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Consumer advice information

Used motor vehicles: pre-purchase considerations

In the guide

This guidance is for England & Wales

Buying a used vehicle is a major purchase so it is essential that you carry out checks on the seller, the vehicle and the documentation before you go ahead.

Search online, visit local traders, read motoring magazines and check reviews to compare models, specifications and prices. Set a budget and familiarise yourself with the options you have to finance your purchase.

A used vehicle bought from a trader may cost more than one bought privately but there can be benefits. The law gives you extra rights, many traders offer pre-sale checks and you may be able to take advantage of an after-sales service, warranty offers, part-exchange arrangements and credit facilities.

Buying a used motor vehicle - what are my rights?  

When you buy a used vehicle from a trader, you are making a legally binding contract that is covered by the Consumer Rights Act 2015. This law gives you rights; you are entitled to expect that the vehicle is of satisfactory quality, fit for purpose and as described. If your rights are not met, the law gives you remedies. The vehicle should be roadworthy. A court may not consider a motor auction to be a consumer sale, in which case most of your rights under the Consumer Rights Act 2015 would not apply. You have fewer rights when you buy privately. The 'Used motor vehicles - your rights' guide gives more information.

If you decide to buy a used vehicle at a trader's business premises (an on-premises contract), off-premises (for example, where the trader delivers a vehicle to your home and you sign the contract there) or from a trader by distance means (for example, a contract made via the trader's website) the Consumer Contracts (Information, Cancellation and Additional Charges) Regulations 2013 give you extra protection. The 'Buying from business premises - on-premises contracts explained', 'Buying at home - off-premises contracts explained' , and 'Buying by internet, phone & mail order - distance contracts explained' guides give more information.

If you pay for a used vehicle using a credit card or finance arranged by the trader, you have rights under the Consumer Credit Act 1974.

Buying from a motor trader

A used vehicle bought from a trader may cost more than one bought privately but there can be benefits. Many traders offer pre-sale checks and you may be able to take advantage of an after-sales service, warranty offers, part-exchange arrangements and credit facilities. You will have better protection as there are laws that apply to traders but not to private sellers.

Make sure you know who you are buying from. Find out if the trader is a sole trader, a partnership or a limited company and most importantly find out as much as you can about the trader's reputation before committing yourself to the purchase. If a trader claims to be a member of a trade association, check this with the trade association itself. Look for a trader that is a member of a trading standards-approved scheme or one that is a member of The Motor Omudsman (opens in a new window). The Motor Omudsman's code of practice is approved by the Chartered Trading Standards Institute (CTSI) under the Consumer Codes Approval Scheme (opens in a new window).

Research the market value of the models you are interested in and find out how much your part-exchange vehicle (if you have one) is worth. Be prepared to haggle.

Buying from a private seller

If you buy privately, it is essential to check that the person selling the vehicle actually owns it. Contact a company that can carry out a check on the vehicle's history. This will tell you if the vehicle is stolen, has been written off, has outstanding finance on it or has been scrapped. Keep a copy of the advertisement or, if it is advertised online, save a copy of the details and always make sure you know the name and address of the seller. Avoid arranging to meet the seller anywhere other than the address given as their home address. Cross-reference the details you are given with those on the V5C vehicle registration document (also known as the log book).

Buying a vehicle online  

Find out as much as you can about the seller - is it a private individual or a trader - and only use a reputable, secure site. Remember, the seller may not be based in the UK; you would have to weigh up the benefits of buying the vehicle in this way against the possible pitfalls of dealing with a seller overseas. When buying from a trader online, they must provide you with specific pre-contract information such as details about the vehicle, arrangements for payment, delivery and performance and cancellation requirements. Check the trader's terms and conditions for any other information relevant to the purchase. It is particularly important to find out what after-sales services and warranties the trader can offer you, especially if you live some distance away from a trader that you are considering buying from. Whether you buy from a trader or from a private individual, always save copies of the web page that carries the advertisement and any keep any emails sent between you and the seller. Check the vehicle's history and condition before you commit to the deal. The 'Buying by internet, phone & mail order - distance contracts explained' guide gives more information on 'distance' purchases from a trader.

