Buying a used car Privately

When you are buying a car privately the most important tool you have is the telephone. If you think the telephone is just there to ask “is it still for sale? Is it nice? , What’s your postcode?”  then you are just asking to waste your time.

The telephone is an Interrogation tool,   I have absolutely no interest in leaving the comfort of my sofa to go and look and somebody’s pride and joy, just because they are of the opinion “that yeah it’s a nice car mate”.    About 2% of the population will openly describe the car they are selling as a fixer upper, or a bit rough.  Otherwise everyone’s car is nice, so presume otherwise.

First off while skimming through the small ads you will be trying to avoid the most expensive ones.  Five minutes research will give you a pretty good idea of the open market selling price of the car you are after .   If your target car is averaging ten grand and you see a fine example advertised at £8000 then it’s too cheap and will have a story attached!  Usually cat D (or worse C) insurance loss, avoid, or approach with extreme  caution!   Conversely if you have done your auto trader research and found the price to be ten grand yet when you start ringing around you find that they are all sold then you know that at that price they are selling,   If you ring around and they are all still available, or you see the same cars being re-advertised you know they are not making what people are hoping for so be ready to bid low.

First off ask the seller about their car,  how long they have had it and why are they selling it.   This is obvious stuff but first impressions make a big difference to me,  I’m not looking for a new best friend but if I find myself having to drag information out of a reticent seller it’s usually a strike off .   If the car is nice and you have a genuine reason for selling then why would you not want to talk about it and offer up additional information without prompting?

Paperwork:   seller should have a V5 (Logbook) in their name or their partners.   Seller should be selling their own car.   Selling on behalf of friend who works the nightshift doesn’t wash with me, selling for elderly parent (who you will meet when viewing) is fair enough.    The car has no V5?  Why not it costs £20 off DVLA and if the registered owner applies for a replacement they will have it in about a week to ten days.   If you, as a third-party apply for a replacement book for a car you don’t own then it takes a month and it is not acceptable.

I occasionally buy finance repos etc without their books but only because they are too cheap to leave behind, in your case you should walk away.   Mot and service book:  If the car is less than 3 years old then it won’t need an Mot.   If it is over three years old it should have a Valid ticket.   I am always weary of a car that only has a small mot (less than 3 months) left on it.  Let’s be honest they are only £25 quid and if you believe the car is ok then you would put on  a fresh one  to help sell the car.  MOT information is available free from DVLA which shows mot history, and any failures or advisories.

Mot Information Available free from D.V.L.A

Service Book:   (A)  ” it’s here, it’s properly stamped by main dealer on schedule, I also have service receipts.” This is good.   (B)  “It’s here, it has most stamps, it is missing a few but I have the receipts to show it was serviced on time”.   This is also fine,  Once the receipts tally with the history.   (C)  “I have no service book ,but I have a print out from the finance/lease company showing that it has been serviced on schedule”.   This is also fine and for me a large amount of cars will only come with a print out.   In most cases I ring the dealer from the printout, buy a new service book off him and get the service department to stamp it for me.   They usually will and it costs £15-£30 max to get this done,  however you are the buyer and it is really up to the seller to do the running around to sell their car .  Ask if they will and if they are not prepared to then be ready to deduct this cost from your offer price.    (D)   “It’s got a full service history but with a local garage”.   Mostly Okay.   More and more cars get serviced through multinational chains etc,  if the garage is vat registered and have used manufacturer parts that have not affected the schedule that’s ok.   If the cars original manufacturer’s warranty still applies to the car then I personally would rather see main (preferably supplying) dealer stamps.   (E) “I don’t have any service book it’s been serviced locally by a garage”,  we are getting into the realms of no thanks here but everyone deserves a fair hearing.   What receipts do you have?  Can I contact this garage?  again in my view I go easier on a car the older and cheaper it is,  I don’t want to hear this about a two-year old five-figure car but if I’m buying an eight year old avensis for £2500 I’m just happy that it had its oil and filter on time .

The amount of owners a car has had is not quite as relevant as it used to be, as people chop and change their cars with more regularity.   Certain high performance cars can acquire 6 or 7 owners over a few years period.   I am thinking here about cars like a lotus Elise or a Clio V6, the sort of thing that car enthusiasts like to own for a few thousand miles then move on.   Once each owner has spent a fortune on servicing that’s good.   Performance cars can never be over serviced,   what you are trying to avoid is something like a wrx imprezza that’s been passed around the estate with no evidence of servicing.

Some sellers get enthusiastic about how many thousands they have recently spent on the car.   Just because somebody’s had to sell a kidney to keep their car on the road does not make that a good thing.   If the money spent was on a full service and mot with new brakes and a cambelt, plus a new set of top of the range Pirelli tyres then that’s a good thing,  value has been added.   If the car has just had a new gearbox this is not a good thing.  It’s not necessarily bad, but it has added zero value to the car.   Be wary of cars that have had recent repairs and why?  Make sure any work done has been to manufacturers’ standard and comes with warranty;   never ever buy a car that’s just had a head gasket I won’t even explain but no exceptions don’t do it !

