. The chances are it’ll be no good.

Now We’re Getting Somewhere!


Assuming by this point you haven’t decided it would be easier to just keep your old car or catch the bus everywhere, now is the time to look at the actual car itself. We’ll split this up into a few main areas.

Bodywork.


TOP TIP. Remember the number one rule. NEVER look at a car in the dark or the rain. This can be difficult during our colder months when the chances are it’s one or the other, (or both), virtually all the time but a car that appears a million dollars at dusk can look like a dog’s dinner in the cold light of day.

Have a good look around the body. Pay attention to the paint finish making sure all the panels are the same shade. If not, it may have had a shunt and been poorly repaired. Another indication of a repair is paint over spray.

Classic places to look for this would be inside the wheel arches, behind the petrol flap and under rubber seals like those that run along the windows. Check the front and rear number plates to see if the supplying dealer - the name of the garage that made the plates - matches. If they don't, one has been changed which may mean a shunt. If one has been supplied by a body shop then the chances are it's had some repair work..


Take a small magnet with you to check if anywhere has received a liberal coating of filler - magnets don't stick to filler repairs. If you don’t have a magnet, tap your finger over the car. If it’s metal, it will sound light and tinny. Filler will sound like a dull thud in comparison. Lift up the boot carpet and check out the boot floor. Any rear impacts will usually leave it rippled or will deform the spare wheel well.


In a similar vein, check under the bonnet for signs of deformation to the slam panel, (the metal brace that runs across the car at the front, normally next to the radiator). Check panel gaps. With any car this side of the 60’s they should be nice and even. The bonnet is a popular place for misalignment post-crash so check this carefully. Squat down and look along the roof line from the front and back. If it’s had a larger knock, you may well see a kink to the edge of the roof where it meets the doors. This is a VERY bad sign. Make sure all the doors open and close smoothly. If they don’t that could be another sign of a twisted chassis.


Check for rust anywhere you can. Most older cars will have a degree of surface rust underneath which isn’t a point of concern. However, if it looks like it has spent a decade floating in the Thames, run away.

Interior. Check over the interior carefully.


A common problem you may find is that the bolster on the right hand-side of the driver’s seat will be worn. This is normally due to a slightly lazy previous owner, dragging themselves out of the car. Look for cigarette burns in the upholstery. A smoker’s car will almost definitely have some as the hot ash is blown back through the window even for the most careful of puffers. On the subject of cigarettes, have a good smell inside the vehicle. Once a car has been regularly smoked in it will always smell of it. It may not bother you but assuming one day you want to sell it on, it will probably bother somebody else.


Another sign of a smoker’s car is a discoloured headlining above the driver’s head - headlinings are notoriously hard to clean. Whilst your nose is being put to use, get right down into the rear seats and boot carpet and have a root around. Probably the worst thing a car can smell of, and something that will render it virtually worthless to sell on, is the dreaded ‘doggy smell’. Air fresheners can hide a multitude of sins but when your nose is an inch away from the carpet, you’ll smell it. If the car has been used to transport little animals, (either of the dog or human variety), check all the trim rearwards of the front seats for damage. More often than not, people tend to focus on the driver’s seat and forget the rest of the inside.

If it’s had dogs, a common thing is scratches to the inside of the glass. This can be made worse when a window is tinted, which most are nowadays.


Although for the most part children don’t claw at the windows, they do pull at all manner of bits of trim. Look for ripped seat pockets on the back of the front seats. Or lollipops stuck to the carpet. If it’s the kind of car that may have been used as a taxi, have a good look around for holes in the dash where a cabbie’s radio may have been fitted. Also, have a look at the inside of the front and rear windscreens. In the upper corner, if there is any residue of a circular sticker about the size of a saucer, that’ll be an old PCO compliance disc. In other words, this car spent a previous life doing airport runs and picking up kebab eating drunks that have fallen out of night clubs.

Electrical.


Whilst you’re in the car, check everything works as it should. Literally everything. The cost of seemingly innocuous parts of a modern car can be eye watering. We quoted for the replacement of a SAT-NAV unit for a customer with a VW Toureg last year. A snip at £3650. Plus VAT.


Make sure all the windows go up and down, (on all the switches). If it’s got reverse sensors, check them. Audio system, sat-nav, phone kits, the lot. If the seats are electric, make sure they operate as they should, likewise if they are heated.


Check that the mirrors adjust and fold in if they are meant to, as these are another surprisingly expensive fix on most cars.


