Car Buying

April 12, 2013 By Mike Lee
Last updated on July 28, 2015

Decisions decisions decisions
This car buying guide has all you need to help with you with getting the right car. Buying a car can be a tricky ordeal – which car?, what’s the running cost?, where to buy it from?, who to trust?, what to look out for? am I buying a lemon or a bargain?…and the list goes on. Read our step by step article below and learn how to be a smarter car buyer.

Car For Sale

Choosing A Car
1. Firstly – how much money do you want/have to spend on your car buying quest? Do you have a list of modifications that needs to be taken into account?. Will you require finance? Can you afford to insure it? Car buying is more than just buying a car, no point buying a car you can’t afford to run.

With regards to modifications, consider whether you want to spend money on modifying a car or buying a car already modified, just be careful if you opt for the second one, although it may be cheaper, you could end up buying a car that’s just had bits thrown together haphazardly (read the tuning and handling guides). Also consider whether you’ll be better off just spending all of your car money on a better car to begin with.

2. Second thing to consider is what type of car are you looking for?

  • Coupe
  • Convertible
  • Saloon
  • Hatchback
  • Sports
  • Muscle
  • Classic car
  • Exotic
  • RWD
  • FWD
  • AWD
  • Type of fuel
  • Manual or automatic
  • Restoration project
  • Etc etc

Just consider what you want out of your car. Even if you’re just after a good performance car, take some time to consider your options. Car buying really is a personal choice/preference, but one that will help you narrow the search down and one that you will have to consider eventually.

3. Also, read reviews to find out what other owners or motoring journalist think of that particular car, but always remember, it’s a personal choice and most people will write about a problem or something they don’t like (have a moan) in a personal review. Also check out what people say in forums or visit an owner’s club website (some car owners sites have a car buying guide just for that make and model). And of course have a look at the performance cars section. All these sites can help you find out what the cars weak areas are and what to look out for in your car buying quest.

Things To Help Make Your Car Buying Choice Easier:

  • Is the car to be driven daily
  • Is it going to be your only car (see below)
  • How many miles will you be doing in it (cost of fuel – how many miles to the gallon does it do)
  • What are the general running costs for servicing and repairs
  • What’s the parts availability like – especially older classic cars.
  • If you’re considering a non-runner, is it too much work for you and don’t forget you will need a trailer/transport service.
  • Any local independent dealers/garages (in case anything goes wrong)
  • Insurance cost (what group is it – get a quote, It’s free and quick on line. See my car insurance guide for advice
  • Road tax bracket – what band is it in – prices vary from £0 to almost £500 nowadays depending on the cars year and emissions
  • Practicality and weather conditions where you live (no point in having a daily 30+year old classic sports car, if you intend to drive it in rainy cold conditions for most of it’s life and/or you don’t have a garage (it just wont workout, believe us)
  • Can you afford it? See my car finance guide for advice

One Other Thing To Consider – A Second Car
Keeping costs down when owning a performance car can be difficult, especially at todays petrol prices and mileages you tend to have to do to get to work. One way around this, is to own 2 cars. This may sound strange, but if you buy a cheaper to run daily driver (turbo diesel or smaller engine car for example) and run your pride and joy on a limited mileage/classic car insurance policy, it can work out quite surprisingly lower than having an average performance car only.

Benefits include – when money is short or something needs fixing, you can take it off the road and save some money by just driving your cheaper to run car about for a while, also you don’t have to worry about putting too many miles on your pride and joy. You don’t have to make such a big compromise in your car buying choice. Work it out, find out how many miles you do and the rough running costs involved (fuel, tax, mot, insurance and maintenance) and see if it works out for you, you may be surprised how running a 50+mpg diesel as a daily driver can offset the costs.

Tip – Sometimes narrowing your car down to the right one for you can be almost impossible. Make a short list and then physically go and find these cars and if possible test drive them. You really can’t tell until you actually drive and look at a car in the flesh so to speak if that car is right for you.

Car Sales Forecourt

Are You Planning On Buying?