Next (still on the phone remember) you need to make it clear to the seller that you are fussy and you are travelling a long way to buy the car not kick tyres,  so if there is anything about the car that you are going to need to know then you would like to know now.   Being direct with people tends to jog their memory and they remember that it has a dent on the tailgate or recently had paintwork.   Sometimes I ask people to walk around a car while on the phone and describe the car panel for panel.   A fellow car dealer I know regularly tells people that if they are lying to him and wasting his time they will be paying his petrol money.   He is rough enough and ugly enough to get away with this extreme strategy and I am in no way suggesting it’s the way to do things,  I am merely suggesting that in your own way you need to communicate to the seller that you want to know the whole picture before you go and waste your time.

Once you’ve decided it sounds like a runner arrange to pay a visit.   Every car buying/selling guide from the last 40 years has pointed out the flaming obvious;  don’t meet people in service stations, pub car parks, their “place of work” or anywhere that is not their home.   Like the telephone,  first impressions count if you don’t like the look of the set up and don’t fancy buying a car off a circus strongman with an Alsatian on a rope then thank him for his time and be on your way.   What you are most likely to find is what I find 90% of the time, a normal  person like myself who is honestly trying to sell their car.

Make sure you are happy with the car and are happy with the paperwork before you bother with a test drive.   A test drive is not an endurance test, 5 minutes around the block and maybe a quick spurt on a motorway or an A-road is  sufficient.   Make sure the car has not been running when you arrive,  if so why?    Some cars that sound like a bag of spanners when cold sound great when they heat up.    Make sure everything works, all electric windows,  sunroofs, sat-navs, stereo,heater,aircon  etc.   Brakes should have a solid feel with not too much travel on the pedal.   Handbrake should travel a few inches only. it’s not a water pump!  I have seen it advised that  “if the handbrake has too much travel it may need adjustment”.  No, if the handbrake heads towards vertical then the car most probably has no rear brakes ,and if the rears are gone then the fronts are probably much the same.

It’s an oldie but still a good idea to check wear on c.v joints, by reversing on full lock both directions and listening out for the tell tale ratchet.  You can also have a listen for power steering leaks, all cars will make a servo noise but whistling is not a good sign.  A good car will feel solid and won’t have rattles and bouncy suspension.   Seats and steering wheel should show little wear, check door cards for scratches and rips.   Modern cars seem to be made from cheaper materials, but they are actually hard wearing so I don’t want to see a flattened driver’s seat until a car is twenty years old,  and I do tend to be hard on a car’s interior.

If you are happy with the car it’s time to negotiate with the seller.   My other guides also cover looking for discount and “haggling” and  you can refer to them.   I know it’s not comfortable territory for many  people so lets try and be civil.    You don’t need to start throwing bundles of cash and spitting in your hand to be an expert negotiator.   You can very easily ask the seller  “how much will you take?”  or ”how much do you need?”   In most instances’ the seller will proffer a figure a few hundred below the asking, at which point you can nod to indicate you understand and then say  “I was hoping for”  or  “ I can offer” .   Again a few hundred less,  at this stage the seller may say no but agree a price in between.    In this scenario there has been no complicated horse trading just a sensible negotiation.

Regardless, the price you pay should be one you are happy with and I wouldn’t really bother going to look at a car that I wasn’t happy to buy at the asking price anyway.  You can ring up about cars that are way too dear, but do your haggling on the phone and don’t waste a journey.   Tell the seller  “your car is £1000 dearer than anything else on the net” and  “whys that?”  after that you can say”   I have x amount to spend,  am I wasting my time coming to see you ?”  You probably are but it’s cheap to phone around.

If you want to get a car independently inspected you can, but you need to have somebody you trust to do this for you.   Never get someone with a vested interest to check a car for you i.e. another car dealer.  Dont get some mate who “knows a bit about cars” to give his opinion, its of little value to you.   Car mechanics can tell you if the car has a dodgy engine or an actual problem right now, but otherwise they don’t have a crystal ball to see what can go wrong down the road.   In my experience most car mechanics just know how to fix stuff when its broken, and wouldn’t know a good car if it was sleeping with them.   You can also get a check from one of the big car associations, but again They charge you a few hundred quid so they find a few hundred quids worth of “faults” with the car.   They can overstate minor problems  and in general can put people off a good car .  Phrasing like “suspension geometry out of alignment”  frightens people off a car when it means next time you’re in the tyre centre get it tracked.  Their service is fine once you are aware of this, and while I am all in favour of checking over a car myself,  If you have zero car checking skills then you should consider using some assistance.

A Hpi or Experian check is a must, but don’t get talked into any gold packages for £25 quid get the cheapest scabbiest one possible usually £3.99 or cheaper on an android phone.    They all use the same info,  all you want to know is if its stolen, does it show finance owing and is it on the insurance register.   It is common for most cars to come back showing finance as lazy finance companies forget to update their database.  Usually the seller can get a letter/fax from the finance company to confirm the car is clear.   Occasionally you may buy a car from an owner that needs finance clearing ,in this instance you do not give the seller the money to clear the car but deal directly with the finance company and pay them the settlement figure. This is the common practice and if the seller does not want to deal with it this way then leave them and their car to it.

Okay all done sign the log book all the instructions are on the back, you bring the green slip with you and get a receipt from the seller signed .It doesn’t have to be anyone’s life story but should give car particulars and state “paid in full” and dated.

That’s it shake hands, berate the seller for leaving the tank empty and shame him into giving you £20 for fuel (cheap is my middle name!) enjoy your new car.

For those who have asked: I have added a more elaborate guide on vehicle inspection. which you will find in the INFO BANK section of the site. Here Thanks