Things to consider for first-time auction buyers

Most auction houses allow a few hours of browsing before the sale, so get to the auction early and don’t be afraid of poking around any prospective purchases. Do your research beforehand, too – how much would similar cars sell for privately or at a dealer, and how much have they sold for at previous auctions?

Once you’ve got a shortlist of cars, set a strict budget. Give it a good look over for the general condition – this can give you a good idea of how well it’s been maintained and whether it’s likely to be a dud. A cosmetically rough car is more likely to be hiding costly issues than a tidy example.

When the car passes through the auction hall, listen to the engine and look carefully for any signs that it might not be running right.

If you decide to bid, hold your nerve and don’t get carried away with the moment.

Remember than auction houses usually add fees on top – find out what they are beforehand, to save any nasty surprises once you’ve bid.

If you are buying from an auction house as opposed to on an online auction,

4. Buying online

The online shopping craze is showing no sign of fading – and that includes big objects such as cars. Although car manufacturers are finally cottoning on to selling new cars online, people have been buying used motors on the internet for years.

Most of these online sales are through online auctions site eBay. You can buy a car over the internet by bidding on an auction or hitting ‘buy it now’. We’d express caution about doing this without seeing it – it’s a good idea to give it a good once over and meet the seller first, but being prepared to take a risk could bag a bargain.

If you do buy a car online, most buyers will expect a deposit paid via Paypal before collection. Although sellers won’t take kindly to time wasters, if the car isn’t as described when you arrive to complete the sale, you’re free to walk away.

This takes away some of the risk – but you are contracted to buy it otherwise, even if you decide you don’t like the colour or realise the seats aren’t very comfortable.

If you buy a car online that’s a long distance away and you can’t collect it yourself, there are a number of transport companies which will deliver it to you for a reasonable cost. Services such as Shiply allow you to request quotes from a number of different companies.

Search RAC Cars, with more than 300,000 new and used cars on its database, now

Buying a used car

We’ve all been there… turned up to look at a car you’re thinking about buying, stood next to it with the seller, and realised you’ve no idea what you’re looking for. To avoid the awkward (and pointless) situation where you walk around the vehicle kicking tyres and pretending to know what you’re looking for, follow our advice…

Car checks before buying

For a start, taking along our car buyer’s checklist. This provides a general overview for what to look out for, but a search online can give you a clearer idea of what to look for with specific make and models.

1. Tyres

We’ve already mentioned kicking the tyres, but it’s worth getting down on your knees and inspecting them properly. How much tread have they got? They need 1.6mm as a legal minimum, so if they’re below 3mm you’ll have to factor in the cost of changing them soon.

While budget brand tyres might not be a major concern on a cheap car, if you’re spending more money (especially on a performance car) you’ll want four matching premium tyres.

2. Dents and scratches

How’s the bodywork? Are there signs of kerbing on the wheels? It’s important to inspect a car in clear daylight… rain or darkness can hide a lot.

Don’t be too put off by small dents or scratches, these can be fixed fairly cheaply, but do use them to negotiate.

3. Panel gaps

While you’re looking over the bodywork, check the gaps between panels – large panel gaps could be a sign that a car has been badly repaired after a crash, and make sure there aren’t any colour differences between panels.

4. Fluid levels

Open the bonnet and check all the levels – including oil, brake and power steering fluid. If they’re low, it could be a sign that the car hasn’t been well maintained. While you’re there, look out for signs of oil leaks under the bonnet. It’s worth looking underneath where the car is normally kept, too.

5. Under the oil cap

As well as checking the oil level, it’s worth looking under the oil cap for signs of a white mayonnaise-like substance. This could be caused by condensation, but is usually created by coolant mixing with oil – a sign that the head gasket could have failed. Also check the coolant expansion tank looks clean

6. Electrics

Try everything. Wind the windows up and down, turn the radio off, test the air conditioning. Faults could be a simple repair, but at the very least it’s a negotiating point if something doesn’t work as it should

7. Glass

Are there any chips in the windscreen? They could turn into cracks meaning you’ll have to replace the windscreen. If they’re in the driver’s eyeline, they could be an MOT failure too. Also look at the front and rear lights, keeping an eye out for chips, cracks and any fogging or internal moisture.

8. Upholstery

Don’t overlook the car’s interior. Are there any stains or tears in the seats? Does it smell OK? Bad smells can be very off-putting and hard to get rid of, especially if a car has been smoked in.

9. Spare wheel and accessories

Should the car come with a spare wheel? If so, is it there, and in good condition? Is there a jack for lifting the car if you get a puncture, and an adapter for any locking wheel nuts fitted to the vehicle?

