What to look out for when buying a second hand car

Brake. Check. Buy. Do the proper checks when buying a second hand carIf you’re one of the millions of people across the country currently looking to buy a used car, we’ve put together our top tips to arm you with the knowledge you need to purchase a car safely, from trustworthy sellers and traders.

Brake. Check. Buy.

In 2023 our Consumer Service helpline saw almost 30,000 used car complaints from consumers. All too often we hear from motorists who’ve had used cars mis-sold to them and have had to shell out hard-earned cash to fix surprise issues. 
Many of us are feeling the pinch right now, so it’s vital to make sure you’re steering clear of surprise problems and are getting exactly what you paid for when buying a used car. Before making a big purchase like a used car, don’t forget to brake, and make all the right checks before you buy.


Do the proper checks when buying a second hand car

Doing the proper checks when buying a used car can help save you distress and money down the line.
Make sure a trader is trustworthy
If you’re buying from a trader (a business that sells cars) you should:
  • look for an established firm with a good reputation 
  • look for a trade association sign (for example, the Retail Motor Industry Federation or the Scottish Motor Trade Association) or look for the Consumer Codes Approval Scheme logo - this means you can act through a trade association if something goes wrong 
  • look for a trader whose cars have been inspected by an independent engineer or motoring organisation.
Stay alert if buying from an individual seller
  • You’re entitled to expect that the vehicle is roadworthy, unless you and the seller clearly agree it is bought for scrap or for spares and repair 
  • Be extra vigilant if you’re buying from an online marketplace such as Facebook Marketplace. If you’re buying a car from an online marketplace seller you can do a reverse image search on google to see whether the picture has been used before
No matter who you’re buying from, keep a copy of the advert you see for the vehicle so you can prove what it said/how the vehicle was described in case there’s a problem later.
Check the car’s history
It’s really important that you check out the car’s history. It doesn’t take long or cost much and you should consider doing this no matter who you buy from, but you’ll need the seller’s permission to have the vehicle inspected.
Make sure to keep a copy of all inspections or checks, either by taking a screenshot or downloading the information.
  1. Check the car’s details with the DVLA using their free online vehicle checker
  2. Check the MOT history on GOV.UK. This will include checking if the car has a safety recall 
  3. Get a private history check. This might cost up to £20, but will give you valuable information about serious problems the car might have
  4. Inspect the car and take a test drive. You should arrange to view the car in daylight, preferably when it’s dry - it’s harder to spot damage to the car if it’s wet
  5. If you’re still not sure - get an independent report. This will give you detailed information about the car’s condition and will cost around £120 to £250
  6. Do the numbers on the odometer match up with the vehicle’s paperwork? Check the mileage on the vehicle against the service history booklet and MOT records.
Paying for a used car
Stay calm and ask questions if you’re unsure about anything in the small print. Remember you can stop the deal if you feel like you’re being pressured into paying too much or buying additional features.
Never buy a car without the log book (the V5C registration certificate). Make sure you get the original (not a photocopy) and the valid MOT test document.
If you pay by cash, there are no extra fees or interest but if something goes wrong with the car you won’t have the protection you have if you buy using a card or on finance.
If you use a debit card, you might have protection from problems from your provider’s chargeback scheme.
If you use a credit card, you’re protected as long as you paid more than £100 and no more than £30,000, even if you only paid for a small part of the cost on a credit card (this is called ‘section 75’ protection).
If you pay using finance arranged by a trader, this can help you get a car if you don’t have all the money up front. You might also have extra protection if there’s a problem later, because you can take action against the finance company as well as the trader (or instead of the trader).
You can complain to the Financial Ombudsman Service if you have an unresolved complaint and have paid by debit card, credit card or using finance.
Problem with a used car?
If there’s something wrong with your used car, you might have a legal right to a repair, the cost of a repair, or some or all of your money back. This includes if it’s damaged, doesn’t work, or doesn’t match the advert or description you were given.
If you bought from a trader, you won’t be entitled to anything if:
  • you were told about the fault when you bought the car and someone fully explained what the problem meant
  • you inspected the car and should’ve spotted the problem - for example a dent 
  • you caused the fault
  • the fault is normal for how much the car has been used (known as ‘fair wear and tear’) - for example if the brake pads need replacing after being used for a long time
If you bought from a private seller, you only have rights if the car isn’t as it was described. The car should be true to the advert and what you were told by the person you bought it from. You won’t be entitled to anything just because the car is faulty or because the seller failed to mention something in the advert. 
If it’s not ‘as described’, you’ll be entitled to either:
  • the difference in value between what you paid and what the car is really worth
  • the cost of making changes to the car so it matches the description - for example if the seller said it had a refurbished engine


Where to get more information and help

For more advice, visit
If you’ve had a problem you can also contact the Citizens Advice consumer service on
0808 223 1133
(Mon-Fri 9am to 5pm)
If you think someone might be trying to scam you, get advice.
Contact the Citizens Advice consumer service for help with what to do next, and report scams or suspected scams to Action Fraud by calling 0300 123 2040 or going to actionfraud.police.uk
Vehicle factsheets
We’ve also a number of factsheets about buying cars and resolving problems. You can download these vehicle factsheets below
Other useful links 

First published 14 May 2024.



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