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 a sign that says they follow The Motor Ombudsman's code of practice - 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
don't fake it
When you’re inspecting a car, don't pretend you know more about cars than you do. This could make it difficult to take action against the seller if the car you bought turned out to be faulty
Buying from an auction
Auctions are probably the riskiest way of buying a used car. You probably won’t have the legal protection that you have if you buy through a trader (for example, the right to returns and refunds).
Make sure you read the auction house’s terms and conditions of business carefully before making a bid.
There are various ways you can buy a car privately – online, from an owner’s private residence or through an advert in a newspaper. Buying a car privately is often cheaper than buying from a used car dealer, but if there is something wrong with the car, you won't be covered by such things as the Sale of Goods Act.
In addition to the checks below, see Buying a used car privately on the RAC website for warning signs to look out for.
Money fitness tip
Use our Buying a car checklist which covers what you need to think about. You can save it and come back to it later.
Check a car’s history
Doing some simple checks will reduce your chances of buying a car that’s being sold illegally or has had major repairs. You can also find out if the current owner still owes money on the car.
It doesn’t take long or cost much. You should consider doing this no matter who you buy from.
1. Check the car’s details with the DVLA
Ask the seller for the car’s:
- registration number (on the number plate)
- MOT test number
- make and model
Use the DVLA’s free online vehicle information checker to make sure what the seller tells you matches the DVLA’s records.
If some of the minor details don’t match, you can ask the seller to clarify - it might be a simple mistake. But if you’re suspicious that the seller gave you fake details then you shouldn’t buy the car.
2. Check the MOT and history
Vehicles need regular MOT tests to make sure they’re safe for the road. You should check that MOT tests have been done regularly throughout the car’s history (most cars over 3 years old need an MOT test every year).
Check the MOT history of a car on Gov.uk. This is a free service.
Ask the seller about any gaps in MOT - don’t continue with the deal if you’re suspicious of the MOT history. A car might not have needed an MOT if it was unused for a period of time and was registered as SORN (statutory off road notification).
3. Get a private history check
It’s a good idea to get a private history check (sometimes called a ‘data check’) on the car - this will give you valuable information about serious problems the car might have. It will cost up to £20.
It will tell you if:
You can get a car history check from any of these websites that check vehicle details:
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. It’s a good idea to meet at a private seller’s house so that if something goes wrong after you’ve bought the car you’ll have a record of their address.
Don’t test drive a car if you’re not insured. You’ll be liable for any damage you cause and you could lose points on your licence.
The AA has a useful checklist for what to look out for when inspecting a used car and its paperwork. Make sure you ask about the car’s service history.
You should definitely take the car for a test drive. You’ll need to make sure you’re insured to do this.
If you have your own car insurance, check with your insurance company to see if you can drive someone else’s car. If you don’t have insurance, a trader or private seller’s insurance might cover you - you’ll need to ask them.
If you’re still not sure - get an independent report
If you’re still not sure at this stage, it’s probably a good idea to look for another car.
However, you can go a step further and get an independent report on the car. This will give you detailed information about the car’s condition and will cost around £100 to £200.
Independent reports are done by motoring organisations and specialist companies - call the Motor Ombudsman for advice on where to get an independent report in your area. The Motor Ombudsman is a government-backed self-regulatory body for the motoring industry.
The Motor Ombudsman
Telephone: 0345 241 3008
When you buy the car - the transaction
Don’t be afraid to haggle on the price - start low and let the seller work the price up. Stay calm and only pay what you can afford. Remember you can simply stop the deal if you feel like you’re being pressured into paying too much or buying additional features.
Make sure you get the original (not a photocopy) of:
The seller can't legally transfer any car tax that they've already paid to you. You'll need to pay car tax as soon as you buy the car.
- the log book (the V5C registration certificate)
- the valid MOT test document
Never buy a car without the log book.
See Car loans and finance for your options on borrowing money to buy a car.
Use our Car costs calculator to see what you'll have to budget for and whether you can afford it.