Crank up the air conditioning. If it doesn’t get cold, it might just need a top up. However, it might also mean the a/c compressor is damaged which can be costly to remedy.

Mechanical. Most mechanical items must be checked with the car running but before you start it up, have a look under the bonnet. Make sure the engine is cold. If it isn’t this could be a problem. Firstly you’ll burn your fingers when you’re poking about and secondly it could mean the seller has warmed it up beforehand to mask a cold start problem. Look for any fluid leaks around the engine. A lot of cars will have little oil leaks appearing as the mileage creeps up but anything more than a light misting could spell disaster.


Check the coolant hoses and radiator for condition. Whilst you’re there, give the fluid levels and condition a once over. This can be a good indicator as to how well the car has been looked after in the past. In petrol engines, oil should be light amber if new or a dark brown if older. It shouldn’t be black. Unfortunately, with a diesel it’s always black so hard to tell how old it is! Coolant should be pink, green or blue depending on the type. If it’s brown it means not only is it old but the waterways inside the engine are rusty, a sure sign of neglect. Brake and power steering fluid should be topped up correctly.

Take off the oil filler cap and look inside of it. If you see a creamy yellow deposit, mayonnaise like in appearance, you’re looking at evidence of a head gasket failure. At best this is expensive, at worst, terminal.

Gentlemen (and ladies), Start Your Engines… Start the engine. It should fire up nice and easily and settle down to an even idle.


Give the car a rev and look in the rear view mirror to see if any smoke is expelled from the exhaust pipe. Faint white smoke similar to a light fog is OK, although if it’s too thick that could mean head gasket trouble. Blue smoke will mean the engine is burning oil. There will be many causes of this, none of them should matter to you as now is the time to walk away. Black smoke generally means a dirty over fuelling car. Either it has a problem or it simply hasn’t been looked after properly. If looking at a hybrid, make sure you kick the petrol engine into life for these checks. Walk around to the back of the car and place your hand firmly over the exhaust pipe, (using a cloth if you don’t want a smelly hand). There should be a bit of pressure against your hand. If it’s not there, the engine might be past its best. Take your hand away and smell it. If it smells strongly of petrol or burning oil, alarm bells should be ringing. If a petrol powered car has been standing for a while, they may be some ‘ticking’ from the engine on start up. This is the valve train at the top of the motor churning away whilst un-lubricated. After a couple of seconds, the oil pump will have done its job and coated the whole assembly so this should quieten right down. Any longer than a few seconds and something is amiss. This is particularly important with PSA engines - Mini, Peugeot, Citroen, Nissan etc. Whilst you’re sat in the driver’s seat, check out the instrument panel in front of you. All the warning lights that illuminate when the ignition is turned on should extinguish after a few seconds. Also, check that there is sufficient fuel in the car for a reasonably lengthy test drive.


TOP TIP. Warning lights are there for a reason. Don't be fobbed off with 'It just needs a sensor, they're only £25 on eBay'. It can costs many hundreds of pounds to fix the problem causing the light. Ask yourself, if it was only a £25 fix, wouldn't the person selling the car have done it?

Time For a Drive.

The Test Drive.


This is your only opportunity to drive the thing before you lay down any money, don’t waste it! Hopefully, having heeded the advice above, you will have looked at a map of the surrounding area and worked out a rough test drive route. Ideally this should include a variety of different roads. Fast A roads to get a bit of speed up, windy B roads, speed bumps if you can find any and a nice quiet cul-de-sac or car park for some maneuvering.

Before you set off, take a little time getting comfortable. Make sure the mirrors are adjusted correctly and you know where all the major controls are. Nothing makes you more obliged to buy a car quite like stuffing it into a hedge on the test drive.

Brakes. Once you’re happy with the setup, pull away. Dab the brakes and see how they feel. If the car has been standing for a while, you might get a little rubbing noise, this should vanish after the first couple of minutes. However, if it’s more a metallic grinding noise, this could be badly worn brakes. For your own safety, stop the car and walk away. Apply the handbrake as strongly as you can and try to gently pull away. It should dip at the back but hold still. If it still pulls away, you could be faced with a bill for £2-300 for a rear end brake rebuild. Once rolling, and it’s safe to do so, put your foot down a little, check in the rear view mirror again for that tell-tale smoke. When you get a bit of speed up, apply brake reasonably firmly with a light grip on the steering wheel. The car should stop well without skidding or pulling to one side.


Keep checking the brakes throughout the test drive. They should maintain their stopping ability and not fade as time goes on.