Buying a vehicle at auction  

Motor auctions are becoming increasingly popular with private buyers but remember that you have fewer rights because an auction at which you are present (or able to be present) is not considered to be a consumer sale. It is important to:

  • take the opportunity to view the vehicles before the auction
  • take someone with you who knows about vehicles and who has experience of auction sales
  • familiarise yourself with the auction's terms and conditions of trade
  • find out the market value of the vehicle you intend to bid on
  • never be tempted to bid over the amount you were initially prepared to pay
  • check the notice fixed to the vehicle as it will give useful information on its condition and history

If in doubt, do not bid. If you make the highest bid for the vehicle, you cannot withdraw it and are obliged to go ahead with the purchase.

Buying a vehicle from an internet auction  

This term describes a website that matches buyers with sellers (private individuals and traders) and includes competitive bidding.

As a buyer, there are steps that you should take to minimise the risk of things going wrong:

  • familiarise yourself with the websites. Read all relevant terms and conditions, especially those that explain what you can do if things go wrong
  • you will probably need to register before you can buy
  • establish whether the seller is a trader or a private individual
  • find out as much as you can about the seller / trader before committing yourself to the vehicle. Read reviews if there are any
  • research the vehicle you are considering buying before going ahead
  • find out what the collection, delivery and payment arrangements are
  • if you buy from a trader, find out what after-sales arrangements are available
  • beware of bogus sellers and never be tempted to trade off-site

You have the same legal rights when buying from a trader at an internet auction as you have when buying from their premises. You have fewer rights when buying from private online sellers.

How are you going to pay for the vehicle?  

If you buy from a trader, there may be various options open to you, such as:

Cash. You may be in a stronger position to negotiate a discount on the price of the vehicle if you are a cash buyer.

Hire purchase (HP). A deposit is paid (this may be covered by the value of a part exchange vehicle) and you pay the balance plus interest in monthly instalments over an agreed term. An administration fee is usually paid with the first instalment and an 'option to purchase' fee with the last one. Your contract is with the finance provider, not the trader, and the vehicle does not become yours until you have made the last payment. You cannot sell it without the finance provider's permission. The finance provider can repossess the vehicle if you fail to keep up the payments. You have the legal right to settle an agreement early and may qualify for a rebate but you must check before you sign the agreement whether the early settlement rebate would apply to any additional products you have financed with the vehicle.

Conditional sale. Similar to a hire purchase agreement, the vehicle will become yours when all the payments have been made, but there is no final 'option to purchase' payment.

Personal loan. Shop around for the best interest rate over the most appropriate repayment period for you. As you are paying for the vehicle outright, it belongs to you straight away.

Secured loan. Interest rates may be low compared to a personal loan but the loan is secured on your home. It could end up costing you more in interest if the repayments are spread over a long term.

Personal contract plans. You pay an initial deposit then low monthly payments over an agreed term. After that term, you may have the option to pay a 'balloon' payment and keep the vehicle, use the vehicle as a deposit towards your next vehicle, or return the vehicle. The personal contract plan may have terms and conditions relating to mileage limits and maintenance of the condition of the vehicle.

Leasing. The vehicle is on lease so you never own it. This method is generally preferred by business users. You decide which vehicle you want and how long you want to keep it and agree a mileage limit. The monthly payments are then calculated.

Interest-free finance. A large deposit is usually paid followed by relatively high monthly payments over a short term.

Credit card. You could choose to pay the deposit or the full price of the vehicle using your credit card. If you pay for the vehicle by credit card, and if it costs more than £100 but less than £30,000, you are protected by the Consumer Credit Act 1974. Section 75 of the Act makes the card provider as responsible as the trader for a breach of contract or misrepresentation. If things go wrong, you are entitled to take action against the trader, the card provider or both.

Whichever method of payment you choose, always shop around for the best deal. Comparing the APR (annual percentage rate) and the total charge for credit could, potentially, save you hundreds of pounds in interest. Make sure you read and understand the documentation before you sign.

In a private sale it is important that you pay the person named on the V5C and always get a receipt.

There is always a possibility that fraud can occur when making online purchases, so ensure that you use a secure payment method or use a credit card.

What to check before you buy  

Clocking vehicles is a way of reducing miles shown on the vehicle's odometer. In some cases, it is difficult to tell whether the indicated mileage is correct or not. It is common practice for traders to disclaim the accuracy of the mileage by placing a 'disclaimer sticker' on or near the odometer or disclaiming the mileage in an advertisement, online or in the documentation. Look out for: 

  • 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

... as this may indicate that the vehicle has a higher mileage than the odometer shows

Do the numbers on the dial odometer match up with the vehicle's paperwork? Check the mileage on the vehicle against the service and MOT records. Digital or electronic odometers can also be rolled back, often without any tell-tale signs. If possible, obtain information from the previous keeper.

