The first tip is obvious, but not always possible. We recommend that you take a knowledgeable person who is experienced in buying, selling and checking over cars for their roadworthiness, safety and overall condition. We also recommend buying from reputable sources that offer warranties that can be verified and have reviews that suggest trustworthiness.
Now, many people will find themselves on a budget. For these people buying any car with insurance and road tax will be a stretch. They look to save where possible and usually neither insurance nor road duty are possible ways to save a huge amount as they are both compulsory. With regard to insurance, we recommend trying three car insurance comparison sites and three sites where insurers offer direct products only (i.e. do not offer their complete range of services/products through comparison websites).
The following tips are for reference only and are by no means exhaustive. Always use your own discretion and check any issues with a mechanic or other suitably experienced individual. Never jeopardise the safety of yourself or others.
Tip 1 – If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.
We all like bargains. As a student, I was one of the people on a budget as explained above. I had some great bargains on cars. I also bought some bangers that were money pits. I guess that throughout this time I learned more. I also had an interest in mechanics. I am not qualified, just had an interest and just enough money for a tool kit. Some cars were good value. Other cars were fashionable, but by no means good value. Firstly, decide what is important to you. There may be a mix of aspects that lead to a suitable car selection. Do not assume that there is a direct relation between original cost and second-hand value. Also, do not assume that car brands with high residual values are better and will cost less long term. With most modern, quality car makers, the cars history and condition may tend to speak more about its future longevity. Now if a car is way cheaper than you would expect, you must be careful and ascertain why. There are some genuine stories such as the seller is relocating abroad, but many stories would be fabricated. If you feel uneasy, walk away from the deal.
Tip 2 – Ask for the service history.
A well serviced car that has few owners (1-3 depending on age) will likely last longer than one that has no service record and has been owned by many people. This is not true in every case, but is a good rule to follow, especially if you are inexperienced in buying cars. Look how long the last owner has kept the car for. Generally, the longer the better. If someone buys a car and sells it very quickly, there may be a reason e.g. the car has a fault or is likely to develop a fault in the near future. Again, some stories may be genuine, but if you are not believing the story, it is likely to be made up and you should walk away. No matter how good a deal seems, there will always be more good (and genuine) deal out there.
Tip 3 – Look at each body panel for dints, scratches and colour differences.
The main issue here would be colour differences and surface texture changes. This may suggest that a panel had had a ding that has needed repair. This may not be an issue, but assessing the severity of the damage is a must. A few scratches and stone chips are to be expected with age and use. A car with a few stone chips, the odd car park dint and faint scratches may not be bad and this may also suggest that things have not been hidden. If a colour change or texture change is evident, gently knock along the body panel with your finger joints (do not knock hard enough to do any damage) and if the sound is different or changes in pitch along the panel, there may be filler in the panel, which may suggest that it has been repaired in the past. This may be nothing major, but the severity of any previous damage would need be assessed before purchase.
Tip 4 – Check panel gaps.
Look around the car. If the bonnet meets the wing on one side closer than on the other, there may be historical damage. Also, if the gaps between the doors (when closed) on one side differ to the other, there may have been damage to the side or chassis of the car. If you cannot get someone with experience and suitable knowledge to check this, we suggest that you may like to consider another vehicle.
Tip 5 – Check for blown seals, especially the head gasket.
There is no easy way to do this. Also, experienced car sellers can hide issues easily, but basic checks are still worth while doing. Firstly, ensure the engine is off and the car is stationary with a functioning handbrake applied. Safety is paramount. Ask the seller to raise the hood (bonnet if in UK). Look for the radiator coolant tank. Some cars have different systems, but many will have a tank with a couple of markings on it showing whether the fluid level is full or needing topping up. If the fluid level is low, this may suggest a leak somewhere in the system or that the vehicle has not been recently or correctly serviced. Never open the coolant tank because the fluid may be warm and under pressure. Opening the tank when the fluid is warm can be dangerous, causing scalds or even worse. Coolant fluid can also be dangerous if ingested or if it gets in your eye. If you get any car fluids in your eye or swallow any, contact a doctor through a suitable health service available in your region immediately. If you get any fluids on your skin, wash it off completely using soap and water. Get help from a doctor immediately if you notice any changes to your sin or feel unwell.
You may be able to check under the oil cap if the engine is cool, not running and not just recently turned off. If there is a milky yellow substance under the oil cap, this may suggest that water and/or other fluids have mixed with the oil. This may be suggestive of a blown seal, a blown head gasket or fault somewhere in the system e.g. a problem with a valve. This can be something and nothing i.e. an easy repair, but can also be a blow head gasket, which in most cases will be very expensive to fix. If you spot anything, get a suitably experienced and qualified person to check it out before parting with your money. Never touch any part if you are not 100% sure what you are doing. Check out other resources before acting. You touch things at your own risk. Always ask for help from someone who knows what they are doing and ask the seller to show you what you need to see as long as they are happy to do so without causing any safety risks to themselves, you or other people.
Tip 6 -Look at the mileage and check if wear and tear is what you would expect.
Look over the car generally and make sure it is as you would expect it to be based on its age and mileage. Look at several of your friends’ cars to ascertain overall conditions based on model, age and use. If the steering wheel is worn around the edges, especially at 10 and 2 ‘on the clock’, this may be suggestive of heavy use. If the car is being sold with a very low mileage, this may be indicative of the mileage being altered. The brake pedal (if rubber covered) can also be indicative. If the side nearest to the accelerator is worn much more than the other side, this may be indicative of heavy use. Obviously if the mileage is higher and the car is several years old, this wear is to be expected and hopefully the use and age is reflected in the asking price. Many bargains can be had on older vehicle as long as they have been well maintained, are of a good quality and driven sensibly in the past.