5 Important Tips When Buying a Used Car Without a Mechanic

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Unless you have a very good understanding of how cars work, it is preferable you take a mechanic with you when going to see a used car you’re planning on buying. However this is not always practical because it can cost a lot of money. The AA charges £142 for a vehicle inspection but you can get a local mechanic do the necessary checks for you for around £80. Still, it’s very rare you’ll be purchasing the first car you see and on average people look at 4 cars before making their final decision, so you can easily see how the vehicle inspection fees can become a substantial amount in itself if you were to do that for each and every car.


Don't despair, I was in a similar situation myself and here’s what worked for me and allowed me to get my money’s worth:

#1. Ditch the dealers and go straight to private sellers if you want to get the best deals

Dealers are here to do business, they will sell the same vehicle from a private sale for a couple of hundred pounds more. Private sellers on the other hand will give you a more honest price and you’re more likely to be able to negotiate with them. So get onto Gumtree and AutoTrader and make sure you’re excluding dealers from your search.

Be cautious as some dealers will try to pass themselves off as private sellers. You can easily identity them through this:

  • The registration certificate (V5) is not in their name (they do this to keep the number of former keepers to a minimum)
  • They do not have car insurance in place (you will then have to take 1 day insurance to drive the car back home)
  • They know little about the history of the car (when the cambelt or clutch was last changed etc)

#2. Check the Advisory Information section and the Odometer readings on the MOT Certificate

When a vehicle goes for MOT, the mechanic will put down Advisory Items for things which are not a problem yet but will be in the future. These are the things which will most likely require replacing soon. As in the picture above, there’s a warning of the “Rear exhaust box rusty” which means a new one will have to be put in soon. On a Peugeot 206, this will cost around £99 and you can ask the seller to knock off this amount from the sale price.

Ideally you should check the MOT certificates for the last 3 years and pay attention to the advisories. Ask the seller which of the previous advisories have been dealt with and ask for proof eg Receipt showing the date/time when new brake pads were fitted.

To know whether the mileage has been tampered with, check the odometer reading and history. On average, a driver will do 10,000 miles in a year but there are exceptions. The readings should be fairly consistent, just like in the picture above – the owner was doing about 5,000 in a year and when I looked at the actual mileage, it was pretty close to what I expected.

#3. Be ready to test drive the car to uncover faults

You may not have the slightest clue what to look for when you lift up the bonnet but when you test drive a car, you will surely uncover problems with it. Here are the things I pay particular attention to:

  1. If the clutch has a high biting point, it will need replacing soon
  2. Switch off the music and roll down the windows and try to listen for any unusual noise whilst driving
  3. Do the basic driving tests – are the steering wheel, brakes, clutch, accelerator and gears working fine?
  4. How about the car controls? Wipers, lights, electric windows, AC, radio etc

#4. Bring a friend or family member with you

They don’t have to be a mechanic or know much about cars. You will be more at ease if they are with you and they can help with the different checks you need to do. On one occasion, a friend of mine spotted the brackets for the car exhaust had completely broken and the exhaust had no support at all.

#5. Get a sale contract signed before you hand over your hard earned money

Download this car sale contract and bring it with you. Make sure the seller signs it and put as much information as you can on the document. Although the seller will tell you it’s going to be a “Sold As Seen” sale, this gives you protection that he had the right to sell the car over to you.

Other helpful tips

  • The less former keepers for the car, the better
  • Always ask to see the vehicle service history
  • If you have a doubt, don’t buy it
  • Once you've found a car you really like, get an HPI check done to uncover things like outstanding finance, whether the car has been clocked, written off or stolen
  • Always negotiate with the seller, you can easily get a couple of hundred pounds off the asking price

What’s your best tip?

Is there anything else I've missed that should be pointed out? Let me know in the comments, thanks.

gices Level 6
I'm a Software Developer and the co-founder of Clever Dodo. Born in Mauritius and now living in the UK, I usually blog about fitness, music, spirituality and driving topics to pass on my knowledge.

10 Replies

MonaNordman Level 1

Can car lot take car back after accident despite down payment and trade in?

Can a car lot take my down payment,  trade in, then come take the car if I get in an accident in the car?

