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Used car buyers guide

When we buy a car, many of us choose a second-hand model rather than a brand new vehicle which could be delivered on trade plates. New models decrease in value quickly, and a low mileage car on a previous year’s plates can represent considerable savings.

Buyers of used cars do need to be careful, however. Second-hand vehicles may have developed faults or suffered damage, and these can be hard to detect. There are several checks you can perform, and questions you can ask, to reduce the risk of buying a problem car.

Second hand car salesIt’s now possible to check a vehicle’s history online using its registration number. This can tell you if the car has been involved in an accident, or even written off, if any money is owed on it, and if it has been reported as stolen.

Ask to see the car’s documentation, including a full service history if available. A regularly serviced vehicle is less likely to develop a fault. Has the car had a number of owners, suggesting possible problems that caused them to sell, or just a couple?

Mileage can tell you a great deal about a car. Although a very high mileage vehicle is a risk, since major components may need replacing, a car with low mileage for its age also raises red flags. It may have been neglected in a garage for long periods, or been off the road for repairs. In some cases, the odometer may have been illegally tampered with to give a false mileage.

Take a close, careful look at the exterior and interior. Check for any damage to the bodywork, including repairs and replacements that might suggest an accident. Look for rust underneath and in areas like wheel arches and door sills.

Are the tyres in good condition, with plenty of tread remaining? If they will need replacing soon, or if there is damage to the wheel rims, insist on replacements, or money off the cost of the car.

Even if you don’t know anything about car engines, it’s still possible to pick up useful information by looking under the bonnet. Fluid leaks, whether engine oil, coolant, or gearbox oil, are easy to spot. Remove the oil cap and look for deposits under it, which could indicate a blown head gasket and potentially serious damage to the engine. Check the oil level against the dipstick, and the colour and consistency of the oil itself.

Don’t let the seller rush your visual inspection. If you spot a problem, point it out, and ask for it to be fixed before you buy, or for a discount.

Ideally, you will be able to take the car for a test drive. A dealer’s insurance policy may cover you to do this, but if the car is for sale privately, you’ll need to check with the seller because he may not have a motor trade policy which allows people to demonstrate vehicles in which case you will need arrange your own insurance in order to test drive.

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Before you set off, check the dashboard for warning lights, and test the lights, indicators, and horn. Start the engine, then check the car’s exhaust. Excessive or blue coloured smoke can indicate a problem.

During your drive, make sure you are happy with the steering, brakes, and suspension, the sound of the engine, and the feel of the clutch as you change gear.

Of course, both new and used cars can develop problems, but new cars are sold with a warranty. These usually cover fault repairs for three years, though some last for five years or even longer.

When you buy a used car through the motor trade, rather than a private seller, it could come with a six or twelve month warranty. Newer models may still be within the original manufacturer’s warranty period, so make sure you ask.

As long as you go into your search for a second-hand car with a clear idea of what you want, and what to avoid, you should be able to find your dream car without the experience turning into a nightmare.


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