You can check the MOT history of a vehicle (opens in a new window) on the GOV.UK website; it holds the test date, expiry date, test result and mileage of a vehicle (mileage readings are only available for MOTs done from 1 August 2011).

Check the general condition of the bodywork - misaligned panels or a poor respray may indicate that the vehicle has been repaired after an accident. Look for signs of rust and welding. The condition should reflect the age of the vehicle and the asking price. It is best to carry out these checks in daylight.

Make sure that all the tyres, including the spare, have the correct pressure and tread.

Go for a thorough test drive.

It is strongly recommended that you have the vehicle checked out by a qualified auto engineer (either an independent engineer or through a motoring organisation) if you don't have the expertise to check the vehicle's condition yourself. Bear in mind that you might affect your right to hold the trader responsible for a fault with the vehicle if the fault was obvious and should have been noticed before purchase.

Check all the relevant paperwork to satisfy yourself that everything is in order.

Each vehicle is issued with a vehicle registration document by the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA), which contains unique information about it. This is called the V5C. Always ask to see the V5C and ensure the VIN (vehicle identification number) or chassis number is the same as indicated on the V5C. This is to ensure that the person selling the vehicle is shown as the previous keeper. Be aware that if the seller claims they do not have the V5C or they have sent it to the DVLA or you have concerns about the information on the V5C, it could be an indication that the vehicle is stolen.

You can check on the GOV.UK website to see if an MOT certificate is genuine (opens in a new window) by cross referencing the information on the paper copy with the information online.

Does the vehicle have a full service history? Ask to see it and carry out checks through the traders who have previously stamped the service book to ensure the entries are accurate.

It is wise to carry out a vehicle data check. There are organisations that hold data on vehicles and can tell you for a fee whether the vehicle has outstanding finance on it and if it is an insurance write-off or stolen. You can also find out if the mileage is accurate and whether the registration number and VIN match.

Read the contract carefully before you sign. Anything agreed between you and the trader, such as pre-purchase repairs, should be written on the contract.

Read the finance agreement (if any) carefully and make sure the figures add up.

If you are offered payment protection insurance or an extended warranty, check the terms and conditions (particularly the exclusions) to make sure they are suitable for you. Remember, these are optional extras - you still have legal rights against the trader. Do not be pressured into buying them.

Once you have driven your vehicle off the garage forecourt its value can fall dramatically. In the short term, if you bought the vehicle on finance, you may find it is worth considerably less than the amount you still owe the finance company. Guaranteed asset protection, or 'gap' insurance can offer you protection if your vehicle is written off and its residual value is less that the outstanding finance. Different insurance products offer different levels of protection but generally they will cover the difference between the amount you still owe and the vehicle's pre-accident value. As with all insurance policies you will have to weigh up the risks of not taking out a policy against the potential benefits. If you decide to go ahead, make sure you choose the most appropriate policy for you, find out what you are covered for and note the exclusions before committing yourself.

Don't assume that you can change your mind if you sign an order to buy a vehicle. You could be in breach of contract if you cancel. You might lose your deposit and the trader could try and recover any additional losses from you. There are exceptions to this. If you agree to buy the vehicle on finance arranged by the trader, you may be able to withdraw from the agreement before it has been 'executed', which means signed by all relevant parties. You should then be able to recover your deposit.

You may also be able to cancel within a 14-day cancellation period if the vehicle was purchased at a distance (without any face-to-face contact) or off-premises (a contract made away from the trader's premises). See the guides 'Buying by internet, phone & mail order - distance contracts explained' and 'Buying at home - off-premises contracts explained' for more information.

Key legislation

Last reviewed / updated: July 2017

Please note

This information is intended for guidance; only the courts can give an authoritative interpretation of the law.

The guide's 'Key legislation' links may only show the original version of the legislation, although some amending legislation is linked to separately where it is directly related to the content of a guide. Information on amendments to UK legislation can be found on each link's 'More Resources' tab; amendments to EU legislation are usually incorporated into the text.

For further information please contact the Citizens Advice consumer service, which provides free, confidential and impartial advice on consumer issues. Visit the Citizens Advice website (opens in a new window) or call the Citizens Advice consumer helpline on 03454 040506.

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The county council is not responsible for this information.