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Guide to buying a used car
Guide to buying a used car

When it comes to replacing your current vehicle, buying a used car can be a great decision.

Because of the rate of depreciation in the value of brand new cars, choosing to buy a nearly new or slightly older used vehicle can save you a significant amount of money. It also means that you could potentially trade up slightly on the available spec and afford a better model than you could if you were contemplating a brand new purchase.

But people often feel apprehensive about the searching and buying experience. Many of us will appreciate and recognise that hesitation – some may even feel a shiver of unease all over again...

The problem is that, no matter what their marketing tells you, if you opt to buy via an auction or online or choose to deal with a private seller (and sometimes even a ‘used car specialist’), there’s invariably a niggle of doubt about the quality, history or completeness of the car you’re about to buy.

Sometimes that niggle is well-founded; sometimes it’s completely irrational. But it’s there. And it can cause no end of fret and stress – both before and after the purchase.

What’s the best way for you to buy a used car?

Given that cars of any recent age aren’t particularly cheap things these days, it pays to be as clued-up as possible about the best way to buy a used car. And that will naturally depend on what you’re actually looking for.

If you’re the sort of driver who places ‘peace of mind’ and ‘sound investment’ pretty high on your decision-making tick-list, it’s a good idea to focus your time and efforts on the various approved used car programmes that are offered by all the leading automotive manufacturers.

If you’ve set your heart on a certain make and model of car (or you’ve got a shortlist of a couple of options that you believe would be a good fit for you and your family), this route is definitely recommended. At the very least, the sales team will know that vehicle inside out – so they’re likely to be able to offer you advice and guidance that will go beyond the knowledge of most generic dealers.

Buying from a dealership brings other benefits too. These typically include extra protection in the form of extensive pre-sale tests and checks, warranties and certifications, and the potential availability of special finance offers – plus the opportunity to part-exchange your current vehicle.

Each manufacturer is likely to adopt a slightly different approach, so be sure to check the benefits associated with the approved used car programme of your preferred brand(s).

The Subaru approved used car programme, for example, is Subaru Proven. It offers ongoing reassurance for owners with cars that are rigorously tested and finished to exacting standards, comprehensive warranty cover for a minimum of 12 months, and independently certificated vehicle history and mileage checks. New owners also benefit from extra peace of mind in the form of 12 months’ home and roadside assistance cover and a 30-day/1,000 mile exchange commitment*.

With any approved used car programme, you’ll likely pay a little more in terms of the eventual on-the-road (OTR) price of your vehicle. But this small additional investment will pay off many times over when it comes to confidence in the quality of your car and your ongoing enjoyment of driving it.

Inspect and assess any prospective purchase carefully

If you know how and where to find quality used cars and what to look for when you consider the options available to you, the buying experience becomes so much easier. So, what about that next step?

Once you’ve identified the car you’re interested in (plural perhaps, if you’d prefer to compare a handful of options), it’s time to go and see your potential new set of wheels in person.

Regardless of whether you’re buying from an authorised dealer, a motor industry trader or a private seller, you should carry out a careful inspection of all aspects of the car. It’s a sizeable potential purchase, so take your time.

Work your way around the vehicle methodically – there are 10 things to check on a used car:

1. Exterior condition

Does this car look well maintained? Take a look from all angles, including underneath the chassis.

2. Tyres

Are the tread depths adequate and the walls of the tyres damage free? Do all four tyre brands match?

3. Bodywork

Are there any dents or scratches on the exterior? Any panel gaps that could signify poor repair work?

4. Engine compartment

Look for leaks or signs of a blown head gasket. Also check fluid levels and study any exhaust smoke.

5. Glass

Any chips or cracks anywhere? Are the windscreen, rear screen and all light housings clear of faults?

6. Interior condition

How does it look inside? Is upholstery in good condition? Is the car comfy and clean, front and back?

7. Electrics

Try everything: windows, mirrors, sunroof, USB points, entertainment system, sat nav, even aircon.

8. Repair accessories

Are the lifting jack, wheel brace and locking wheel nut key all present and correct in the boot?

9. Lights and indicators

Switch them all on and off, and walk around the car to make sure everything’s as it should be.

10. Safety

This is not an optional extra! Be sure to check the condition and functionality of seats, seatbelts, brakes, the reversing camera, parking sensors, and any driver assist systems.

Try to check all of these aspects of the car in daylight – and preferably on a dry day, because raindrops on the bodywork can easily conceal small scratches or colour mismatches.

Is this car sure to suit your driving needs?

Having completed your initial inspection, are you happy with the overall look and condition of the car? Asking yourself if you’d be happy to be driven in it is always a good ‘gut instinct’ check!

The next important consideration is whether this vehicle would fit well into your lifestyle. There’s absolutely no point buying any car based on looks alone. It has to deliver the capability and reliability you and your family need on a daily basis, while keeping you all safe – potentially for years to come.

Are you looking for a used SUV? A small runaround? A good all-round family car? Lots of long distance driving or simple shopping trips and local school runs?

If you’re sure this car is a good fit for your lifestyle, then it’s time for a test drive!

This is always a sensible next step, to ensure you’re making the right decision – and to check the brakes, gear changes and other aspects of the vehicle that you weren’t actually able to assess when it was stationary on the forecourt or someone’s front drive.

Arrange a thorough test drive and use it to be sure that the car you’ve chosen feels good to drive from a safety and performance perspective – and that it also provides a comfortable, supportive driving position for you, with good visibility and easy access to essential switches and gadgets. You can read our top tips for a test drive here and learn how to get the most out of the experience.

Don’t forget to check a few final facts

Do you still have a smile on your face after your test drive? Okay then, it’s almost a done deal! But you need to check a few final facts about the car first.

Ask about the previous owners of the vehicle – how many, how often – and check the available service history. A fully stamped service book or digital service sheet is ideal, because that tells you the vehicle has been well looked after.

If the car is over 3 years old, determine when it had its last MOT test and whether any advisory issues were rectified. If it’s a fairly new vehicle, also enquire about any remaining warranty period.

You also need to check the car’s mileage, of course. Take a look at the odometer and make sure you’re happy that the figure displayed there matches your expectations for the age of the vehicle – and that it also fits with the vehicle mileage recorded at the car’s last service.

Still happy? Fantastic! Looks like you might have found your next car.

However, if you’re sitting in a dealership, preparing to sign the paperwork, take a final moment to ask about any available finance options. Whether you have a total budget in mind or would prefer a monthly payment, many dealerships offer flexible financing to suit every customer requirement.

All done? Then you can drive away happy and content – with the confidence and peace of mind that comes from knowing you’ve got a good deal. Congratulations!

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* Terms & conditions apply.

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