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How to: buy a used car

Buying a second hand car from a trader will offer you more protection than a private seller can.

There’s a lot of financial sense in buying a second hand car, rather than a brand new one. You avoid the steep depreciation of a car’s early life, which means you can buy a lot cheaper or get a lot more in terms of power or features for your money.

You may not easily find the exact specification you’re looking for, but there’s a heck of a lot of used cars out there, so you should find something very close to what you’re after. And although you will miss out on some or all of the manufacturer’s warranty, if it is important to your peace of mind, there are other warranties you can buy, even for cars more than three years old.

The conventional ways of buying a used car are by browsing through what’s available on the forecourt of a dealer or from an independent used car trader or by searching the small ads in the press.

If you want a car that’s a year or two old and still within the manufacturer’s warranty period, a dealer in that brand will probably have the pick of the bunch. You have the knowledge that it has genuine manufacturer’s parts and will meet the warranty conditions. The downside is that you will probably pay more for that. Still, you may think that’s worthwhile for the assurance that you’re likely to get several years of trouble-free motoring.

Independent traders will offer a much more mixed bag of vehicles and are much more mixed in terms of the quality of service they offer. At the top end of the market are franchised dealers, which will often sell used cars under manufacturers’ approved schemes, which removes a lot of the risk. Lower down the chain are smaller independents whose stock will generally be too old for the main dealers to want to sell it, but too young to be relegated to the less profitable small ads.

With an independent, you can expect to pay somewhat less than at a main dealer, but you need to be sure of what you’re buying. Many of the cars on offer may have been bought in auction or from fleets and have been worked on to varying degrees. This could just mean anything from a valet and oil change to having had serious mechanical work done.

As with any used car purchase it’s important to know that the mileage is genuine and not excessive, to see the service history and to avoid anything with impending mechanical problems. It will help if the trader is established and offers a reasonable warranty on the car. Nonetheless it should be checked out professionally. The big motoring organisations offer checks on cars, and these are money well spent. Some traders do have their cars independently checked as a matter of course, and you should read the report carefully.

When reading the small ads, always look for a (T) at the end. This signifies that the seller is trade, rather than a private individual. It’s not a bad thing in itself if the car is from a trader, and indeed you should have the same consumer protection that would apply if the trader had premises on the high street.

But if you want to talk to the previous owner and get the low-down on the car, a private individual should be able to answer all your questions. Another advantage of a private sale is that you are likely to get the best price. The disadvantage is that you are not covered by the Sale of Goods Act and the car will probably be “sold as seen”; in other words, if there’s a problem you should have spotted, but didn’t, then it’s probably your tough luck. It is imperative, too, before you part with your cash, that you check whether the car has any outstanding finance on it or whether it’s ever been an insurance write-off. For more information on this, see www.carwatchuk.com, www.theaa.com or www.hpicheck.com.

The internet has become increasingly popular in recent years for used car buying and selling. Sites there offer a huge range of cars from private and trade sellers and you can generally search for particular models, organised by how close the seller is to your own postcode. One of the most popular such sites is www.autotrader.co.uk. In effect, these are small ads that usually have the advantage of being able to include a picture. All the caveats that go with a purchase from a newspaper or magazine ad apply.

Web auction site eBay is also an increasingly popular place to buy and sell cars. Again you should observe all the rules applying to a private sale, although eBay has the advantage of offering a car history check. Remember that if you put in a bid and you win, you will have to pay up, so make your inspection and checks first.

Another comparatively recent phenomenon is the car supermarket. Fitting in somewhere between the main dealer and the small independent trader in the user car sales hierarchy, these are huge sales lots, selling large numbers of cars, ranging from nearly new to well used, at low prices. You should get a lot of choice on popular models and they may offer warranties, finance options and trade-ins.

Finally, some are enticed by the possibility of buying a used car at a knockdown price at auction. But remember, this is the territory of the hardened used car trader, and if you’re going to mix it with the pros, you really need to know what you are doing.

In all cases, the principles that should guide you are the sort of car you want and the value for money you are getting. And that means finding out exactly what a particular car is really like under the shining paintwork and what comeback you have if it turns out to be rather less impressive a few months down the line.

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