How to Buy a Used Car Without Getting Ripped Off

by Marcus Rockey
-The Used Car Guy-


Buying a used car?

Marcus Rockey (Used Car Guy) has been buying and selling used cars in the UK across the last 31 years.

Here, he lifts the hood and reveals 24 of the essential steps to buying a used car that is genuine, reliable and excellent value for money.

buying a used car guide and tips

Pretty much across the board, if you are buying a second-hand vehicle you need to run a car history check. My sister website, CarVeto, provides a great free and paid checking service for any vehicle that was registered in the UK, from new.

Visit CarVeto, enter a registration number and the database will instantly search and return all available data for that vehicle. I offer a free check and CarVeto Platinum check for £12.50. Data includes finance, accidents, theft, mileage, import, export, insurance, scrapped, mot, tax and more.

Try not to rely on a check that is held by the existing owner or dealers as the history may have changed since the date of issue. The CarVeto service knocks the tyres off products like hpi and rac passport. The veto is less expensive, provides similar data from the same sources and includes my exclusive, complimentary used car buying guide.

buying a used car guide and tips

3-Minute car data check

Car Buyers Guide & Tips

1. Genuine Mileage.

1 in 12 cars have mileage discrepancies and car clocking is becoming more common now than ever before. Nothing has a bigger impact on value for your money than buying a car that is true to its appearance and price tag.

Does the paint work look too shiny and new for the mileage, (possible accident damage?) Is the overall condition too worn and used for its mileage?

An informed decision here can save you precious time and a stack of money.

Higher mileage cars will surely have chips in the paintwork. Lower mileage cars should be free from excessive wear in the seats, steering wheel, bonnet, bumpers and mirrors.

2. Accident Damage.

2 in every 3 cars on the road today have suffered accident damage of one kind or another.

Buying a used car that’s been involved in a major accident or even a series of relatively minor ones is really the fastest way to throw your hard earned money down the drain. With so many of today’s cars falling into this category you should take some time to find the right car.

I have learned that original and well maintained cars tend to be problem free. And a problem free car means happy motoring.

Running a Vehicle Check

Running your own HPI check is crucial before buying a used car. But this information only tells you about accidents that have led to insurance company wright offs and repairs.

A car check can’t tell you about structural and cosmetics repairs that were cost effective to carry out and therefore not recorded on the HPI register. Look carefully before you leap.


3. Colour Match.

Does the paintwork match perfectly on every panel? One trick is to glance each side of the car in direct sunlight. This will tell you if the colours of the panels (doors, wings, bonnet etc) are an exact match to each other.

If one or more panels are off colour (lighter or darker) from the rest of the car there has likely been an accident repair. It’s simple and easy to spot if you look carefully.

how to buy a used car

Silver is the easiest mismatched colour to spot because it has so many shades. Check the image above and see for yourself.


4. Picture Before & After.

Dealers spend money preparing a car for sale. Look past the shiny paintwork and pleasant smells of the interior; ask yourself what the car looked like a few days ago.

When looking at how to buy a used car spend time looking in detail for unusual or excessive wear. Door mirrors, foot peddles, carpets and handles can indicate a cars genuine condition.

Examine the steering wheel for excessive wear and tear. Low mileage cars should have a steering wheel that looks practically new.

Under the Bonnet

5. Cold Engine.

Owning a car means starting it cold every morning. Make sure the engine is stone cold when you first look at the car. Lift the bonnet and hold your hand over the engine to feel for heat.

If the engine is hot ask the owner why.


6. Dip the Oil.

This tells you a lot about the engine. Low engine oil means that the working parts of the engine are not being lubricated which leads to problems down the road.

Too much engine oil indicates the oil is being topped up and the engine is burning oil – ask why.

If there is any substance on the dip stick other than oil (white creamy substance or contaminated oil) walk away from the car immediately as problems follow.


7. Expansion Bottle.

This is where water is held to keep the engine cool. Usually the expansion bottle will have a yellow or blue screw cap. Undo the screw cap. The engine must be cold before opening else very hot water will spurt out and burn your skin.

car buying guide


Once you have opened the cap look inside the expansion bottle for clean water. Water may have a pink, yellow or blue colour which is anti-freeze but you should still be able to see through the water.

Mayonnaise substances inside the screw cap or the expansion bottle itself means terminal mechanical problems so walk away and don’t return.


8. Under the Engine.

Crouch down and look below the front bumper to underneath the engine. The area should be free from oil and water. Dripping oil or dried oil patches on the ground under the car means that money needs spending.

In the Boot

9. Boot Mat.

Pull out or lift the boot mat checking for damp or wet areas. Any dampness or moisture can indicate a split rubber seal or other water leak.


10. Spare Wheel.

Is there a wheel or inflation kit?

Remove the spare wheel and check the tyre is inflated and legal.

Is the inflation kit operational and gassed?

Continue to look for any water or dampness after you have removed these items from the boot space.


11. Jack, Brace, Locking Key.

Make sure there is a fully functioning jack. Check the wheel brace fits the wheel nuts on the car.

If there is locking wheel nuts fitted to the vehicle ensure there is a key that fits.

It’s too late once you’ve got a puncture on the side of the road to find out all or any of these items aren’t present and working.