A New Car
The Advantages

  • You get a new car, mostly peace of mind, generally easy to do
  • No unknown history
  • Great for adding the options you want
  • Finance options available
  • Warranty/protection (Although not always easy to apply!)

The Disadvantages

  • High initial cost and then steep depreciation in first few years
  • Must maintain service with dealer for warranty
  • New cars are over complicated and can be problematic early on in its life (teething troubles)

Note: Always check a new car before accepting it. You can reject it if you are not happy. There are possibilities that it could get damaged before it reaches you.

A Used Car

The Advantages

  • Cheaper than new (more car for your money)
  • Obviously you can buy some classic performance cars no longer available now
  • Cars between 2-4 years old tend to have most of their teething troubles sorted (but not always)

The Disadvantages

  • Can have hidden history/life or even fake history
  • Limited warranties/protection – if any

Car Sales Car Sales
Where To Buy From
Once you’ve done your homework and got a short list (if there’s such a thing?), it’s time to think about where you can do your car buying:

Franchised Dealer
Dealers who sell cars for a certain manufacturer. They’re generally more expensive but also have generally good after sales support.

Independent Dealer
They basically just sell most types of cars and have no affiliation with a certain make. A little cheaper than a franchise dealer, but with less after sales support. Many specialists are independent dealers.

Home Dealer
I’ve added this one, as there seems to be more and more people selling cars from home. See below for things to be aware of.

Car brokers
Basically you get someone else to look for your car. Unless you’ve got a few extra pound notes lying around, why do this? – car buying for the rich?

Car Supermarket
They sell large amounts of cars on a site and are generally slightly cheaper than the other dealers, but you will not get the same service as from the above 2 dealerships, plus they sell mainly mainstream type cars.

Import your car yourself
This can often work out cheaper. You can get right hand drive cars from many EU countries (but you will have to wait for it though)- (also be aware that a foreign franchise dealer does not have to sell to you). UK garages/dealers can usually service them, and the warranties are normally reduced. Don’t forget customs and exise duty and if the car is less than 6 months old the dreaded VAT. A broker may be used, watch out for the delivery cost.

There are two types of imports:
EU imports i.e., cars bought from other EU countries, all now have same safety standards due to the European Whole Vehicle Type Approval, making car buying from the EU a safer option for the car buyer nowadays. Check the specs though. If a car doesn’t have Vehicle Type Approval, then you will have to get a Single Vehicle Approval (SVA) – like a super-MOT carried out on it (this applies to all import cars).

Grey imports i.e. – cars bought from non EU countries like Japan. Cheaper than UK versions, can be hard to distinguish, most will have a 2 row number plate recess at the rear of the car – see the import number plate guide. Ensure that they have SVA type approval – should have a certificate. Generally unknown history prior to UK. Insurance specialist mostly and generally more expensive to insure. Some may not be as safe as EU cars. Any history prior to the UK will be in a foreign language. Uncertain Mileage. Spec may be different than EU/UK. Check local dealers/garages/parts stores for support. Selling it on may be difficult. Same goes for american imports, although you may not need to pay VAT on classic cars.

Car Auctions
Car buying at its cheapest, however these cars may require either a little or a lot of work, where duff cars and bargains alike can be found, be warned.

Private Sale
Potential for haggling and getting a good deal, must know what you’re looking at though, as most cars are sold as seen. Very little car consumer protection.

Owner Clubs
One other place to look, are enthusiast owner clubs. Generally well cared for cars, potentially find just what you’re after.

And of course there’s the internet. Both dealers and private sellers are increasingly using the internet to sell their cars, either on their website, dedicated car sales websites or auction sites.

Internet selling has been on the increase year on year and so has the fraudster/scammers. Read the following to help you not to become a victim.

