AA Legal Documents
Law guide

Buying a used car


Before you buy

When you buy a second-hand vehicle, your rights are the same as when you buy any other goods. However, there are some differences and you should read this information before deciding what action to take. There can also be particular problems with second-hand vehicles because a second-hand vehicle may have many hidden faults. Whether or not you can make a complaint or take any action if the vehicle is faulty may depend on the age and make of the vehicle, the price you paid for it and any description given by the seller.

If there is a problem with a vehicle, it is important to act as quickly as possible after buying it. This is because, in many cases, your claim will depend on the condition of the vehicle at the time of sale. Because the condition of a second-hand vehicle can vary greatly, it will be harder to prove that there is a genuine complaint if the vehicle has been used for some time.

When you buy a second-hand vehicle, your rights depend on whether you bought it from:

  • A dealer
  • At a live auction
  • From a private seller
  • Over the internet

See below for a discussion of the different ways of buying second-hand cars.

Take expenses into consideration

Decide what you want and how much you can afford. Include the cost of insurance, MOT, road tax, petrol, repairs and servicing. If you are taking out a loan, add up the repayments and ensure you're happy with the total and that you're certain you can afford them.

Shop around

Don't rush into a decision. Shop around. Look at car magazines and price guides to see what is available for the price you want to pay.

Ask for car advice

If you don't know much about cars, it's a good idea to take someone with you who does. Or you could pay for an independent inspection by a professional mechanic or one of the motoring organisations like the AA or RAC. It costs between £100 and £300, but could save you money in the long run.

Ways to buy

Buying from a dealer

Buying from a dealer is the safest way of buying as you get the maximum protection of the law. However, there are always risks when dealing with any business you're unfamiliar with, so look for an established firm with a good reputation. Ask the advice of friends and look for a trade association sign which should mean the dealer follows a code of practice.

The Retail Motor Industry Federation or the Scottish Motor Trade Association can give you a list of dealers that are trade association members and who follow a code of practice. Look for a dealer whose cars have been inspected by an independent engineer or one of the motoring organisations. Ask to see the report on the car you want to buy. It will not be as detailed as one you pay for yourself, but will provide useful information. Or choose a dealer with a quality-checking scheme, such as Ford Direct or Vauxhall's Network Q.

Your rights when buying from a dealer

When buying from a dealer, the law says a car must be:

  • Of satisfactory quality. It must meet the standard a reasonable person would regard as acceptable, bearing in mind the way it was described, how much it cost and any other relevant circumstances. Amongst other things, this covers the appearance and finish of the car, its safety and its durability. The car must be free from defects, except when they were pointed out to you by the seller.
  • As described. A car said to have 'one careful lady owner' shouldn't turn out to have three previous owners, all males under 22.
  • Reasonably fit for any normal purpose. It should get you from A to B.
  • Reasonably fit for any other purpose you specify to the seller, for example, towing a caravan.

These rights are not affected by any mechanical breakdown insurance (which is often sold by dealers if the manufacturer's warranty has run out), guarantee or warranty giving additional protection.

If you inspect the car, or someone does so for you, the dealer may not be liable for any faults which should have been uncovered by the inspection. It's a good idea to get a description of the vehicle's condition from the dealer; ask whether there is a pre-sale inspection checklist. If there is a problem and you traded your old car for the dealership car, then you are entitled to have it back if it's still available.

If the dealer agrees to repair the vehicle, the repairs have to be carried out within a reasonable time and without significant inconvenience to you. The dealer must pay the costs of the repairs. If the repair has taken a long time, you may be able to use a service loan car or claim compensation, for example, for the cost of hiring a vehicle. If the dealer refuses to repair the vehicle, you are entitled to get it repaired elsewhere and claim back the cost from the dealer. If the vehicle can't be repaired or replaced or this is considered too expensive, taking into account the type of fault, you may have the right to get some or all of your money back. You will have to negotiate with the dealer to decide on what would be a reasonable amount. In deciding what is reasonable, you will need to take into account how much use you have had out of the vehicle.

There are two circumstances in which you may not have a right to complain to the dealer. These are where:

  • The dealer specifically drew the vehicle's defects to your attention before you bought it. You may still be able to make a complaint if, for example, the dealer said the clutch was stiff when in fact it was worn through. If the dealer did not point out the full extent of the defects, they are still liable for those they missed. However, the dealer does not have to say anything about the vehicle's condition at all.
  • You inspected the vehicle before you bought it and should have noticed the defects. However, if you didn't notice the defects, you could try arguing that you examined the vehicle as a layperson and could not be expected to spot mechanical or structural defects.

Unfair commercial practices and criminal offences

A dealer may have committed a criminal offence if they have done any of the following things:

  • Pretended to be a private seller
  • Given a false description of the vehicle
  • Altered the mileage of a vehicle or sold you a vehicle with an altered mileage reading
  • Sold you the vehicle as having an MOT certificate when it didn't really have one
  • Sold you an unroadworthy vehicle

If a dealer has done any of these things, you should report them to the Citizens Advice Bureau or Consumerline in Northern Ireland who will pass the information on to Trading Standards. Trading Standards can take legal action against the dealer under unfair commercial practices regulations.

Trading Standards may prosecute the dealer for committing a criminal offence, but they won't be able to take action on your behalf. If you want the dealer to compensate you in some way or give you your money back, you will have to consider whether it is worth your while taking the dealer to court.

Buying (and selling) privately

Buying privately should be cheaper than buying from a dealer, but it is also riskier.

