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Buying a second-hand vehicle? Here’s what you need to know

Check it's ok before you drive away

Buying a used vehicle is a big purchase, and it’s important that you carry out checks on the seller, the vehicle and the documentation before you go ahead, saving you time, money and stress in the long run.

We encourage everyone to do some research before buying, ensuring you know as much about the seller and the vehicle as possible, as well as how to identify any warning signs.

If things don’t go to plan, you can report any concerns or problems to Trading Standards on the Citizens Advice website.

Knowing your rights before you buy

As a consumer, when you buy a second-hand vehicle from a trader, you have certain legal rights. These include:

  • The vehicle is fit for purpose and of ‘satisfactory quality’.
  • You are not misled by the seller including how the vehicle is described.
  • You are not pressured into a purchase.
  • Unless the seller very clearly says otherwise, the vehicle must be safe to drive.

That said, the law expects you to be ‘reasonably circumspect’, which means that you should make checks of your own. Don’t just trust what the seller says about the vehicle.

For example, you can ask for proof of service history or advertising claims and if proof cannot be shown, be extra careful and consider going elsewhere.

There may be some circumstances where you are not entitled to any refund or partial refund from the seller, such as:

  • You were told about a fault(s) before you bought the vehicle.
  • The fault was obvious, but you didn’t notice it during your inspection.
  • You caused the damage yourself.
  • The fault can be considered fair wear and tear.
  • You no longer want the vehicle or have seen a cheaper option elsewhere.

Make sure you familiarise yourself with your consumer rights before purchasing the vehicle by visiting our Used motor vehicles: your rights guide. You can also check the Sale and supply of goods: your consumer rights guide for more information about your legal rights and what you are entitled to when buying a second-hand vehicle.

Things to remember before you buy

  1. Check the seller.
  2. Check the vehicle.
  3. Check the documentation.

By carrying out these checks, you should hopefully be able to avoid a situation where you have to report a concern after you’ve bought the vehicle.

1. Checking the seller

If you’re buying from a motor trader

Buying from a trader gives you better legal protection than buying from a private seller because the law recognises that a car trader has specialist knowledge. Here are some things to consider:

  • Find out as much as you can about the trader before buying, to make sure they are reputable and trustworthy. For example, do they have good online reviews? Is the limited company registered with Companies House?
  • Check if they are approved by Trading Standards and have promised to trade fairly.
  • Check if they are in a trade association scheme that uses the Motor Industry Ombudsman. These ensure that the traders adhere to a code of practice which includes dealing with complaints professionally and in accordance with your consumer rights.
  • Some traders offer credit from finance companies which may offer you extra legal protection if things go wrong. The seller and the finance company must be registered with the financial regulator.
  • Consider making a deposit or part payment on a credit card of between £100 and £30,000. This gives you additional protection. If things go wrong the credit card company can also be liable for a breach of your statutory rights and/or if you were misled by the seller.
  • Always keep a copy of the advert and all the documents for future reference in case you need to make a complaint. Often the advert contains valuable information which could assist any claim.
  • If you think that a car is unsafe, do not drive it under any circumstances. Report it to Trading Standards.

If you’re buying from a private seller

Buying privately offers less protection than buying through a trader, and buyers are advised to be extra cautious before agreeing to purchase.

There are still checks you can carry out yourself, just remember:

  • Whether you buy privately or from a trader, you are entitled to expect that the vehicle is roadworthy, unless you and the seller clearly agree it is bought for scrap or for spares and repair.
  • You are entitled to expect that the vehicle is ‘as described’. You do not have the right to expect that it is of satisfactory quality or fit for its purpose, unless the seller had previously informed you that it was.
  • Some traders pretend to be private sellers – if you suspect this you can report it to Trading Standards.

Buying via an auction or online

Buying from an auction house offers the least protection as a consumer. Make sure you:

  • Read about the terms and conditions of buying through the auction house before bidding. Sometimes these may include extra protection if things go wrong.
  • Remember that you might not have the same rights to returns and refunds when buying at auction as you would buying through a trader.
  • Goods must still be described correctly, and you must not be misled because the law never supports lies or any fraud.

2. Checking the vehicle

  • Does the mileage match what was advertised? Sometimes traders will put disclaimers stating that mileage is not guaranteed. Did you know, ‘clocking’ is a way of reducing miles showing on the odometer? The following may indicate that the vehicle has a higher mileage than the odometer shows:
    • Excessive wear on the pedal rubbers, gearshift, seat belts and steering wheel.
    • A sagging seat or worn driver’s seat cover and worn carpets on the driver’s side.
    • Excessive damage from stone chippings (it’s harder to see damage if the car is dirty).
  • Make sure you ask the seller about any previous damage (even if it’s been repaired). You can ask a trader to show you a recent independent check on the finance and other history such as Hpi or similar. You should always check a vehicle carefully and test drive it before purchasing, testing to check if it drives smoothly and feels fault free.
  • Check the obvious, things like how much tread is on the tyres (including any spare), are the seats or paintwork damaged, do all of the features like air conditioning, cruise control and heated seats work correctly?
  • If you don’t have the expertise to check the vehicle’s condition yourself, we strongly recommend that you have it checked by a qualified auto-engineer as well.

3. Checking the advert and the documentation

  • Never buy a vehicle without the (V5C) logbook. Always check that it has a ‘DVL’ watermark, and that the VIN (vehicle identification number) and engine number match up with that on the vehicle.
  • Check the MOT history of the vehicle. This may show mileage discrepancies or MOT advisories. ‘Advisories’ indicate what your next bill could be.
  • When purchasing privately, check that the person selling the vehicle is recorded as the previous keeper. A missing logbook could be an indication that the car may have been stolen.
  • Check the service history and consider contacting the traders who carried out the services to verify that all the stamps are valid.
  • Look out for phrases like ‘trade sale’ or ‘part exchange to clear’ as these are attempts to restrict your consumer rights but are not recognised by the courts.
  • Do the numbers on the odometer match up with the vehicle’s paperwork? Check the mileage on the vehicle against the service history booklet and MOT records. Digital or electronic odometers can be rolled back, often without any tell-tale signs. If possible, obtain information from the previous keeper.
  • Read the contract carefully before you purchase the vehicle. Anything agreed between you and the trader, such as pre-purchase repairs, should be included in the sales invoice to make it enforceable against the seller if it is not completed.
  • Ask the seller to add the wording of the advert into the contract e.g. “advert description applies to this contract.” This is especially important if you buy over the phone or on the internet without seeing the car first.
  • In most cases, you have 14 days to cancel a contract made over the phone or internet. Be extra careful buying a vehicle in this way because consumers have been exploited by scammers. More advice can be found on the Citizens Advice website.
  • Remember that if you trade in a vehicle, you could be in breach of contract if you don’t tell the truth about the vehicle you’re trading in.

How can I report my concerns?

Free consumer advice is always available to those who need it. You can report your concerns to us via the Citizen’s Advice website.

Further information