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Buying a second hand car
No experience? You can buy that too

22nd June 2006.

Buying a new car does not need to be always in the literal sense. It can be new for its next owner, and nearly new in its condition.

Of course, the used car market is like anything else in this world, since it began! You'll always find in the garden the nice couple, the apple tree... and the snake.

But that can apply to anything, even to some brand new car dealers as well. Disappointment is not the rule, but it can happen too.

The problem is that only experience will tell the difference, and everybody is not an auto expert necessarily.

Luckily, experience can be hired. Don't we all hire, or buy advice and services from solicitors, brokers, physicians, plumbers... etc?

Likewise, we can hire the necessary experience to buy a used car quite safely, through official and recognised motoring organisations, either buying from one of their affiliated garages, or by  paying one of their approved experts a fee for a full survey on the neighbour's car before we buy it.

This approach can be applied in many countries where there are automobile clubs or associations / federations defending their adherents interests.

One of these examples is the Retail Motor Industry Federation (RMIF) in the UK. Sue Robinson, franchised dealer director for the RMIF, explains: ‘In the trade, there are a number of car categories that make up the second hand market. Overall, cars are usually priced as either nearly new, or used.

Nearly new cars are those up to one year old. Used cars fall into two sub-categories: one to three years old, and over three years old. Nearly new cars often have very low mileage, and are usually thousands of pounds cheaper than they were when new, just a few months before. This means the consumer should often see good value for money.

‘Franchised car dealers generally offer a good supply of carefully prepared late model low mileage used cars and demonstrators with genuine mileage and service histories. The efficient after sales service and warranties offered also help to ensure peace of mind, as do mechanical breakdown services, insurance services, hire-purchase facilities and servicing back-up.’

Used car buyers make savings on the purchase price of a car and benefit from cheaper insurance as well. Depending on the age of the vehicle, improved value can be had by servicing and repairing a used car through an independent garage.

According to Robinson, there are a few things to remember when buying a used car:

  • Avoid looking at a car in the dark.

  • Make sure you can see the car you may end up buying clearly.

  • If you don’t know a lot about cars, take someone knowledgeable with you who can advise you.’

Before buying any car, and especially a used car, it is important to check its condition thoroughly and test it out on the road, and ask yourself a few questions:

  • How does it feel on the road?

  • Do the brakes provide smooth and reassuring braking?

  • Is the car quiet, or are there rattles and clunks when it is moving?

Robinson continues: ‘If you are serious about buying, find out if the car has a current MOT (Ministry of Transport) certificate. If the car is more than three years old, it must have one to prove it complied with the criteria of the MOT at the last test date. However, remember that this is not a guarantee that any subsequent faults will be put right by the dealer.

‘A full service history should ensure that the vehicle has been properly looked after. It might be an idea to check that the mileage is warranted in writing to avoid potential problems in the future.’

Mileage can be checked, for a small fee. Find out more at or

Robinson goes on: ‘Ask to see the registration document and service record. Does everything match up? Does the logbook show how many owners the car has had?’

Having test driven the car and looked at its documents, it is vital to inspect the car itself thoroughly:

  • Check the underside for signs of rust, and welding - any mysterious welding could signify that the car is a ‘cut and shut’.

  • Check the exhaust system.

  • Check the bodywork and fittings.

  • Ensure that all tyres including the spare have the correct tread (1.6mm or more) and pressure.

  • Paintwork should be in a good condition.

  • Make sure no panels are a slightly different shade, or rippled, uneven, or heavily chipped by stones.

  • Check all locks are in working order.

  • Make sure rubber seals are intact, as leaks can be expensive to rectify.

  • Windscreen wipers and door sills should also be checked.

The interior of a car can reveal a lot about the way it has been looked after and the mileage it has covered:

  • Seatbelts should be free from damage

  • Carpets can hide high mileage; does the condition compare with the mileage and age of the car?

  • Milometer, dashboard instruments and pedal condition should also be checked.

The engine compartment should be subject to thorough investigation. Robinson explains: ‘For many, the engine bay could seem complicated and dirty, but there are still some very easy practical steps that can be taken to gauge the condition of the engine.

‘However, if engines are really of no interest to you, and you do not trust your own judgement, the major motoring organisations offer inspection services for a fee.’

When you buy from a reputable dealer, the car’s financial history should have been checked to show there are no outstanding hire purchase agreements on it and there is neither an insurance total loss, nor has it been stolen.

Robinson believes that prospective buyers should make sure that this is the case: ‘Ask the dealer for written proof that the check has been made.’

Private buyers can also check the history of a used car for free by acquiring the appropriate form from the Citizens Advice Bureau.

Buyers should always be careful when parting with their money. Robinson explains: ‘Before entering into any finance agreement, accepting any warranty or indeed accepting a used car, make sure you read and understand all the documentation before signing paperwork or handing over any cash.

‘If the dealer has arranged the finance agreement whereby you purchase the used vehicle and he refuses to deal with a subsequent complaint, your claim will be against the finance company, which in turn will claim from the dealer. Remember not to stop your repayments.’

It is important to remember that used cars need to have been looked after. When buying a used car, it is best to buy from a reputable garage. Robinson commented: ‘Main dealers and independents that belong to the Retail Motor Industry Federation (RMIF) are bound by the conditions of their membership to provide a good service to their customers.’

Of course, this is not the end, as Robinson explains: ‘The vehicle will need both servicing and occasional maintenance, for which you will need a reputable garage. If the supplying garage is too far away for such jobs, a local RMIF member would be happy to support you with service. A member will be able to advise you on the type of service you need, and will be able to point out potential problem areas before they arise, or become serious.’

She continues: ‘Whether you want to buy or sell a new or used car or motorcycle, service or repair your existing vehicle, find an auction house, or a cherished number plate dealer, the RMIF will be able to help you.

‘If you have a complaint against an RMIF member garage, the RMIF’s National Conciliation Service may be able to help you get redress if the problem cannot be solved in direct consultation with that member.’

Robinson concludes: ‘If you want to buy a used car, get out and start looking now, and you should quickly come across a great deal.’

* The Retail Motor Industry Federation (RMIF, Consumer Motorline – 08457 58 53 50) represents the interests of operators in England, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Isle of Man, providing sales and services to motorists and businesses. The RMIF has a formal association with the independent Scottish Motor Trade Association, which represents the retail motor industry in Scotland. Retail Motor Industry Federation members adhere to a strict Code of Practice and pride themselves on providing high quality, value-for-money services to the motoring public.

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