Avoid the second-hand car sales con

It's impossible to know exactly how many people were conned into buying a faulty car last year, but with 5.5 million second-hand cars changing hands in 2009, we can be pretty sure it's a lot.

That's the problem with buying used cars. The price is much more manageable, but there's always a chance you'll be disappointed.

If buying privately is a lottery, buying from a second-hand car dealer is not much better. In March this year, the Office of Fair Trading delivered a stinging verdict on used-car merchants, after it discovered that one in five people who buy from a second-hand dealer report problems with their car.

The 3.5 million people who bought from dealers accounted for the largest number of complaints to the Consumer Direct hotline, knocking complaints about televisions and mobile phone contracts into second and third place, respectively.

However, you don't have to join their ranks. If you're in the market for a used car, we'll arm you with the information you need to ensure you don't get conned or end up buying an old banger.

1. Know your seller

The process of finding a second-hand car has changed beyond all recognition thanks to the internet. However, at some point you're going to have to meet the seller and assess the car before handing over your cash.

Car supermarkets have some of the cheapest prices but to cut costs customers are given very little time with the car and are offered minimal test drives, if any. Traditional independent forecourt sellers have more invested in a car, so they will give you plenty of time.

But they're more likely to hoodwink the unwary – check your local OFT office to see if the dealer has any complaints against it.

Franchise dealers have the best cars but usually at high prices – justified, they say, by the effort that goes into preparing the car. Subject the car to a thorough test drive all the same.

Honest private sellers reveal themselves in their manner, their home and the organisation of their paperwork.

2. Compare prices

Find out what the car should be worth from vehicle valuer Glass's website and compare it against the sellers' price. Check the price of similar cars on autotrader.co.uk. Haggle by all means, as sellers usually price on the optimistic side.

Use things such as balding tyres or missed services as bargaining tools, but always stay polite and don't take the mick by, for example, offering 20% less than the asking price.

3. Check for clones

Cloned cars are a buyer's worst nightmare. A stolen car is given a new identity to con the hapless punter, who then has to surrender it when the truth is revealed.

A batch of stolen registration documents makes a thief's job easier, so check for obvious forgeries on the V5C registration certificate.

Also, get a car date check, available from firms such as HPI or the RAC, as this helps guard against buying a cloned car. These companies will refund your money if a car's dodgy past isn't revealed.

However, you won't get the money back if they find you didn't buy the car at the seller's house or that the price you paid for the car was 30% below its true value.

4. Pay attention when you test drive

The test drive is where the car should reveals its faults, but it's up to you to pick them up.

The 'reliability index' of used-car warranty firm Warranty Direct identifies springs and shock absorbers as the number one cause of failure in second-hand cars, so listen for squeaks or clonks, and make sure it doesn't bounce after braking sharply – it could need new shock absorbers.

Cars don't vary much between models, so question anything that would seem strange if it occurred on your current motor. Switch on lights, check the air conditioning blows cool, lower the windows, and generally poke and pull everything you can.

You'll need insurance to test drive the car, but if it's not being sold by a dealer you should still be covered for third party via your insurance – but check first. Otherwise, get temporary cover from a firm such as insuredaily.co.uk.

Examine the car carefully: check for worn tyres, windscreen cracks and black, sludgy liquid on the oil dipstick (which means the car hasn't been serviced for a while).

5. Choose the car carefully

The best way to pick a reliable car is to check what owners say about it. Website peachorlemon.co.uk invites owners to rate their cars as either a peach (good) or lemon (bad), as well as leave a detailed review. This will also give you an idea of what specific problems to look out for.

Aftermarket warranty companies, which offer extended warranties for used cars, know what's likely to go wrong with a given car. Warranty Direct's 'reliability index' puts cars built by Suzuki in first place, followed by fellow Japanese manufacturers Honda, Mazda and Toyota.

German car firms never do as well as you'd think, while French firms, apart from Citroën (a decent seventh), generally come well down the list.

The Vehicle and Operator Services Agency recently released a list of the worst cars for failing MOTs, headed by the Renault Megane and Peugeot 307.

The Toyota Corolla was best. Diesel engines are generally less stressed (worn) than their petrol equivalents, but because they're heavier, they put more strain on the front suspension, particularly in smaller cars.

6. Check its paperwork

The V5C registration document will tell you how many previous owners the car has had, and if the official address of the private seller matches the one you're standing outside. Check that the car has the same licence plate, colour and engine.

And make sure to check that the V5C looks genuine (there have been a number stolen recently).

The MOT certificate should also be inspected, the mileage matched against the car's odometer (this measures the distance a car has travelled), and the service book scanned for the right stamps.

7. How to pay for it

If you're one of the 3.5 million who buy their second-hand car at a dealer each year, money transfer won't be a problem, but for the two million private buyers it presents a headache.

Cash is easiest, but it's risky and many people are uncomfortable carrying large sums of money around. Bank transfer under the faster payments system is free and can take as little as two hours from you phoning your bank to the money appearing in the seller's account.

But it's not guaranteed. CHAPS is guaranteed to arrive the same day, but it costs upwards of £30 and doesn't work on weekends.

A cheque is as good as cash, but some banks need you to order them and they're not conducive to haggling. You also forfeit the £20-odd fee if you choose not to go ahead.

A Chip and PIN transaction at the bank is best. If both your banks allow this, swipe your card to pay the seller instantly.

8. Know your rights

If you buy from a dealer, the car must be of "satisfactory quality". According to the government-backed advice service Consumer Direct, this means it should be "reasonably fit for any normal purpose"– that is, it gets you from A to B. If it's not, you have the right to swap it or get a partial refund.

As a private buyer you're pretty much on your own, so the onus is on you to check the car is roadworthy and not stolen or still being paid for. Dealers registered at the Retail Motor Industry Federation (RMIF) work to the RMIF code – find a list at rmif.co.uk.

Many dealers offer a limited warranty, usually for three months, which offers some peace of mind.

Nick Gibbs is news and features editor for Auto Express magazine      

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