How do I choose the best used car for my needs?

How do I choose the best used car for my needs?

Buying a used car can be a daunting process. As with a house purchase, there are all sorts of practical, aesthetic and sometimes frivolous considerations to take into account. But the good news is if you approach it logically and in a measured way it can be fun and rewarding. Forget about dashing into the first showroom you see. The initial and arguably the most important steps take place in the comfort of your own home. Here's what they are.

Writing a check list

First off, list the basics you want from your used car. Should it have a V8 engine that roars like thunder and bodywork that looks like its missing wings and jet engines? Or are there more pressing practical considerations, such as keeping children comfortable and safe on the school run, loading the Labrador into the boot or towing a caravan?

Once you have your wish list, prioritise them so that you don't end up with a car that doesn't tick a vital box. Get the wish list right and it will be like a best friend: letting you know when you're getting carried away in the wrong direction.

What type of car do I need?

There's a baffling array of body shapes on the market at the moment. From roadsters to seven-seaters that are virtually vans in disguise; rugged four-wheel drive off-roaders to svelte two-seat coupes.

The first thing to look at is where you live. If it's down a steep rutted lane in the countryside, a four-wheel drive with high ground clearance may be a sensible choice. But as most of us live in towns, size is usually the defining factor.

How do I know if a car's large enough?

The only way to truly answer this question is to try it. And it's worth taking along some of the articles you'll need to carry such as push chairs, golf clubs and maybe even the dog.

Cars are continually getting bigger so you may be surprised to find that a family of four with two young kids will fit in a supermini such as a Ford Fiesta. However, the boot is unlikely to be big enough for that scenario so you may need to move up to a bigger model.

How many people do you carry? Is it just you and the other half? Or do you regularly transport the five-a-side team to away matches? These are fairly clear cut examples; the difficulty comes in those occasional journeys. You might need to take the two kids and a set of grandparents on days out, in which case a car with seven-seat capacity should make it onto your list.

Where will you be driving?

There's no point kidding yourself here. If you spend your life buzzing around town, an executive car with a big diesel engine will probably be irritatingly unwieldy. Equally if most of your miles are pounding up and down motorways, you won't want a petite city car.

As with size, the difficulty comes in occasional journeys. Is it worth paying extra for an estate car when you only need it for two weeks of the year? Don't forget there are a wide selection of roof boxes on the market now, so you don't have to discount a car that doesn't have capacity for the entire family's holiday luggage.

Should I buy a diesel, petrol, or hybrid?

This depends on the miles you cover. Diesel fuel and diesel-powered cars are, on a like-for-like basis, more expensive than petrol and petrol-powered cars. An approximate rule of thumb is drivers need to cover more than 12,000 miles a year to feel the benefit of the superior fuel economy of a diesel-powered car.

If you live in an urban environment, you may want a hybrid car that can run on cheap battery power at low speeds. These re-charge their batteries on the move and you don't need an electric socket. If you have the facilities, you could consider a plug-in hybrid which recharges the batteries from mains power at a fraction of the cost of regular fuel.

How do I budget?

This varies dramatically depending on different drivers' circumstances. Let's assume you've taken care of buying the car. The quickest and easiest way of calculating how much a car costs to run is by using a vehicle valuation company's online tool. CAP Automotive has a Total Cost of Ownership feature on its website.

Fuel is a cost you can't get away from, so how many miles per gallon do the cars on your shortlist do? If you want an accurate real-life mpg go to an independent source such as What Car? .

Then investigate insurance. Use the various comparison websites to get an accurate quote. You can find out the car's carbon dioxide emissions and therefore how much road tax will cost from the maker's website. And look at servicing and maintenance. It's fine saving up for a supercar but you don't want to have to sell it because you can't afford its tyres. Price up servicing too by speaking with a franchised dealer and an independent local garage.

Checking how safe a car is in an accident

Most popular makes and model of new car have been crashed on purpose to see how safe they are in an accident. EuroNCAP is an independent, international safety organisation. Its results are impartial and it makes all past records available to drivers. Any car with a four or five star rating has a decent safety record and is considered safe.

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