What to look for when buying a used car: 15 tips to help on your search

Date Posted 18th February 2022
Read Time 12 min read

Buying a used car could not only save you money, but you’ll also have a better chance of getting the car you’ve always wanted. However, buying a pre-owned car can come with certain risks and costs. To save yourself any unnecessary long-term stress, it’s always good to do your research and ask the right questions. There are ways to ensure you can drive away with a high-quality approved used vehicle that meets your budget and needs. Here are 15 tips on what to look for when buying a used car.

1. What do you need from your used car?

Before you even start to look for a car, it’s worth taking some time to think about exactly you need and want.

Would a smaller run-a-round suit your needs, or would a seven-seater fit in with your lifestyle better? What about fuel type – petrol or diesel? Or maybe you want something more recent like a plug-in or self-charging hybrid?

Make a list of your priorities. This should include what you need and want from your car, including a rough idea of how much you can and want to pay.

Not sure where to start? Read our article: Buying a new or used car in 2022? Use these 5 tips to find the best deal for more information.

2. Where should you buy your used car?

From dealers and garages to private sellers and auctions, there are several places you can find used cars.

It often depends on how confident you are and the ease of purchase. Buying privately may require wider car knowledge to make sure that you are getting a good deal.

The difference between buying your second-hand car from a business such as a dealership is the level of preparation before the sale. You’re also likely to get more support throughout the purchase and also after the sale.

Dealers often offer an ‘approved used’ option. For example, at Hippo Leasing, all of our used cars go through a vigorous 172-point check to qualify as approved used. At this stage, we identify any faults that need fixing or parts that need replacing. The car is brought as close to looking, feeling, and driving like new.

Buying privately could be a cheaper option, as in all likelihood, they won’t have put the car through a rigorous inspection or offer a warranty, as a dealer or garage would. However, this saving is likely to cost you more down the line.

Consider what you’re looking for, and how long you would like to keep the car. Will you be paying for the car upfront or would you prefer to pay a little more through a dealership for security and peace of mind?

3. When should you buy your used car?

Other than the obvious answer ‘when you need one’, there are certain times when you could make significant savings when it comes to buying a used car. It is important to mention that the current used car market is booming. Due to supply chain issues and the worldwide semiconductor chip shortage, access to new cars has been further delayed.

Therefore, the demand for used cars has been extremely high, causing the average price of a used cars to skyrocket. But, if there are still a number of things you can do to benefit your buying journey.

Private sales

Naturally, people will sell cars privately all year round, but December and January are traditionally the quieter months, when you may be more likely to pick up a bargain.

It’s a good idea to keep an eye on the prices a few months before you want to purchase. If you notice that they’re falling, you may want to wait to get the best price.

Type of car

If you’re looking for a convertible avoid the spring and summer months, as come winter the demand, and often prices, will be much lower.

It’s a similar scenario with four-wheel drives. Demand peaks as the weather worsens in late autumn and winter, so summer is a good time to shop around for an SUV.

Car auctions

Generally, it’s a case of the earlier you get to an auction, the better. You’ll be able to study the list for vehicles you’re interested in and also check them out for any cosmetic or mechanical issues.

Used car deals:

Generally, you can find deals throughout the year at dealerships, but historically March and September are peak months for the sale of new cars. Meaning more used cars are available with potentially attractive deals.

In readiness for the new models and registration plate change, July and early August is also a good time to browse deals.

4. Older vs newer and how much mileage?

When it comes to buying a used car, you may be asking what’s best – newer with higher mileage or older with lower mileage. Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer.

In theory a car with lower mileage should keep running longer. Also, in theory, a newer car should last longer.

At the end of the day, though, it really comes down to how well the car has been cared for.

If a newer car has been sat around collecting dust rather than miles, it won’t be a better option than an older vehicle that has been driven and maintained regularly.

If it’s in good condition with low mileage then it’s a win-win situation. It’s simply best to check the car’s history first.

5. Check the running costs

It’s not just the cost of the vehicle you need to consider when buying a used car. Do you know how much it will cost to run?

Engine size

This can be a significant factor for fuel economy. The larger the engine, the more fuel needed and the higher the cost.

If you opt for a smaller engine, think about your usage too. When a smaller engine is used at high speeds, it’ll burn more fuel, so it may not be as economical depending on how you’re going to use it.

Fuel type

Petrol models tend to be cheaper to buy than diesel. Although diesel engines are more economical, fuel lasts longer; it’s more expensive to fill up.

Automatic vs manual

You’ll pay more for an automatic car outright, but they hold their value better, so they may be more economical over the long term.

Hybrid and electric

Again, hybrid and electric cars are more expensive to buy but are much cheaper to run. They also have a low tax rate and a strong resale value.

Insurance

How much you pay for insurance will depend on the type of car you buy and other factors such as your own driving history, so it’s worth getting some quotes beforehand.

Tax

Car tax is generally related to the emissions rating of a car – those with higher emissions will be hit with a higher tax bill.