  • Virtual car seller – Beware of cars for sale at prices that seem too good to be true and/or looking for a quick sale. Always buy a car you can see first and the person who is selling the car can be contacted with a proper address and maybe a landline (not an e-mail address only). Get as much details as you can, so you can check the car out. Do not get caught out by reasons why you cannot see the car. Do not give any of your personal details out or part with any money to an unknown person or company, until you are 100% satisfied with the transaction. Watch out for suspicious e-mails (non company, mis-spelled, badly put together or asking for money/deposits) or unusual phone calls/numbers that may be premium rate return calls
  • Fake websites – Beware of fake websites, either offering an Escrow service or similar. If you want to use such a service, use one of your choosing, not one directed to you by a seller. Be very cautious when purchasing cars in a long distance sale

Once You Find A Car
There are a number of things that you should do once you see a car you’re interested in. I’ve listed what I would do in the order I would go about my car buying, although it’s not absolutely the way you may wish to do it yourself.

Handy hint – before ringing a seller, if you can see the registration number on a photo, you can do a quick check on Autotrader or go to the Directgov Website (opens new window) – go to the vehicle check/enquiry sections. These 2 sites can give you some vehicle details for free that you may find handy. Also you can check out the number plate guide for more details on the year and registration office. But to be absolutely sure, it maybe advisable to go the whole hog and check the car out for any previous accident damage, outstanding finances or to check if it’s stolen etc and have a HPI check on it.

Hire Purchase Information – although it says hire purchase, the details you get back are much more than that. For a basic report a fee of between £2-4 can tell you (even by text) if the car is stolen or has any outstanding finance. For £15-25 you can get a complete report – this varies from company to company, but can be very comprehensive, check what you are getting before paying. If your spending a lot of money when car buying, this is well worth the money. Also the VCAR (Vehicle Condition Alert Register) is used by most companies to tell if a car has been written off, but be aware a car that has been repaired and checked can be removed from this register and placed on what is known as the repaired register.

First phone call to seller
Save yourself time, ask any questions before going down, such as:

  • Is it a trade or private sale
  • What is/can you confirm the mileage
  • Has it got any service history (beware of fake service books)
  • Have you got the log book (V5) If there is no paper work,
    don’t bother, “enough said”
  • Has it got a current MOT, how long left and any advisories
  • Last service and when is it due – does it require/has it had the cambelt done
  • How long have you owned it/had it on the forecourt (trade seller)
  • How many previous owners are there
  • What’s the reason for sale
  • Any recent work
  • Condition – any rust, anything need doing to it soon, general condition of mechanicals, bodywork etc
  • Any outstanding finance
  • Any modifications
  • Any previous damage/major repairs
  • Is there a HPI certificate (for damage/outstanding finance) – you may want to do this yourself anyway, there are a number of vehicle/data check sites – if a car comes back as having been registered on the HPI register you need to know the following: Insurance write off categories

Be aware of those that sell only with a mobile number or e-mail address (best to get a landline number that you can ring them back on) – (many scams are operated like this). You may need to insure the car before you can drive it – ask the owner or see your own insurance. As of October 2014 you will also need to Tax the car yourself before driving away in the car. Car buying can be a nightmare at the best of times, why not take a look at my car abbreviations guide!

If you’re happy with your phone call

    • Be prepared – take a torch, something to kneel or lie on, if you have a magnet take it, you can use it if you suspect filler being used
    • Best to take a friend with you, two heads are better than one, better if they know a thing or two about cars. Also it’s safer if you’re carrying money around with you and handy if you strike a deal there and then, as they can drive the car or your car back.
    • Upon arrival (view during the daytime and dry only), avoid doing your car buying in the wet or at night, as this can hide all sorts of problems, especially with the bodywork and paint. Have a very quick look around the car before knocking on the door:

i. Does it look like the car advertised?
ii. What are your first impressions?
iii. Is it what you expected?

