11 Essential Tips for Buying a Used Car

There are a number of benefits to buying a used car. For starters, you’re going to find used vehicles far more affordable than brand new purchases. Then, you have the added benefit of your car devaluing at a lesser rate than if you bought a new model. However, for many people, purchasing a used car can be a bit of a minefield, as they might not know what to look for. But fear not, we’re here to help.

Below are our 11 essential tips for buying a used car that we think will help you make an informed decision on your next purchase. By the end of this blog you'll have a better idea of where and when to buy your next used vehicle, what to look for when viewing a vehicle and how to build yourself a checklist.

1. Work out your finances and understand your budget

Before you start you need to understand that buying a used car is a big investment. That means you will need to be sure exactly what your budget is. This is important because you won’t want to be left speechless if you’re speaking to a salesperson and they ask you how much you’re willing to spend.

You’ll want to decide whether you’re going to buy the vehicle outright for cash or make the most of a payment plan. And if you are going down the monthly payment route, you’ll need to decide whether you make use of a personal loan or vehicle finance.

If you’re going to make use of a payment plan, be sure to sit down and work out how much you can put down as a deposit, before calculating how much you can afford in monthly payments.

Once you have a clear idea of how much you can afford to spend, you’ll be able to narrow your search down and only consider cars that fall into your specific budget.

2. Decide whether you’re going to go to a dealership, buy privately, or buy at auction

When buying a used car, there are a number of options for you to consider, all of which have their pros and cons. You might want to purchase a car from a dealership, or from a private seller, or you may want to go to an auction to get your next vehicle. And, some of you will want to keep your options open and consider all three. So we thought we would break down some of the pros and cons for each…

Buying from a dealership

If you’re unsure about buying a used car you may wish to start by speaking to a motor dealer. A dealer should have given the vehicle a detailed inspection, ensuring they’re able to fix any problems they find. They should also be able to provide a good warranty to help offer you that additional peace of mind. This will often mean that buying a used car from a dealership is more expensive than purchasing from a private seller, however, you should be able to rest assured that if any problems do arise, you’re in safe hands. If you wish to purchase from a dealer you also have the added benefit of being able to Google the business and read reviews posted online by previous customers. This will allow you to get an understanding of the type of service they offer, so you can ensure you only purchase from trustworthy dealers that put their customers’ needs first.

Buying privately

Buying from a private seller can be a good option if you have a smaller budget. This is because private sellers will often sell their vehicle for less than the amount you’d pay at a dealership. On top of this, there is often more room for negotiation with a private seller than if you’re buying from a business. If you buy from another person you can also meet the previous owner and get a feel for how well they have looked after the car. This is one advantage over a dealership, as dealers will often have a professional valet clean their vehicles meaning it’s harder to get an idea of how well they have been maintained.

You will need to be wary though, as some sellers will overvalue their car. So you’ll want to have a good understanding of what the vehicle is worth. You will also need to factor in the fact that the car will likely not have undergone a rigorous health check, so you’ll need to be more thorough with any checks that you carry out when inspecting or test driving it.

Finally, if you’re buying privately, you’ll need to be aware that you’re entitled to fewer buyers’ rights than if you purchase through a dealership. This means that if an issue with the car were to arise, you may be left dealing with it all on your own. However, if you find an honest seller with a solid, well-maintained vehicle, then buying privately can prove to be a very affordable option.

Buying from an auction

Many buyers will avoid purchasing a used car from an auction. Often sellers that are selling this way are after a quick sale. This can mean that the vehicle has likely not had the same rigorous health check a dealer might carry out and you won’t have the added safety net of a warranty to fall back on. However, if you’re lucky, an auction could help you snap up a real bargain, quickly and with great ease. You can also visit an auction to get an idea of what people are willing to pay for certain vehicles.

There are a few things that you will want to remember, though. Firstly, you most probably won’t be able to give the vehicle a thorough check or a really detailed inspection and test drive before making the purchase. Secondly, you may have to make your decision in a short window of time, adding pressure. This can cause you to make a poor decision and buy a car that’s not right for you or your budget.

3. Know when it’s a good time to buy

If you’re buying a used car from a motor dealership, then you’ll want to understand exactly when it’s a good time to buy. Most dealerships have targets that they have to meet, which are typically based on quarterly sales. When taking this into account, it’s safe to say that the best time to buy is at the end of March, June, September, and December. Dealers may need to sell cars more urgently during this time, which might make them more willing to negotiate with you.