6. Viewing a used car – what should you check?

It’s a good idea to take either a physical or mental checklist with you when you go to view your potential purchase. These are the things you need to look for:

The exterior

Make sure you look at the car in daylight, so you can thoroughly see its condition.

Tyres

Have they got the 1.6mm legal tread minimum or will they have to be changed soon?

Bodywork

Are there any visible dents, scratches, or rust? Small abrasions can be fixed cheaply enough, so if you’re happy to factor that into your budget, great. Larger signs of wear and tear can be used to help negotiate the price.

Gaps or colour differences

If there are any gaps between the panels or a noticeable colour difference, it could be a sign of repair following an accident. Make sure you check the car’s history.

Windscreen

Look out for any chips that could turn into costly cracks later. Check the lights too for any sign of damage.

Under the bonnet

By checking under the bonnet, you’ll have a better idea of how well the car has been maintained.

  • Check the levels of oil, brake and power steering fluid
  • Look for any leaks, such as oil or water

Interior

It’s not just the outward appearance of the vehicle you need to check. This is a good time to make sure everything works inside too.

  • Electrics: Does everything work? Don’t be afraid to try everything from winding down the windows and trying the heating to turning on the radio.
  • Upholstery: Is it in good condition? Are there any significant tears, stains, or smells?

Further checks

  • Mileage: Is it consistent with the figure shown on its last service?
  • HPI: An HPI check will tell you if the car’s previously been stolen or written off
  • Accessories: Does it have a spare wheel, for instance, and is it in good condition?

If you’re using a dealer, go for one that has a HPI or health check, so you know the car is in top condition.

7. Document checks

VC5 (registration document or log book)

Check that the make, model and number plate of the car matches what’s on the V5.

Vehicle Identification Number (VIN)

Ensure the VIN in the logbook matches the VIN on the vehicle (you can usually find this on the lower part of the windscreen).

Ownership

Check the registered keeper is the same person you’re buying from, and the registered address is the same if buying privately.

Previous owners

If the log book shows many owners, it could be cause for alarm. Always ask to see what the reason may be.

MOT

Is it current? Are there any advisories that you may need to action soon?

Before you go to view your potential new car, do a little research so you know what you’ll be looking at beforehand. It’ll put you in a good position to notice any defects or flaws.

Ask as many questions as you need to, including asking why they’re selling the car. If you don’t feel confident, take someone with you for support. They may notice something you haven’t.

8. Test driving a used car

Test driving the car you’re thinking of buying is a good way to figure out any problems, as well as seeing whether you like driving the car.

Here are some things you need to look out for when test driving a used car:

  • Does it start ok, or might it need a new battery or alternator?
  • Does the clutch perform well/does it judder?
  • Does the temperature gauge give any signs of potential overheating?
  • Can you change gears easily?
  • Does the steering pull to one side, or does it feel heavy?
  • Are there any unusual sounds coming from the engine?
  • Do the brakes work properly?
  • Does it perform as you need it or expect it to?

Remember, if you’re test-driving a car from a private seller, you’ll need to make sure your insurance covers this. Otherwise, you could ask the seller to take you out themselves in the car.

And if you’re buying the car long-distance, over the internet or phone, make sure it comes with a money-back guarantee if you’re not satisfied.

9. Paying for the car

Once you’re happy with the car you’ve chosen, it’s time to purchase. Before you hand over anything, make sure you’re 100% satisfied with what you’re buying.

If buying from a private seller, ensure you do your research and use a trackable payment method rather than cash.

Ask for a receipt and documentation of any work that you have asked to be taken out before the sale.

10. Haggling

Everyone likes some money off, and it’s usually a case of if you don’t ask, you don’t get. With a private seller, it’s a good idea to highlight any issues with the car that might justify them lowering the price.

Always be polite and, if you feel it’s overpriced for the condition it’s in, make an offer. You can always walk away if refused.

With dealerships, there are often various discounts and purchase perks available. As mentioned, it’s worth asking what they can do for you.

11. Car finance

If you’re buying on car finance, make sure you compare the total cost of borrowing (including interest and any charges) over the agreement term. There are a number of different types of car finance, so before you buy, you may want to check which one would work better for your requirements.

If leasing is appealing, read Can you lease a used car and how does it work? to get started.

Apply for a lease car now

12. Car to trade-in?

If you’re planning on selling your current car, it might be a good idea to part-exchange it. This will help to drop the cost of your new car or reduce a deposit if you’re thinking of taking out finance.

13. Other fees?

Double check if there are any additional fees you may need to pay, such as an admin or reservation fee.

14. Added extras

One bonus from buying from a dealership is that you may have some scope to get some added extras thrown in for free. Whether that’s a tank of fuel or a service, it’s worth asking if there’s something you want.

15. Buyer protections

Buying a used car from a private seller can be riskier and you have fewer rights if something goes wrong.

With that in mind, it’s always a good idea to thoroughly research both the seller and the car.

Buying a used car from a dealer, like Hippo, means you have more legal protection.

All our vehicles are prepared to the highest industry standards so you can have confidence in your purchase and peace of mind for the future.