Skip to content

Tips for buying a used car

Tips for Buying a Used Car
Published September 2022

What exactly should you look for when buying a car from a previous owner?

If you’re looking to buy a new car, you’ll soon come to realise buying new will cost a pretty penny. As well as forking out for the car, you also need to think about insurance and road tax as well as general maintenance and fuel costs.

Once you’ve priced up how much it’ll cost, you might realise buying a brand-new car is out of the question. If that’s the case, don’t worry. New cars depreciate up to 40% within their first year, so aren’t always good value for money, which is why many people buy used cars to save money.

Going for a secondhand car might also mean that you get your hands on the make and model you really want, but at a more affordable price.

So, what exactly should you look for if buying a car from a previous owner? And how do you go about buying a used car? Let’s take a look.

What to look for when buying a used car

When buying a brand-new car from a dealership’s forecourt, there’s no need to worry about any existing engine or paintwork issues. Buying a new car is all about making sure it ticks the boxes in how it looks, and meets your requirements and budget.

When it comes to a secondhand vehicle, there’s a lot more at stake. You don’t want to inherit any historical problems the vehicle might have had. You’ll want to make sure it’s in good condition to last.

Here’s some key things to keep in mind when buying a used car:

Used diesel cars vs. secondhand electric cars

The starting point for many buyers will be to decide which type of car and fuel they want. In a bid to meet zero-emissions targets, new petrol and diesel cars will be banned from being sold in the UK by 2030 (brought forward from 2040).

With this in mind, 
you may want to consider a secondhand electric car or a hybrid vehicle. There is a greater range of hybrid cars than electric vehichles and they are cheaper to run than conventional cars. However, electric cars have zero emissions and you currently pay no vehicle tax.

If you are planning to stay with a petrol or diesel car for now, consider that while diesel can be economical, petrol can be cheaper to buy at the pump.

So, there’s lots to consider. Keep in mind exactly why you want a car and how you’ll be using it. That’ll help to ensure the car you pick will meet your expectations.


Car and fuel options

As mentioned, new petrol and diesel car sales will be banned in the UK from 2030. Until then fuel type should be considered carefully.

New diesel cars that don’t meet the latest Euro 6 emission standards are taxed at a higher rate for the first year.


 Cheaper than diesel at the pump

Petrol cars are usually cheaper than diesel

 Less economical than diesel

Best for drivers with a low to medium annual mileage


 More economical than petrol

 Diesel engines offer more low-down torque

 Diesel particulate filter (DPF) can clog and is pricey to fix

 Higher tax rates

Best for drivers covering a lot of miles, especially on motorways


 Zero emissions

 Low running costs

 No vehicle tax

 Expensive to buy

 Currently limited charging facilities

 Shorter range on a single charge compared to a full tank of petrol/diesel

Best for drivers who have easy access to charging stations


 Cheaper than conventional cars to run and tax

 Greater range than electric cars

 Can be expensive to buy

 Plug-in hybrids need access to charging facilities

Best for lower mileage drivers who spend a lot of time in town


Where to buy used cars

There are a variety of places to pick-up a used vehichle but which is best?

A good starting point is to have a search on reputable car selling websites. This will give you a chance to see the breadth of cars on offer all in one place that meet both your budget and lifestyle requirements.

You’ll find that car dealerships will sell their cars via car selling sites, as well as private sellers.

Live and online used car auctions provide alternative avenues for exploring secondhand cars.

With both car dealerships and private sellers, you will have a chance to test drive a car. With auctions you won’t. Before test driving a used car be sure to check with your current insurance provider that you have the right cover to do so. It’s best to take your insurance documents with you on the day of test driving as evidence that you’re covered.

Car auctions are known for selling vehicles at good prices. You may, however, only be able to see pictures of the car or only have a quick look at it before the auction begins. Keep in mind that this might not help to tell the whole story of the car and its history.

Should you have an issue with the car that you purchase, it’s worth knowing that you’ll have the best cover under The Consumer Rights Act if you buy from a dealership.

Never feel pressured into buying a car from a seller. If it doesn’t feel right, then it’s always best to step away to think about your decision. Remember, there will always be other cars.

Type of sellers


Private Seller

Live Auction

Online Auction

Consumer Rights

Test drive


How to check the quality of a used car

One thing you’ll want to avoid is buying a secondhand car at night as you may miss vital signs of damage you would otherwise see in the daylight.

You’ll want to check that there are no scrapes, bumps or chipped paint. You’ll also want to have a look under the bonnet. If you’re unsure of exactly what you’re looking for, it’s always worth taking a friend who knows more about cars with you. That way, they can advise you of any questions to ask the dealership or current owner, before making a purchase.

Another element to consider is if the car has suffered structural damage or been written-off at any point. This could affect the lifespan of the vehicle or result in you inheriting an on-going issue. If in doubt and if you aren’t experienced in what you should be looking for, you can arrange a vehicle inspection with a reputable garage or mechanic.


Documents checklist for buying a used car

Once you’ve made your assessment on how a car looks and runs, it’s essential you request the vehicle’s accompanying documents from its current owner.

These include the vehicle’s service and MOT history and car handbook. The car’s handbook will provide you with an in-depth overview of all the elements of the car, including the radio and engine, for example.

Never purchase a car if the current owner doesn’t have the vehicle’s V5C document. This will provide you with temporary proof that you’re the owner of the car until the DVLA sends you a new V5C. Failing to update this document and sharing it with the DVLA can carry a hefty fine of £1,000; a risk not worth taking.

Making the transaction to buy your used car

Once you’ve done your due diligence in knowing what the vehicle has to offer, your attention will turn to the price before sealing the deal. There’s sometimes some wiggle room with prices, especially if you’ve found anything wrong with the car. While this won’t be possible at car auctions, it’s worth trying to negotiate with a dealer or private seller. Dealerships may also offer second hand car finance.

Once you have agreed a price, you’ll want to get a receipt as evidence of your purchase. If you’re buying from a dealership, you’ll also want to agree a collection date. Buying from a private seller will mean that you’re able to drive off there and then. Just remember to sort out your car insurance and vehicle tax before you drive away.


As extra due diligence for secondhand car buying

You can also find out more about a secondhand vehicle before you buy it by doing some further research online:

Used car owner next steps

Once you’ve made your purchase, you’ll want to make sure you have the vehicle’s tax and insurance cover sorted. Find out more about Sainsbury’s Bank Car Insurance.

You can also take inspiration from our car guide series and ways to maintain your car to make the most of your wheels.

This Money Talk post aims to be informative and engaging. Though it may include tips and information, it does not constitute advice and should not be used as a basis for any financial decisions. Sainsbury's Bank accepts no responsibility for the opinions and views of external contributors and the content of external websites included within this post. Some links may take you to another Sainsbury's Bank page. All information in this post was correct at date of publication.