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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.

MOT advisory items

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 Published 29 Sep 2014


kingjj 11 Oct 2019

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 11 Oct 2019

Was it from a private sale?

[Migrated from previous post 1588 dated 01 Mar 2011]

Charlie1 04 Oct 2019

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]