Buying used cars: how to spot a bad one

Buying a used car: how to spot a bad one

British drivers like to make their money go a long way, which is why most of us buy used cars. Around 7.2 million are sold every year, compared with 2.6 million new models. And because a new car can’t have been crashed, clocked or cloned, this means the majority of car buyers are vulnerable to unscrupulous sellers trying to pass off a bad used car as a good one.

There are all sorts of tricks of the trade that can be employed to pull the wool over the eyes of a used car buyer. The Green Flag blog has covered some of the important checks that drivers should carry out before parting with their cash for a car. But here we’re looking at less obvious tips that can help drivers spot a bad car – also known as a dud, or lemon.

To make sure your next car doesn’t leave you with a bitter taste in your mouth, read on. 

Check how reliable the car will be

Before you even pick up the phone to enquire about a used car, do yourself a favour and set aside all assumptions and prejudices. Most people assume German cars are as dependable as the sun rising and French cars as flaky as a croissant. But independent measurement dispels such myths.

Here, The Reliability Index is your best friend. The website lets you search for ratings of makes, or individual models of used car to see how reliable they are, based upon more than a decade of warranty claims made to Warranty Direct.

You’ll find that Renault, Peugeot and Citroen are all comfortably ahead of Audi, BMW, Mercedes, Porsche and Volkswagen.

Criminal gangs place fake ads for cars at prices that seem too good to be true

Make sure the advert is genuine

Buying a used car: how to spot a bad one

There is a new, worrying trend doing the rounds on used car classified websites. Unscrupulous wheeler dealers are seeking out cars that are underpriced. They then set about duplicating the advert for the same car, but with a much higher price – and without the genuine vendor’s knowledge.

The game is that if someone is prepared to buy the ‘phantom’ car at the higher price, the dodgy dealer will then buy the actual car and turn a quick profit, without ever having exposed themselves to buying a car as stock, preparing it for sale, or performing even the most basic of safety and history checks.

Make sure the car is genuine

Criminal gangs go one step further, placing ads for fake cars at prices that seem too good to be true. They’ll come up with a convincing story as to why the car is so cheap, such as ‘I’m moving abroad and need a quick sale.’ They’ll then do all they can to persuade prospective buyers to place a deposit or, worse, transfer the full funds ahead of the car being delivered to the buyer.

Auto Trader is the UK’s largest car classifieds site, and offers good advice on staying safe when buying a used car. Ebay has a wealth of tips on spotting sales scams.

Insist on seeing the car – and always in daylight

There are two golden rules about buying a used car, especially from a private vendor: don’t place a deposit on a car until you’ve seen it, and always view the car in daylight.

That way, there won’t be the hassle of trying to get your deposit returned if you find that the bodywork or chassis is rusting, the panels appear to be painted different colours or the infotainment screen is on the blink.

Condition and service history worth more than low mileage and cheap price

A dud car often turns out to be one that hasn’t been looked after.

Although one Ford Focus may cost £4000 and have covered 50,000 miles, its service history could be very patchy at best. And the condition may suggest it was only treated to one wash and vacuum in its lifetime.

Meanwhile, another Ford Focus that’s done 65,000 miles may actually have a complete, no-expense spared service history which is likely to mean the car should be less troublesome over time. And its immaculate cosmetic condition is a clear indication that the car has been lovingly cared for.

Pick the right used car for your needs

A dud or lemon doesn’t necessarily mean a car has to be unreliable; it could just as well prove to be unsuitable for a driver’s needs. So don’t pick an estate car if you need three child seats across the back seats. Instead you’ll most likely need a people carrier (or MPV, multi-purpose vehicle) which features three independent back seats with Isofix attachments.

Equally, treating yourself to a sporty two-seat roadster, only to find that it drinks fuel, costs a king’s ransom to tax, and is noisy and tiring on your daily commute to work could turn out to be an expensive mistake. You’ll probably end up selling the roadster for less money than you paid for it, and will have to buy a more comfortable, quiet diesel-powered saloon.

Have the car inspected

You’ve viewed the cars on your shortlist and have a favourite option that you’d like to buy. Trouble is, you don’t know one end of a crankshaft from the other when it comes to inspecting a car. Fear not. A local garage can check a used car for you. For a modest sum – typically £100, which most sellers will knock off the price if you subsequently buy the car – a recommended local garage or even the bigger, franchised dealerships will put a car under their mechanical microscope.

12 comments on “Buying used cars: how to spot a bad one

  1. Neville Patten 12/01/2017 9:49 AM

    This is really good advice

  2. Mike Smith 15/01/2017 12:00 PM

    Quote: There are two golden rules about buying a used car.
    Actually there are three. You missed out “Never buy a car if it’s raining”. If the car’s bodywork is wet, it’ll make the paintwork look new and shiny.

  3. Gab 25/05/2017 12:04 AM

    I love your tips. Thanks for sharing them!

  4. Frank Chandler 07/07/2017 4:31 PM

    Check the engine and body number plate with Swansea

  5. stephen singleton 09/07/2017 4:52 PM

    very good advice,would green flag do a check on a car to be bought.i know their would be a charge.

  6. Ian Reynolds 11/07/2017 12:40 PM

    If you can afford it, buy a manufacturers approved used vehicle, it will often come with a years parts and labour proper warranty, including recovery, (sorry Green Flag), return after a year.

    • Graham Rushton 15/07/2017 10:59 AM

      You’ll also pay through the nose for the warranty, parts labour and recovery, which is why I’m with Green Flag 🙂

  7. Ivor Hunt 21/07/2017 8:48 AM

    Also check the tyres are of the same make, i bought a used Citroen Berlingo from the main dealer in Christchurch and after buying it i found every tyre was of a different MAKE !! . I went back and complained and after a lot of hassle and me threatening to contact Citroen head office they put two new tyres on the front wheels. Needless to say the car is now seven years old and other than replacing the tyres (as and when needed ) i have not had any problems .

  8. Ivor Hunt 21/07/2017 8:51 AM

    I have always bought used Citroen from main dealer and have found them very reliable.

  9. Alan worthington 22/07/2017 8:06 AM

    Good advice Green flag that’s why I am with you

  10. Malcolm 30/10/2017 4:20 AM

    Make use of the free online MOT history service to check the annual mileage and what advisory/repairs have been. Can tell you more about the history and whether the previous owner always had repairs done when advised rather than after a fail.

  11. John owens 07/09/2018 1:44 AM

    Very interesting and helpful keep the green flag flying

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