Suspension. Listen out for any knocks or mechanical rattles. Try to find some speed bumps which will show up any suspension noise. Any loud clicking or grinding from the front corner whilst turning the wheel at lower speeds may be a broken suspension spring.


Whilst rolling slowly, dab the brakes. A clonk from the front end could mean worn engine mountings or suspension bushes. Once you get on to an open road, build the speed up. The car should drive in a nice straight line and not wander about. If it’s more jelly than Jaguar around the twisty stuff it could mean the shock absorbers are shot which can be costly to put right.

Transmission. Check for any vibrations, either through the seat or the steering wheel. Through the wheel at speed might just be imbalanced front wheels but through the seat could be a whole lot worse.

Manual Cars. Make sure you go through all the gears in the gearbox, listening for any crunching and making sure they engage smoothly. Make sure the clutch’s biting point isn’t too high.

Whilst driving, rest your hand on the gear stick. If it shakes unduly, this could be a sign of transmission trouble ahead.


When the car is stationary with the engine running, check this again.

Many modern cars have what is known as a ‘Dual Mass Fly Wheel’. These do two things, make the gear stick nice and still when the car is idling and empty your wallet when they need replacing - usually a four figure bill. Any vibration at traffic lights and avoid like the plague.

Automatic cars. Make sure it changes through the gears smoothly. Put your foot down and the gearbox should drop down a gear. Pulling up to a stop and it should select first. Both these operations should be nice and smooth.


Some auto ‘boxes have the facility to manually drop down gears, (3-2-1 on the gearstick). Make sure this all works as it should. If there are any other settings on the ‘box, (such as sport or snow modes), check them also, along with any manual selector paddles.

Few parts of a car are as expensive to put right as a duff automatic gearbox.

4X4. If it’s an off roader you’re looking at, you’ll need to check whether the 4X4 system is up to scratch. If it’s switchable, make sure you try the car in both 2 and 4 wheel drive as well as high and low ranges.


Whilst in 4 wheel drive, do a three point turn. There should be no knocking of juddering. Driving along, any loud whining noises may be a sign that the transfer box is on its way out.

Drive Train. Find somewhere quiet and do a couple of tight, slow manoeuvres. Any clicking at full lock and you’re in for a new CV joint.


If the car rumbles or ‘whooshes’ when driving down a smooth road, the probable cause is either tyres or wheel bearings. Check which by turning the wheel left and right. If it’s a bearing, the noise will improve one way and get worse the other. Tyre noise will stay the same. Either way though, it’s not ideal.


For hybrids, make sure the transmission between the petrol and electric motors is nice and smooth.

Driving Back. By now, the engine should be nice and warm, give it some stick and check again for that smoke. Sometimes a car seems fine when cold, but smokes when warmed up.


Also, now you’re not focused on every bump and rattle, make sure all the dials work. Check that the temperature gauge isn’t sky high and that no warning lights have come on.

Back on the Forecourt. When back from the test drive, open up the bonnet again and double check for any leaks. See if the existing ones are any worse or if any new ones have sprung up. Time to break out the nose again. Have a good smell around the engine compartment for anything suspicious such a strong odour of fuel or burning oil or rubber. Walk around the car and place the back of your hand against each wheel. Both fronts should feel around the same temperature as each other, as should both rears. A big difference might mean a sticking brake caliper or worse.


Whilst you’re down at the wheels, have a look for any bad kerbing damage on them.

This would also be a good time to thoroughly check the tyres, both for tread depth and general condition.

Turn the wheels out if it makes it easier. Whilst they are turned out, make sure that the CV gaiters (the rubber boots at the ends of the driveshafts) aren't split.

TOP TIP. Check out what make of tyres the car has. A matched set of branded rubber points to a well looked after car. A different budget on every corner means somebody’s been cutting corners.

Learn to Love Paperwork !!!

V5c. This is commonly known as the logbook. It shows who is the registered keeper of the vehicle in question. This can be a good tool to weed out any door step dealers passing the sale off as private. If you’re dealing with a guy named Fred and the log book says he should be a woman called Bridget, ask why. This document will also tell you other useful information. How many owners the car has had, how long the last owner had if for, (if this is a matter of weeks or months, question why). It also tells you who the first owner was. This could well be a company if the vehicle started life as a fleet car. However, if it is a car rental company or a taxi firm, run for the hills. The other bit of important info the V5c tells you, is the vehicle’s chassis number. You should also find this number stamped on a plate somewhere on the car, (normally in the engine bay or in a cutout at the bottom of the windscreen). It is good practice to check these numbers marry up.

