Approximately seven million people buy used cars every year. These will have been sourced everywhere from plush car company showrooms to independent online dealers and private sellers. With such an array of options, it makes sense to carefully consider where you buy a used car from.
While millions of second-hand car buyers will end up with a trouble-free pride and joy, a significant number will encounter some kind of problem. So buyers should be aware of the sort of service they're entitled to under the Consumer Rights Act 2015. Here are the advantages and disadvantages of the various used car buying options.
Franchised car dealerships
These are either owned by or work with car manufacturers, principally to sell new cars. They offer a wide range of second-hand models of all shapes, sizes and to suit most budgets and represent the safest way to buy a used car.
The lion's share of car maker franchises run what's usually known as approved used schemes. They take the cream of the used cars that come in, generally those in the best condition and with the lowest mileages. These are then put through a rigorous inspection (the number of checks varies per manufacturer) and are given a one or two-year warranty before being re-sold. It used to be the most expensive way to buy a second-hand car. However, increased competition means prices can be surprisingly good value.
Pros: Cars thoroughly checked; guaranteed standards for added reassurance; warranties provided.
Cons: Can be more expensive.
Independent car dealers
Made famous (some might say forever tarnished) by Arthur Daley, the independent car dealer can offer a happy medium. You have more consumer rights than if you buy a car from a private individual, such as a neighbour or friend. But you're not paying a franchised dealer's higher price.
Independents generally buy cars for as little as possible from auction, then add a margin for their time and cleaning the cars up and hope to sell them on for a profit. For buyers, the risk is in the trader's integrity. Citizens Advice frequently has its most complaints about independent motor traders, so pick one with a good reputation who belongs to an existing motor industry code of practice.
Pros: Cheaper than franchised dealers; can operate to almost as high standards; more consumer rights than private sellers.
Cons: Can be difficult to exercise your consumer rights.
Buying a used car at auction isn't for the faint hearted. It's an environment dominated by car dealers who know the car trade and auction industry inside out and generally get the best prices. But you will buy a car for a lot less at auction than from an independent trader because you're not paying the dealer's profit margin. But for that low price you must do a lot of the leg work yourself.
First, check the auction house's terms and conditions. Many, quite legitimately, exclude the main parts of the Consumer Rights Act. Although you can't take a test drive, if you get there early enough you can see the car's engine being started and have a good poke around it. Then when bidding starts, know how much you should be paying and don't be pushed over the odds in the heat of the moment.
Pros: Cheapest way to buy a car.
Cons: Cars sold as seen; no test drive; hard work; competition from car traders.
Along with auctions, buying a used car from a private seller advertising via word of mouth, in the street, on the internet or in the printed press leaves you the most exposed. As long as the seller hasn't inaccurately described the car in any way, or misrepresented it, you have no consumer rights. So if the engine expires on the drive home, it's your problem not theirs.
If you are buying privately there are some simple rules to follow. Always go to the seller's home - check the address matches the car's V5C document - so you're less likely to buy a stolen car. Go through the car's paperwork carefully to ensure details look legitimate and organise an independent history check. Finally, remember the old adage: if something appears too good to be true, it usually is.
Pros: Can be a cheap way to buy.
Cons: Seller may be a criminal; car may not be theirs to sell or may have outstanding finance payments.
Buying a car from the popular auction website is a hybrid between buying at auction and from a private seller. If you're the only viable buyer, you may get the car at a knock-down price. But you don't know how honest the seller is or even if it's their car to sell.
The answer is to treat it like a private transaction and visit the seller, scrutinise the paperwork, crawl all over the car and if you can, take it for a test drive before deciding whether you want to bid or not.
Pros: Can combine the best bits of private sellers and auctions: a good car for not much money.
Cons: Can combine the worst bits of private sellers and auctions: a dodgy car that's too much money.
For more help buying a second hand car, read our guide to choosing the best car for your needs or take a look at our car loan calculator.