If not, you have two choices

  1. Don’t waste time, make your excuses (you may have to look at a lot of rubbish cars that don’t match the description in your car buying quest
  2. If it’s the first time you’ve looked at this particular model of car and you’re after one of them, have a good look around, learn from the owner of what’s been done, are there any oddities etc with those cars, try to familiarise yourself with the car so you can compare it to the next one, it maybe they’re all like that. Then just say you’ve got some more cars to consider and leave, don’t feel obliged and don’t let your heart rule your head

If you’re happy with your initial look

  • Ask to see the paperwork
  • Log Book (V5) – does it have a watermark? Check that the registration number and address matches the V5 and is that of the seller
  • MOT certificate, does this have a dealer stamp impression, right registration number?, check the dates and are there any advisories
  • Any service history – cambelt last replaced?
  • Receipts and any other paperwork – have a look, see if it’s had any work recently and/or any major work. Check the prices on there, you may be shocked at the cost of servicing or repairs/parts of that particular car
  • Check all paperwork thoroughly (a must do when car buying), especially the VIN (Vehicle Identity Number) on the V5 and MOT certificate and if you can the engine and chassis numbers (mostly located and stamped under the bonnet and/or bottom of the windscreen on more modern cars
  • Does all the previous MOT’s match the mileage?
  • While we’re talking about paperwork, if there’s an alarm or a coded radio etc, make sure the codes/certificates are present
  • Any spare keys/fobs
  • Take a look at the number plate section to help guard against false plates
  • It’s up to you to satisfy that the car is genuine and that the seller is the owner. Be warned, don’t make your car buying a dodgy deal, the police can take any stolen car from an unsuspecting buyer even if you have paid for it

Once happy with that, then it’s time to take a closer look at the car
Car Damage MOT Sign
Look at the bodywork again

  • Any damage, dents, scratches, repairs, filler, ripples (also check boot floor for hidden crash damage)
  • Any rust (arches, door bottoms, sills, lower body work and were water can get trapped – spoilers, gullies, convertible roof and channels etc)
  • Any uneven panels and doors (check they open and close properly), do they lock ok?
  • Any unmatched colours on the panels, any overspray on the window rubbers, lights, tyres/wheels etc. Could have had damage repaired. Does the paint look OK (faded, water spots, blistering, flat etc)
  • Check for chipped/cracked lights/glass
  • Signs of welding, especially along the roof (cut and shut)

Check underneath for

  • Rust
  • Damage
  • Corrosion on the chassis
  • Is the exhaust ok
  • Suspension look ok etc
  • Does the wheels look like they have been fighting with the curbs
  • Are the tyres in good condition (inflated, plenty of “even” tread)
  • Is there a spare wheel


  • Push on all four corners of the car (one at a time) to check the suspension. A car should not bounce up and down like a boat on water, once pushed down, it should bounce back up and at most just then return to its normal resting place, although if it has sports suspension, you may get hardly any movement (which is fine if that’s what you’re after)


  • Does the interior match the mileage? Check the pedals, gear knob, steering wheel and driver’s seat for signs of excessive wear. Also check if the dashboard has been removed (scratched screws or loose dash surround – may have had it’s odometer clock tampered with)
  • Check all the electrics etc work
  • Are there any warning lights on

Look at the engine bay

  • Check the oil, is it reasonably clean or black as the ace of spades?
  • Remove the oil cap and check for any creamy off white sludge underneath the cap (a sign of water contamination in the engine)
  • Check hoses, fluid levels, wiring, is there signs of fire damage, repairs (rough untidy wiring)
  • Generally you want to be able to start the engine when it’s cold, so you can see if it starts from cold ok
  • Listen out for any unusual noises upon start up – any clunking, knocking (some cars will have a tapping/ticking noise as the oil takes time to get around the engine, especially if it has hydraulic tappets – this is ok for a few seconds)
  • Check for any fluid leaks
  • Does the exhaust sound unusually loud or rattle
  • If you’re unsure perhaps get an RAC/AA or independent vehicle inspection carried out. Or a trusted garage/mechanic friend, but be aware the specialist vehicle inspection companies will have insurance against any unseen faults and a friend/friendly garage mechanic wont

Get in the drivers seat

  • Check the volt meter reading if fitted (around 12.5-13.5 volts is usual)
  • Check the oil pressure gauge if fitted (the pressure should increase by about 10psi per 1000rpm from idle and generally go to no more than 80psi depending on the car/engine your looking at)
  • Give the throttle a blip, is there any blue or black smoke coming from the exhaust?