MoT Certificate. If the car in question in over three years old, it should have at least one MoT certificate. Make sure the latest test is relatively recent (ideally in the last month) and that it hasn't done thousands of miles since then.


If a dealer is selling a car with a short MoT, walk away. Garages that will issue a dodgy MoT certificate are thankfully few and far between these days so the chances are they haven't put a fresh one on as the car won't go through without issues.

Look through any certificates available. For the last few years, the historical odometer readings are recorded on them so it is a good way of verifying the mileage. The other thing to check is if any advisories have been issued.


Advisories are issued by a tester when something is good enough to pass an MoT test but requires immediate attention. These can build up a more accurate picture of how sound a car is.

Please note, an MoT is NOT an indication that a car is fine. It merely states the vehicle met the MINIMUM legal standard on the day of examination.


TOP TIP. This can be done ahead of time by checking the MoT history online - Link above.

Service History. Check this thoroughly. A fully stamped service book is something that shows how well a car has been looked after. It’s also something surprisingly easy to fake. Tell-tale signs would be if all the entries are in the same handwriting. Even if the same person has serviced the car year after year, their handwriting would change slightly over time.


The rubber stamps should also not be identical. If there are three in a row that are the same and one is upside down, that is a sure fire fake. Nobody stamps things upside down, they have arrows on them. It’s somebody trying to make it look random.


Crosscheck service records with the MoT certificates to see if the mileages marry up. The service book should also contain information as to when the timing belt needs to be replaced, (if one is fitted). Make sure there is evidence of this being done if it’s overdue.


Along with the book itself, there should also be invoices for the services that will match up to the stamps in the book. No invoices for these could be another indication of a little inventive stamping. If you are unsure, give the garage in the service book a ring. Even the most old fashioned of places use a computer now so a five minute conversation should be confirmation enough that the car was worked on by them and to what extent. A well cared for car should also have a plethora of other bills for general wear and tear items, tyres, brakes and so forth. Being told that ‘it’s always been serviced but I paid cash so didn’t get a bill’ or ‘My cousin Bob did it. He works for Vauxhall’, shouldn’t cut it. No proof, no service.


And as for Bob, he may well work for Vauxhall but for all you know it could be filling the vending machines or cleaning the toilets.

Owner’s Manual. Not essential this but nice to have and by God, they’re expensive to replace!

Doing the Deal.

Work Out Your Numbers. Assuming you are happy with the car, now is the time for putting together a deal. On the way back from the test drive, you should have begun to think about numbers. Are you happy with the price? Would you like to make an offer? Take into consideration what car you are buying. If it’s a rare, your bartering power is vastly reduced. If it’s a mainstream vehicle that sold in its thousands, you’re in a buyer’s market.


TOP TIP. However you intend to pay for the car, try to pay a deposit with a credit card - this gives you access to the card provider's legal clout should something go wrong. It doesn't matter if you only pay a small percentage with the card, the whole thing will be covered.

Car Dealers. Assuming you're talking to a car dealer, rule one is don’t try to beat them at their own game. I have been selling cars for over two decades and nothing makes me less inclined to negotiate with a person more than watching them stand in front of me regurgitating lines that they heard Mike Brewer say on Wheeler Dealers the night before. You will impress nobody. The key to negotiating is to be realistic. If the car was massively overpriced to begin with, you wouldn’t be standing there. Most sellers will have a price in mind that they are willing to take, it’s simply a case of finding it. If you intend to make an offer lower than the asking, justify it. Did you pick up any problems on the test drive? Are there any marks on the bodywork? Are you sweetening the deal by paying cash? Don’t insult them by going in with a silly low price. Offer them a little less than you want to pay and see if they bite. For example, a car is stickered up at £5695. The chances are the dealer will be looking for £5500, on a good day you’ll nab it for £5250. The man that offers £4500 for this will be going home on the bus. Offer £5000, (cash if it’s easier) and you’ll likely get a counter offer of around the £5500 mark. From there, hopefully you’ll settle at around the right money, (for you that is), £5250.


If they really won't budge on the sticker price - and your'e happy to take the car at that, then do! Don't beat yourself up that you didn't get any money off sometimes it's just the right price for the car.