10. Wear and tear

All secondhand cars will display a certain amount of wear and tear, but is it consistent with the age and mileage? A car showing low miles on the clock but showing heavy wear on the driver’s seat, steering wheel and pedals should raise alarm bells.

Click on the below image to download the checklist and take it to your viewing


This list of check will give you a good insight into what you need to look out for when inspecting a used car, however, it’s always advisable to take someone with you who has a good knowledge of cars and mechanics, if you don’t yourself – especially if you are spending any significant amount on the car.

If you don’t know anyone to take along and need a second opinion, a vehicle inspection is a great idea. For a fee, trained mechanics will visit the car with you and check the running order and working condition of the vehicle, potentially saving you a significant amount down the road in repairs, should they spot a lurking issue.

Accident damage checks

Used car accident check

We’ll come on to how you can check if a car has ever been written off in a moment, but there are signs you can pick up on that might suggest a vehicle has been crashed.

We’ve mentioned checking all the panel gaps – make sure panels line up tightly, with a small, even gap between panels, and the paint colour matches all over the car. Look closely and if there’s something that doesn’t look quite right, it might be because it’s had some bodywork.

Look out for ripples in the bodywork which might suggest it’s been damaged and poorly repaired using filler – a magnet should reveal whether this is the case, as filler isn’t magnetic.

Be familiar with the specification of the car you’re looking at: for example, if it’s a high-spec model, it might have chrome trim, so ask questions if it’s missing.

Number plates must legally have their supplier printed on them in small letters – if it’s not a car dealer, ask why? There might be a genuine reason, such as the plate fading and needing replacing… or it might have been damaged in a crash.

Documents check

The most important document you need to check when buying a secondhand car is the V5C, also known as the registration document or log book. Make sure the make and model of the car you’re buying matches that on the V5, as well as the number plate.

You can also check that the Vehicle Identification Number known as the VIN, matches the VIN on the vehicle, which can be read from outside the vehicle in the lower part of the windscreen.

Used cars for sale

If you’re buying privately, check that the name of the registered keeper is the same as the person you’re dealing with, and the address is the property you’re buying the car from. If it’s not, ask questions – the seller might be a dealer masquerading as a private seller, or the car could even be stolen.

The V5 will also tell you how long the seller has owned the car, and how many previous owners it’s had. Be concerned if the car has had lots of owners over a short period of time – it could be problematic, although there may also be a genuine reason.

MOT and service history checks

An MOT certificate isn’t as important as it used to be – as you can now check a car’s MOT history online and find out if a car’s got a current valid MOT.

The MOT test, if you’re not familiar, is the yearly compulsory test of roadworthiness carried out on all vehicles over three years old. Check the expiry date on the MOT certificate (or online) and take a note of any advisories that the tester has suggested.

The seller may or may not have fixed these – some are easy to check (e.g. if a tyre is low on tread), but some aren’t (e.g. underbody rust) and may hint that the seller is trying to shift a problem motor before big bills occur.

A comprehensive service history is a bonus when buying a secondhand car.

Depending on the price, age and type of car, it may or may not be important – on a £500 banger, for example, you’ll be lucky to get much in the way of service history, but on a more expensive specialist car you’ll want a fully-stamped service book to prove it’s been looked after.

Read our complete guide to MOTs to find out hints and tips like: do council MOT centres really have a better pass rate?

Car history check

When buying a secondhand car, it’s important to find out as much as possible about its history. This helps you find what the seller potentially doesn’t want you to know.

These checks primarily reveal if there are any hidden discrepancies in the car’s history, such as being written off.

Research suggests as many as one in four cars have a hidden history – this could include it being stolen or written off or having outstanding finance (which could cost you dearly). The RAC provides a data check which will provide peace of mind for any secondhand car purchase.

As well as checking whether the car has been stolen, written off or has outstanding finance, car history checks can also provide the following:

  • Any mileage discrepancies which could reveal if the car has been clocked by having the mileage deliberately wound back as well as
  • Common breakdown reasons by make & model
  • Common MOT failures by make and model
  • An independent car review
  • A vehicle valuation
  • Average running costs by make and model
  • Car inspection and buying checklists

It is a good idea to be inquisitive about any car you are looking to buy, and bear in mind even a car history check won’t tell you absolutely everything about a vehicle. Ask whoever you are buying a car from about its previous owners to build a picture – for instance, has it been used as a pool car by lots of different drivers? Has it just had a single company car driver before it went onto the market?