Documentation Check

12. Service History.

Cars need to be serviced regularly. Buying a car with little or no service history is a risky business. Personally I never buy a car that doesn’t have a thorough paper trail.

If the service history is made up of rubber stamps in the service book be aware, they can be easily falsified.

How easy is it to go online and get a rubber stamp made and delivered to your home in 48 hours?

Telephone at least one of the workshops that have serviced the car (you’ll find their contact details in the rubber stamp info, or Google their business name.)

Quote the registration number and ask the workshop if and when they have serviced the car. Do the service stamps match with the workshops records?


13. Cam Belts.

Most modern cars are fitted with cam belts that need replacing at intervals. Cam belts tend to be quite costly to fit, £250-£400 depending on the make/model, (contact manufacturing dealers for intervals and mileage recommendations.)

Ensure the cam belt has been replaced in line with the manufacturer’s recommendations; such as 80,000 miles or four years (whichever is sooner.)

If the car is due a new cam belt allow for that in your budget. If buying from a dealer ask if they are prepared to supply and fit a new one as part of a deal.

If it’s not replaced the cam belt can easily snap and cause extensive damage to the engine and cost thousands to repair.

Cam belt intervals must be adhered to.


14. HPI Reports.

These are critical when buying a used car privately or from a dealer. A vehicle check can tell you if a car has a mileage discrepancy on record, if there is any outstanding finance remaining on the vehicle and if the vehicle has been involved in a major accident that has led to an insurance wright off (classed as a Cat C or Cat D insurance loss.)

If the HPI report flags up problems do not buy the car unless you are prepared for further expense.

Be sure to complete your own HPI report and don’t rely on the sellers. It costs a few pounds but can potentially save you thousands.


15. MOT History.

You can check the MOT history (including previous failure items and advisory items) of any car using the DVLA website . You’ll need the registration number and log book reference number to access this information.

Running a quick vehicle history check also allows you to see the mileages of the car over the years. This is one of the ways to check for discrepancies.


16. Current MOT.

If possible buy a car with a minimum of six months MOT. When checking the MOT certificate pay special attention to the advisory notice column on the right hand side.


Current MOT for used cars


If there is a long list of advisory items they will likely be failures on the next MOT and will cost you money.

Be aware of advisories for brake pads, brake discs and tyres!

How to Buy a Used Car – The Test Drive

17. Insurance.

Are you insured to test drive the car? Dealerships usually cover you for test drives but when buying privately there is no such cover.

Does your existing insurance policy allow you to drive any vehicle? If not you are driving at your own risk.


18. Starting the car.

Start the car with the engine cold. Sit inside the car but don’t close the door. Listen to the engine and pay attention to any unusual tapping or knocking noises. If you hear any such noises something mechanical is faulty and will likely cost money to repair.

Turn the stereo off. Turn the heating/air con off if possible. Conduct an effective test drive by listening to the car from the beginning to the end.

Check the dash. All lights on the dash should go out after a few seconds. In particular be sure that the ABS light, Engine light and Air Bag lights are off. If lights remain on do not test the car, first ask why.


19. Uneven road.

Try and drive the car on an uneven surface. Look for pot-holes and manhole covers to drive over and put the car under stress. Listen out for loose suspension arms, knocking or moving joints.

Part of your test drive should be done with the window open if possible. You will quickly hear unusual noises that would be disguised when inside the vehicle. Try and do this on the uneven/bumpy road if possible.


20. Gearbox Test.

You need to know if there are any bearing noises or abnormal wear in the gearbox.

In a manual car, you simply travel through the gears slowly listening for rumbling or grinding noise.

When you shift between gears pay attention. Select the neutral position after each gear, the car may sound significantly quieter in neutral than when in gear. If this is the case there may be bearing wear in the gearbox which will be costly to repair.

With automatic cars feel for any vibrations under acceleration and drive the car through all the automatic gears listening for rumbling or grinding noises.


21. Up to Speed.

Once on the open road and at a speed of at least 60 MPH feel for any vibrations in the steering wheel and/or seats. Steering vibration indicates that the front wheels need re-balancing. Vibration in the bottom of your seat (where your backside sits) means the rear wheels may need re-balancing.

Carefully feel if the car is trying to pull left or right on an even road. If the car is drifting the tracking probably needs tending to.

Drive the car under stress and vigorously to test it effectively.


22. Braking.

Stand hard on the breaks from speed to test how well the car slows down. Listen for grinding noises under braking and for vibration in the steering wheel. Either symptom means that discs or pads need replacing.

Near the end of the test drive test the brakes gently, when they are warmed up. Are the brakes performing well with no issues?


23. Clutch Test.

If a clutch is badly worn the car will not accelerate well. To test the clutch you should accelerate quickly in a high gear. At 30 MPH select 4th gear and accelerate. If the car is revving but not accelerating well the clutch is slipping and will need to be replaced.


24. Switch Off and On.

At end of the test drive switch the car off and after a couple of seconds restart the car.

The car must start the same hot and cold. Diesel cars are especially prone to poor warm start. If the car takes several seconds to start when warm there is a fault that will need addressing.


That’s enough writing for one day. If you want further information use the links below where I share lot’s more.