[Migrated from previous topic 11540 dated 20 Oct 2010]

gices Level 6

Are you saying that you went to a car lot and made a down payment for a car as well as traded in another car of yours and then had the car confiscated because you had an accident?

[Migrated from previous post 1340 dated 20 Oct 2010]

goingbarmy Level 1

Best used car for women with 6 years no claims

Best used car for me? I am looking for a used car. My budget is £2-3.500. I am female with 6 years no claims.Got licence in 1992. In my 40s.Don't know what group to go for. Have no one to help out and am a complete novice at this, therefore easy target. What group insurance would be best for me, I'm looking for low running costs,reliability, good suspension and something that can move confidently uphill without me waving people by!

[Migrated from previous topic 11552 dated 24 Oct 2010]

themslygers Level 1

older model honda, volkswagon or volvo cars are usually built well. check for service history when buying car and look thru log book to see if anything is in that. i think the AA or RAC do a service where if u pay them, they will come by and check out the car for you. at the end of the day, you are buying a used car and with that comes risks. my advice is don't rush things. look for genuine reasons for sale. most private sellers are selling due to problems with cars i've found so it may be best to visit a used car dealership, that way u get a warranty with it as well. all tho u will pay slightly more with this.

[Migrated from previous post 1362 dated 25 Oct 2010]

twin72 Level 1

Buying car from a dealer who trades also from home

Hi I brought a car from a dealer today advertised on auto... but car I was first after was sold. The dealer offered me another car which he only had come in today. He gave me his address as was parked up by his house not on his business court. I made checks online car was fine. Got car home and car has broken down, (think gasket has gone) The dealer is now saying there is no waranty on the car as it was sold as seen?? I really am confused as he is a dealer and surely he can't be trading from home also making money on the side???? Can anyone give me advice on where I stand I'm having no luck with cars and this dealer is not helping. regards, also paid in cash and got all service history/ 12 months tax ext...He gave me a little piece of paper which i signed : ( stupid i know but his writing was scruffy and i was checking he put the right price....no warranty.....

[Migrated from previous topic 12480 dated 06 Sep 2012]

gices Level 6

You can file a case against him but I doubt this will be of any use to you. Like you said, he's given you a piece of paper to sign which means nothing. He might have a registered business but if you didn't get any contract which shows the sale of the car, then it's going to be difficult to prove your innocence. On top of that, if you had paid by bank transfer, then there would be a transaction recorded on your bank statement which you could have used but with cash payment, it's a lost case already.

The only thing you could do I suppose is talk to him and see if he's willing to repair the car or at least put some money towards the repair since it broke down on the same day. It's going to be really up to him though...

[Migrated from previous post 1912 dated 10 Sep 2012]

Peter_4 Level 1

2nd hand car problem from ebay sale

I bought a 2nd hand car on ebay. After 2 days it began overheating, and when I took it to a garage, they found it had cylinder head/head gasket issues. I contacted the seller who denied any issues when he had it. Today I got the V5 back, and it says he was never the owner, but he says he was in the advert. So I have a problem with the heads, and the fact he was not the owner. Ebay are at best hopeless. Any advice on what I should do ?

[Migrated from previous topic 11562 dated 28 Oct 2010]

kingjj Level 1

Bought a car 3 months ago but not received any paper work to put it in my name

First time buyer in the UK, what do I do to get the car in my name? I have not signed or done anything to get the car in my name.

[Migrated from previous topic 12022 dated 01 Mar 2011]

gices Level 6

Was it from a private sale?

[Migrated from previous post 1588 dated 01 Mar 2011]

Charlie1 Level 1

Legal advice regarding used cars

Hi guys. Bought a used car from a very reputable garage nearly 12. Months ago. I went to tax it and was told the car was not registered and never has been registered in my name. Ive been paying finance on it and insurance etc. The garage have lied and told me that the dvla had the car registered in my name but at my old address. Ive since had email confirmation from the dvla to say it has never been registered to me. This would also have made my insurance invalid had i had an accident. Anyone give me any advice where i can take this next please.

[Migrated from previous topic 12770 dated 05 Oct 2017]

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