If you are purchasing from an auction or privately, then there’s not really a good or bad time to buy. Just be sure to keep an eye on prices for a few months before you buy. You might spot a trend, like the price of certain vehicles going up or down, which can help you decide when is the right time for you to take the leap and buy.

4. Build a checklist

Trying to decide which car is for you can be a challenge. In order to make your life easier, you may want to sit down and put together a checklist of all the features you desire. You’ll want to consider the following:


Size is very important. Do you need space for all the family or do you want a small runaround that only you will use? What size boot do you need? Will you need space for a car seat for a child or a pram?

What sort of journeys will you be going on?

If you’re only using it to weave around a city or small town then you won’t need to worry as much about how it will handle longer journeys. However, if you’re going to be driving cross-country, then you’ll want to purchase a car that can handle cruising at motorway speeds without straining. Also, if you’re going to be driving on longer journeys, you’ll need to put more consideration into driver and passenger comfort. If you’re only driving around your hometown then you might be able to opt for something smaller and slightly less comfy, saving you money.

Petrol, diesel, or an eco-friendly option?

The fuel that you want your vehicle to use will have a big impact on the model you choose. So it’s worth deciding now whether you want to opt for a petrol, diesel, or eco-friendly vehicle. If a hybrid or electric car is an option for you then you’ll need to be aware that the cost will likely be more to start with but that you might save money in the long run due to lower running costs.

Other features

When creating your checklist you’ll also want to make a note of any specific features that you want from your next car. These can include in-built navigation systems, DAB radio, bluetooth connectivity, cruise control, remote start, parking cameras, and heated seats.

5. Carry out the right checks

When buying a used car there are a number of things that you will want to check. The AA have provided a handy checklist that might just come in useful in this instance. They outline the following things for you to inspect…


  • Does the mileage look consistent with the age and appearance of the vehicle?
  • Are there any signs that the instruments might have been tampered with?
  • Be sure to check the recorded mileage on service records and MOT certificates to ensure they match up to the vehicle’s current mileage
  • Check the vehicle’s MOT status and history online

Accident damage

  • Can you spot signs of inconsistent gaps between panels or mismatched colours that could be a sign of extensive repairs?
  • Is the paint finish even across the vehicle?
  • Are there traces of paint spray on handles, window seals, or plastic mouldings?
  • Could the vehicle’s colour have been changed (you might want to look under carpets and in other hidden areas in particular)?
  • Is there any unusual looking welding under the bonnet or in the boot?


  • Are the tyres in good condition and all of the correct specifications and dimensions?
  • Is the spare wheel or the tyre inflator/sealant kit in good, serviceable condition?
  • Are the jack and other tools present?
  • Do all the seatbelts operate correctly? Be sure to check there are no cuts or fraying that could affect their safety
  • If airbags are fitted, check that the warning lights operate as described in the handbook
  • Do all lights and windscreen wipers/washers work correctly?


  • Are there any strange noises when the engine is started from cold?
  • Does the oil warning light go out as soon as the engine starts?
  • Are there signs of excessive visible exhaust emissions?
  • Does the clutch operate normally? You’ll want to keep an eye out for a noise when you press the pedal or a high biting point as these could be a sign that repairs will be required soon
  • Is the catalytic converter in good condition? Look for a recent emissions test, either alone or as part of an MOT
  • Is there sludge on the underside of the oil filler cap?
  • Is the oil level right?
  • Has the cam belt been replaced according to the service schedule?

Locks, windows, and general controls

  • Do the locks work? Be sure to check the central locking and remote control also
  • Do all of the windows open and close as normal?
  • Are there any signs of forced entry?
  • Do you have the correct set of keys? Check the handbook to see which keys were provided when the car was new. This is useful as modern keys can be expensive to replace. This is particularly the case with any coloured 'master' keys provided by the manufacturer to help programme new spare keys to the car
  • Are locking wheel nuts fitted?
  • Do all the minor controls operate correctly, such as the heating, ventilation, air-conditioning, entertainment systems, and navigation?

