Top tips on how to buy or sell a used car

Published by The Moneywise Team on 04 May 2016.
Last updated on 04 July 2017

Equally for well-organised sellers willing to do the preliminary legwork, there are also plenty of financial advantages in selling your car privately – not least in getting a higher price privately than from a dealer or as a trade-in.

But as fears over digital ‘clocking’ proved earlier this year, there are still plenty of reasons for consumers to worry about getting ripped off. In March, the government pledged to stop car clocking following an exposé in the Sun newspaper that revealed that up to 100 firms are offering services to digitally alter cars' odometers.

It is currently illegal to sell a clocked car without declaring its genuine mileage, but the actual act of altering the car’s odometer is not an offence.

As the automotive marketplace swells to allow an influx of new technologies, it’s increasingly difficult for consumers to stay knowledgeable about the wide range of motors that are available. For example, the plug-in hybrid car market (hybrids cars  combine a petrol or diesel engine with an electric motor to pull themselves along)  more than doubled last year in the UK.

So we explain how to privately buy and sell cars with confidence and the pitfalls to avoid.

What to watch out for when buying a car

1. Check the full service history

If you’ve got your eye on a car with a few years under its belt, it should have quite a paper trail. If it doesn’t, ask why. For vehicles that are more than three years old, check out a car’s MOT history - including any ‘advisories’ that the garage previously identified, so you can ask the current owner for evidence that they’ve had the advisory work done.

The MOT history and advisories gives a helpful indication of a vehicle’s health and how proactive the current owner has been at taking care of regular wear and tear.

2. Shop around

Buying a used car, like selling, is all about context. Be prepared to put in the hours checking out similar makes and models online and in the classifieds to be sure that car you’ve been ogling really is the bargain it seemed at first glance. Remember, if the car seems too good to be true, it probably is. If doubts remain, walk away – there will always be another one.


3. Sold as seen

Watch out for dealers trying to sell cars as if they are being sold privately – when you phone, simply say “I’m interested in the car you are selling” and if they reply with “which one?” it’s a good clue that it’s really a dealer. Stay cautious of any advert stating ‘sold as seen’ or ‘no refunds’ – this may be a warning sign that there are underlying mechanical faults.

In any case, if something serious goes wrong with the car soon after you have bought it you have little come-back unless you can prove through a court of law that the previous owner knew about the fault. Which is why, if you have any concerns, it may be wise to get an independent vehicle inspection or to go to a dealer after all.

4. Test drive

Most sellers will expect you to want to take the car for a spin before making the final decision, so make the most of this opportunity. Use the time afforded to test the car’s driveability and put it through its paces. Does the car pull up in a straight line when braking? Are there warning lights that don’t go off? 

Make sure that you are insured to test drive the car – check to see whether the seller has obtained additional temporary cover for test drives or, if not, check to see whether your own policy has a ‘driving other cars’ extension. Remember that such cover is only third party, though.

5. Don’t be afraid to haggle

There’s no stigma about wanting to get the most for your money. Remember most sellers will expect you to haggle on the price and there will be a bottom figure they’re prepared to let the car go for. If you’re willing to move around a bit, it might be worth travelling to local dealerships just so you have a comparative price point and you can ask them to match your best offer.

Importantly, if you do go ahead, don’t forget that you must insure and tax the car before you drive it away. Car tax is no longer transferable to a new owner.


What to watch out for when selling a car

1. Spot the fraudulent buyers

Advertising your car online is a doddle – not least because of the number of digital platforms that are now available to private sellers. Yet for all of its benefits, the internet makes it hard to spot fraudulent buyers. If you’re looking to sell your car online then make sure you’re savvy to any potential digital sleight of hand. Even PayPal accounts can be forged using false credit card details – wait for the money to to be paid before you part ways with your car.

Technology has been a boon to fraudsters intent on getting their hands on your hard-earned money. We highlight the warning signs to watch out for.

2. Advertise accurately

By law, when advertising you must describe the car accurately and ensure you’re listing details about the exact make and model, year of manufacture and registration, mileage, condition, colour, full service history, list of equipment and your contact details. Make sure all of your paperwork is available for potential buyers to see and prove you have nothing to hide.

3. Clean it

At the risk of stating the dazzlingly obvious, make sure your car is spotless before you even start to think about advertising it. Any grime or muck in promo shots is unlikely to endear any buyers and may give them the idea that you’re willing to cut corners. It’s worth spending a little upfront sprucing up your vehicle and earning the price tag that it deserves.

4. Price carefully

For most, getting the best deal on your car means securing a good return on your much-loved family estate or that nippy little number you bought for your child’s 17th birthday.

It’s important to exercise moderation here, as pricing your car too highly will put off circling buyers. Look at comparable models of a similar age on used car sites to make sure you’re asking a fair amount. And be prepared for buyers to haggle so have in mind a minimum price you are prepared to take.

5. Consider getting an independent inspection

Consider calling in an independent inspector to add clout to your claim. The AA* and the RAC will both carry out inspections on your terms. Depending on where you’re based, inspections will generally take between one  nto two and half hours.

*The author of this article, Lucy Burnford, is the director of Automyze - the AA’s new free car ownership website that manages everything to do with vehicle ownership for you in one secure online space.

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