Part Exchanging. If you have a vehicle to part exchange, this can muddy the financial waters somewhat. You should have a clear idea in your head as to the price you want. You need to bear in mind that the dealer will need to undertake any remedial work on your car and sell it on at a profit so he won’t be offering to pay you what you see them advertised in the classifieds for. As mentioned earlier, a good idea is to visit a couple of forecourts with your car to get an indication of the trade value. Treat a part exchange as a different transaction to the purchase. One of the oldest tricks in the salesman’s book is the ‘Diversion’. Simply put, whilst a customer is so happy with the great part exchange price of their old car, they seem to forget they are paying full sticker price on the new one.


How many times have you seen an advert for a new car with an advertised ‘Minimum £2000 part exchange price’? It seems great, getting two grand for your old pile of junk. Less great when you realise you’ve over paid on the new car by two and a half grand. You need to work out the difference between what you are willing to take for your old car, and the price you want to pay for the new car. It doesn’t matter how the salesman structures the deal, that amount should stay the same.

Using Finance. Buying a car using finance is becoming more and more popular.


A common misconception is that you can’t negotiate a price with a garage if you’re going to borrow money to buy the car. You definitely can! Once finance is approved, the finance company pay the dealer in full. They aren’t waiting for their money over three years or whatever so negotiate the price before you talk to the lenders.


Another tip is to approach your own bank to see if they can offer you a better deal than the garage can.

Private Sellers. What about the private sellers? Most of the above still applies but private sellers tend to think slightly differently to dealers. Sometimes a little psychological warfare helps... As humans, we like patterns. It’s not something we are conscious of, we just do. Assuming the car you are buying is below £10,000, most people will break this down in nice little bite sized chunks of £250. Not everyone, but most. Let’s say the car is advertised for £7795. The seller has done this because all the cars he sees for sale end in 95. What he really wants is £7750. He’ll likely take another bite sized chunk off to £7500. Another chunk off to £7250 will probably be too much.


The trick is to offer just above that, say £7300. Why? Because it seems an odd amount, outside the pattern we all love. More a considered offer, based on the car's condition, rather than just going through the motions of negotiating. The pattern loving seller is more likely to accept this offer. People far more learned than me can explain at length why this happens. Using pie charts if they like. All I know is that it seems to work more often than not. This technique can be tried on a car dealer but as mentioned above, it works better on real humans…

A Couple More Tips of the Trade. Before we conclude, here are another couple of tips to help you on your way…

Buy with your Head, not your Heart. It can be very easy to buy a car you really want despite all the signs telling you not to. Think about all the details in a calm, level headed manner. If it doesn’t stack up financially, walk away. There are other cars.

Buy when nobody else is. Buying a car out of season can do wonders for the price. Want a 4X4? Buy it in spring after the winter months. Convertible more your thing? Start shopping in autumn. The smaller the demand, the better the deal.

Pick Your Time To Haggle. If you are going to a slightly larger dealer, a little research can go a long way. Find out when their financial year ends. This should be simple enough to do using Companies House.


From there you’ll know when each of their financial quarters end. This is the best time to strike a bargain. Most larger places have quarterly targets to hit. Time it right and turn up on the last day of a pretty slow quarter, (Oct-Dec is always a good shout), and you’ll find them bending over backwards to accommodate you.

Don’t be the ‘Whoop Guy’. It may be the colour you wanted, or much better in the flesh than in the photos but whooping for joy when you see a car, or excitedly squealing phrases like, ‘OMG I love that colour’, or, ‘I can’t wait to get this home’, won’t help you much when it comes to knocking the price down.


True story; I had a guy come and view a Beetle I was selling a year or so ago. He turned up with a friend, whom he promptly told 'This is the one, I love the red'. He then asked if he could borrow my office computer to both tax and insure it. Once he had done all this, he turned to me and said 'I like it but can we negotiate the price?'

I politely pointed out that as I had just watched him spend £600 insuring it, it was a safe bet to assume he'd take it at the full asking.

*To be fair, because he made me smile, I did knock a hundred quid off!

And That is That! There you have it, 25 years at the sharp end of car sales laid bare for you. I hope you’ve found it helpful, (if a little long winded), and fingers crossed it stops somebody getting burned. The chances are slim that you will remember all this in the heat of the moment so I’ve produced a little checklist to remind you of the major points that you can print out and take with you. You’ll find it linked to at the top of this guide.

Oh, I almost forgot the most important piece of advice, if you really want to make sure the car you’re buying is the right price and up to scratch, come and buy it from me!

Dave O’Sullivan

For more helpful hints, search for the tag 'A Guide To' on our blog page.

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