6. Take it on a test drive

If you’re looking at a specific car that you might want to purchase, be sure to take it on a test drive before finalising your offer. Allow for at least half an hour so you can drive on all sorts of roads. Make sure you drive onto the motorway or dual carriageway if this is where you will be doing a lot of your driving. Before we go into the more detailed things to look out for, there are some quality of life checks that you’ll want to make. These include:

  • Can you easily get in and out of the car?
  • Can you adjust your seat and steering to ensure you’re comfortable?
  • Can you clearly see the instruments and reach all of the controls?
  • Can you easily reverse into a parking space?
  • Be sure to check the all round vision and blind spots
  • If you have children, is there space for them or their car seats in the back? You may also want to bring your child seat with you and ensure it fits nicely

Once you’re happy with these points, you’ll want to head out on your drive. When on your test drive make sure you keep an eye out for the following:

  • Do all of the warning lights operate as they should?
  • Do the breaks work properly or does it take a long time or a lot of effort to stop the car?
  • Is breaking even or is the car pulling over to one side?
  • Are there any unusual noises when you break?
  • Is the handbrake working effectively?
  • Is there any vibration when you steer and does the car pull to one side?
  • If ABS is fitted, does the warning light go out after you have started the engine?

7. Thoroughly check all of the paperwork

It’s always a good idea, when buying a used car, to thoroughly check all of the relevant paperwork. This includes:

  • Logbook or V5C: This is issued by the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) as proof that the person selling the car is the keeper of the vehicle. You should make sure the make and model of the car matches that on the V5C, as well as the number plate. You will also want to check that the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) matches the VIN on the vehicle. You can see the VIN on the lower part of the windscreen.
  • Servicing booklet: Make sure you are provided with this. The servicing booklet will list when the car was last serviced, as well as what has been repaired or replaced.
  • Manuals: You will always want to ensure that you have all of the relevant manuals as these can come in handy if problems arise down the line.
  • Sales contract: If you’ve purchased the car from a dealer or auction, you’ll want to make sure you get a dated sales contract. This will show that you've completed the deal and paid for the vehicle. Ensure that your name and address, plus the full details of the car, the agreed price, and any payments already made are all correct.
  • Finance package: If you’re paying for the car through finance, make sure that you have all the relevant documentation and that you understand the repayment plan alongside any jargon in the fine print.
  • HPI check: If you carry out an HPI check you might just spot any outstanding finance or hidden history of the car.

8. Take a second person with you to viewings

It is always a good idea to take a second person with you to view a used car. This could be someone with solid car-knowledge or just someone you trust who can offer a second pair of eyes. Either way, having another person with you can help you ensure you don’t miss anything when viewing the vehicle and they can offer you the value of a second opinion.

9. Keep an eye out for warning signs

If you’re buying from a motor dealer or a private seller, you’ll want to keep an eye out for certain warning signs that might indicate they’re not to be trusted.

You’ll want to be wary of any dealer that displays signs such as ‘sold as seen’ or ‘no refund’. These dealers might be trying to limit your rights, and might not be worth your while.

You’ll also want to be wary of any cars that are suspiciously cheap. Often, if an asking price feels too good to be true, it is.

If you’re buying from a private seller, you’ll want to view the car at their home. If they insist on meeting you at a carpark or somewhere else, then it could mean that they don’t want you to know where they live should a problem arise.

10. Sort your insurance before you purchase the car

Before you take ownership of the vehicle, you’ll want to ensure that you have arranged your car insurance. Similar to purchasing a property, it is essential to have insurance in place as soon as you become the legal owner, even if you do not intend to drive it immediately. This precaution is necessary because any incidents or damages that occur to the car will be your responsibility.

While you may handle your brand new car with utmost care, imagine a scenario where someone rear-ends you at the first roundabout during your drive home after you first pick up the vehicle. Moreover, driving on public roads without insurance is illegal. Therefore, it is vital that you ensure the car is insured before you collect it. If you’re buying from a dealer, you can inquire about whether the car comes with any insurance coverage. Dealers often include insurance for a week, but if it’s not provided, you will need to arrange insurance before driving the car away.

11. If you’re not 100% sure that it’s the right car for you, walk away

Just remember that there are always other cars out there. So if you’re unsure whether the deal is right for you, don’t be afraid to walk away. It’s much better to miss out on a car that you wanted, than it is to purchase one that isn’t right for you.

Take your time when buying a used car, follow the steps we’ve laid out, and only buy when you’re fully confident it’s the one for you!

View our used cars today

Here at Plympton Car Centre we stock a range of excellent used cars from leading manufacturers such as BMW, Land Rover, Jeep, Mercedes-Benz, Jaguar, and more. So why not view our used cars today? If you want to speak to one of our friendly, helpful team, then be sure to give us a call on 01752 651340.