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Everything you need to know about buying a used car

There’s a lot you need to pay for up-front when you’re moving to the UK. And one of the biggest expenses, other than somewhere to live, is a car. Not to mention all the other costs that come with it.  

New cars in the UK are very expensive – and taking out a car payment plan can be tricky without a longer UK credit history. So a good way to save cash is by buying a used car.

But how is it done? Where do you buy second hand cars? And what do you need to look out for? Our guide to buying a used car has all the answers. 

Why buy a used car?

One word. Cost. The value of a new car begins to fall as soon as it’s driven off the forecourt – and continues to drop over time. So you’ll nearly always get an older car for less than a new one. Even if it’s just one year old. 

But buying a used car also comes with risks. For example, a used car may have hidden issues which could make the car dangerous – or expensive to fix – down the line.

That’s why it’s so important to buy a used car from a trustworthy source.

Where can I buy a used car in the UK?

There are a few different types of seller you can buy used cars from in the UK. Each has pros and cons.

1. A car trader

This could be anything from a large dealership to a smaller independent garage. Either way, it’s a business that sells cars.

You’ll probably pay a bit more for a used car somewhere like this. However cars from a trader are more likely to have been thoroughly checked by a mechanic. It also might come with a few bonuses for extra peace of mind – like a warranty. 

If you don’t know much about cars, buying from a business can help you feel more confident in your purchase. You’re also entitled to more consumer rights should something go wrong with your car.

The price and quality of the cars will depend on the size of the business. A large dealership will likely sell used cars of almost new quality, that are only a few years old. Whereas a smaller garage or trader may have a wider, cheaper variety available.

2. Private sellers

Private sellers are usually individuals selling a car via a listing. Popular places to do this in the UK are websites like Gumtree, AutoTrader, ebay and Facebook Marketplace. The upside? You’ll often get a cheaper price by buying this way and there may be more room for negotiation with the seller.

However… buyer beware. There are far fewer rules for private sellers than businesses. So if it turns out that something is wrong with the car, there’s not much you can do to hold the seller to account after you’ve driven away. 

There are two key things to remember. The first: do every essential check on a used car before you buy (more on that later). And the second? If a price seems too good to be true, it probably is.

3. Online

Nowadays, traders and private sellers nearly always advertise online. However, there are now also services where you can buy a car (and even have it delivered) without any in-person experience at all.

This is great for convenience and also allows you to widen your search to other areas of the country. However, it does mean you don’t get to check out the car, or test drive it, before putting down a deposit. 

It’s also harder to negotiate on the price when you buy this way. 

What things do I need to check when buying a used car?

1. The condition of the car

Not sure what to look for? If you have a friend or family member that knows cars well, it’s worth asking them to look under the bonnet of the car you plan to buy. 

If not, check out:

  • The tyres for wear
  • Scratches on the paintwork and wheels
  • Dents in the bumper and body
  • Chips in the windscreen
  • Interior for stains and tears

Even if these issues aren’t deal breakers, they could help you negotiate a better price.

2. Documentation

The most important piece of documentation you need to check is the car’s logbook (V5C). This will show the car’s registered keeper and address, plus the make, model and chassis number. It will also show how many previous owners the car has had.

If a car has had lots of previous owners this could be a sign that it’s had problems in the past. You also want to make sure the details in V5C match the car itself.

And if you’re buying from a private seller, it’s also important to check that their personal details match those recorded on the V5C. 

3. MOT

An MOT is the test a car legally needs to have every year after it’s 3 years old. You can check this for the car you want to buy by searching the number plate on the UK government website. 

Take note of anything that’s been recorded on the latest MOT as an ‘advisory’. These are often wear and tear issues that were noticed by the tester, but not considered an urgent problem at the time. This could be something like worn tyres or brake pads. 

The current owner may not have fixed these problems, so it’s likely something you will have to handle (and pay for) later on.

4. Mileage

Quite simply, how far has the car driven overall? This will be given in miles, not kilometres. In general the fewer miles on the clock, the better condition a car should be in.

Lots of miles isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But if a car does have a higher mileage, you’ll want to make sure that this is reflected in the price.

5. Car history

It’s important to find out as much about a car as possible before you buy. Ask the seller for the car’s service history – ideally you want to see that the used car has been regularly seen by a mechanic.

It’s also worth getting a used car history check (HPI), especially if you’re buying from a private seller. This will show whether the car has ever been stolen, damaged beyond repair in an accident, or if money is still owed on it.

If there’s outstanding debt on the car, it means that the seller doesn’t fully own the car and has no right to sell it.

You can get free basic HPI checks online, or pay a small charge to access more in-depth information.

6. Test drive

Where possible, you should always test drive a used car before buying. Even when you buy via an online service, it’s often possible to test drive the car when it arrives before making a final decision.

Make sure the seller has the appropriate insurance for you to test drive the car. 

What do I need to do after buying a used car?

There are a few things you need to do before you can legally get behind the wheel. 

1. Road tax

`Road tax is an annual tax that all car owners legally have to pay in the UK. When you buy a used car, the previous owner's car tax does not automatically transfer to you – you need to pay for a new year before taking it on the road.

To road tax your car, you can use the reference number from the car logbook (V5C) - just make sure the logbook is in your name first.

Find out more about road tax

2. MOT

You can check online when the MOT on your used car expires. Unlike road tax, this does transfer to the new owner. So you’ll only need to pay for a new MOT just before it runs out.

3. Insurance

Car insurance is another legal requirement in the UK. 

Important! Always get a quote for your chosen used car before buying. Why? For people who are new to the UK, car insurance is often unexpectedly expensive. So you need to find a policy that you can definitely afford before committing. 

You also need to make sure your policy starts the day you pick up your car – you can’t legally drive without it.

Need a quote for a used car? At Marshmallow, we save drivers who are new to the UK up to 45% on their car insurance.*

Get a quote

*In July 2023, our average quote for UK newcomers was more than 45% cheaper than the equivalent quote with zero years of driving and claim-free experience. At Marshmallow, we accept driving and claim-free history from all countries.