Once happy – take it for a spin

  • Any unusual noises
  • Check gauges for overheating
  • Are the brakes ok, not pulling to one side or squeaking
  • Is the handling and steering ok, no vibration or wondering
  • Does the gears change ok, not notchy or difficult to engage gears
  • Does the clutch feel ok (put the car in top gear at about 25mph or 2000rpm, floor the pedal, does the revs rise quickly, with little acceleration, if so, the clutch could be slipping)
  • Any juddering when accelerating
  • Does the car generally feel ok?
  • Take as much time to look around as you need when car buying, if you need to go away and come back, do so, it’s easy to let the heart take over the head, especially if it’s a car you’ve been looking for, for a while

Still happy

  • Time to haggle. This can be either a pleasant part of car buying or where you feel pressurised into a deal. Have an idea what you want to pay and what work if any needs doing. You should have an idea what the values are for the car you are looking at. The use of silence can be a great way of making the seller feel a little awkward, don’t pay more than you want to, there’s always another car somewhere else. Best to pay with a bankers draft or cheque and get a written receipt of the sale, even if sold as seen
  • Now go and sort out some insurance and tax, before you smash it into a wall, round a lamp post or into me! (see my insurance guide)

A warranty can help in the case of an unexpected fault. However be aware that many have a limited pay out and limit what is covered (you need to check/ask what is and what isn’t covered). If you buy from a dealer you should at least get a 3 month warranty on a used car and possibly have the option to increase this. There’s also the option for going to an independent warranty company, which can be taken out for most any car, generally for cars under 10 years old though.

Some warranties, especially those that come with a new car will require the car to be serviced and maintained with the selling dealer/garage to keep the warranty valid.

Things to be aware of when car buying that you may not be able to see (this is not a list of what you should do by the way)

  • Removed warning light fuses
  • Disconnected 4wd systems (done to hide damaged transfer boxes)
  • Hidden rot – thick underseal
  • Hidden rust – filler and respray
  • Noisy engine – over thick oil
  • Leaking radiator – radweld used
  • Hidden mileage – use of steering wheel cover, new gear knob, pedals and seat covers
  • Clocking – some may have misaligned numbers on the odometer
  • Home dealers – Now I don’t know if someone selling a car from home is a dealer just because they say so. So you need to be sure when you’re car buying, they are just that. Do they have a genuine business address?, invoices, track record. Make sure it’s not someone trying to sell you a stolen car, as the car wont be in their name or registered at the address they are at. Be very cautious with this type of dealer
  • Cloning/Ringing – This is were a car’s identity is taken from another car and transfered to the car that is for sale. This can be done to hide a vehicles original identity (the car maybe stolen, have outstanding finance or may have been written off)
  • Buyer beware – Be very careful taking money with you to look at a car. It has been known for people to be robbed, even armed robbery carried out on those going to see a car. Do not tell or agree with the other person that you will be bringing money. Best to write a cheque, get a bankers draught or transfer the money once you are happy that the deal is genuine (let me say that again, once you are happy and satisfied that the deal is genuine)

Car Buying Fun?
What the seller actually means:

  • Must sell
    …or else I’ll be stuck with it
  • Runs fine
    …was going to put “runs excellent” but felt guilty all of a sudden
  • Needs some body work
    …damn, that repair I did last week is looking dodgy
  • Well-maintained
    …I changed the oil at sometime and checked the washer bottle
  • Looks like new
    …but drives like #@%£
  • All original
    …I never had anything fixed, adjusted, or replaced
  • Project car
    …doesn’t run, needs some work (well loads really!), lost interest
  • Lots of potential
    …doesn’t run, needs some work (well loads really!), lost interest

Barrett Jackson Auto Auction

Why not check out Performance Auction – A new auction website for both parts and cars.