The vehicle doesn't have to be of satisfactory quality. However, if the seller offers a description of the vehicle, it must match the description given. It must also be roadworthy and the seller must have 'good title' to the vehicle. This means that they must be the legal owner in order to sell it to you.

If the vehicle doesn't match the description given, you may be entitled to compensation. You may also be entitled to compensation if you have bought an unroadworthy car from a private seller, which has caused injury to someone. However, it may be especially difficult to get compensation from a private seller.

You will only be able to claim against a private seller for one of the following reasons:

  • The vehicle doesn't match the description they gave you
  • The seller broke a specific contract term
  • The seller was actually a dealer posing as a private seller
  • The seller did not have good title to the vehicle
  • The vehicle is not roadworthy

Things to watch out for

Some dealers pretend to be private sellers to avoid their legal obligations and to get rid of faulty or over-priced cars. They advertise in local newspapers and shop windows. If the seller is really a dealer, then your full legal rights apply. Warning signs to look out for include:

  • Ads which give a mobile phone number or specify a time to call (it may be a public phone box, not the seller's home)
  • The same phone number appears in several ads
  • When you phone about the car, the seller asks 'Which one?'
  • The seller wants to bring the car to you or meet you somewhere, rather than you going to the seller's home

Buying at an auction

You can pick up a bargain at an auction, but auctions are probably the riskiest way of buying a used car. You need to know what you are doing. You might wish to go as a spectator first and see what happens. If you don't know much about cars, take someone with you who does. Decide the maximum you can afford and stick to it. The entry form attached to the windscreen will give you an idea of the car's history.

Your usual legal rights may not apply if the seller issues a disclaimer, such as the term 'sold as seen', which excludes all or some of those rights. Read the auctioneer's conditions of business carefully to check whether this is the case.

Buying over the internet

Buying from a business

There are different types of sale available on the internet and your rights will depend on the type of sale involved. They will also depend on who the seller is. For more information on your rights generally when buying over the internet, see our 'Buying' section of our Internet shopping article.

Buying from an internet dealer

When buying a used car from a dealer over the internet, your rights are the same as the rights you would have buying a car in person from a dealer. In addition, you have rights under the Distance Selling Regulations, which cover online purchases.

For more information, see our 'If things go wrong', 'Internet auctions' and 'Your right to cancel' sections.

Also see our 'Safety' article on internet shopping.

Buying from an individual

If you are buying a used car from an individual over the internet, your rights are the same as those for buying a used car from an individual.

If you find a car you would like to buy, take steps to protect yourself. We strongly advise that you go and see the car in person, in daylight, if possible.

Investigate the seller

As you surf the internet, make notes of what is on offer. Make comparisons. If a picture of a car is shown, check that it matches the car for sale. Some sellers may use representative pictures as opposed to 'real' ones.

Once you have found the car you want, try to discover as much as you can about the seller:

  • Get their geographical address; you'll need it if you want to complain, and your rights vary depending on the location of the company you're buying from. A '.co.uk' or '.uk' internet address doesn't always mean the firm is UK-based.
  • EU countries have similar rights to UK ones, but you'll find it much more difficult to solve problems or disputes outside the EU. You could look at government consumer rights internet sites for the country concerned.
  • Ensure you are dealing with a reputable company and, if possible, that the site is a 'secure' one. Often a warning will flash up as you enter a secure page and you might see a closed padlock symbol in the status bar at the bottom of your screen. The TrustUK logo means that the trader has agreed to abide by certain standards.
  • If you decide to buy, print off the details of the company you are dealing with, including terms and conditions, quotes and completed order form.

If possible, ask other people who have used the company what their experience has been.

The small print

Read the small print before deciding to go ahead. If an online seller cannot provide satisfactory responses to questions on warranty terms, delivery or product quality, it would be safer to shop elsewhere.

Closing the deal

Car inspection

Before concluding the deal, you would be well advised to have the car inspected by an expert and a vehicle data check carried out which will give you details of the car's history. The results of the inspection and/or the vehicle check can help you to decide whether you want to proceed, or negotiate a better deal.

Safe paying

It is rare that you will be asked to send cash before you receive goods. Be very cautious if you are. Using a credit card may have some advantages; e.g. you're protected against home shopping fraud, and if your card is used fraudulently, you'll get a refund from the card issuer. You may also have rights if the trader ceases trading before you get your car.

If you are planning to pay either a deposit or the full amount by credit card over the internet, it is advisable to ensure it is a secure site. Ring them to check if you are unsure.

Confirmation of order

Always get confirmation of your order by post, fax or email. As a minimum, your confirmation should give you an order number, the main specifications of the vehicle ordered, including the price agreed, and the expected date of delivery.

What to watch out for

Mechanical condition and safety

Assess the car in daylight. Take it for a test drive.

If a car has been in an accident, it may be unsafe. Sometimes, two damaged cars are welded together to create a new one. These are known as 'cut and shuts' and are almost certainly unsafe.

There are companies that can tell you whether a car is an insurance company write-off. You can usually find details of these companies in motoring magazines.

Stolen cars

If you buy a stolen car, the police can take it from you to return it to the original owner or the insurance company. You will not get any compensation even though you bought the car in good faith. You can sue the seller for your losses, but this might be difficult if you bought privately and the seller has disappeared.

Also, if you bought the car on credit, you may still have to pay off the loan; it depends on the type of agreement you have.

It can be hard to tell whether a car is stolen. Its identity may have been changed. For example, the identity number and number plate of a legitimate car may be transferred to a stolen one. Vehicle registration documents can be forged or obtained by fraud.

There are tell-tale warning signs to look out for:

  • The seller can't produce the vehicle registration document (V5 or V5NI). A common excuse is that it has been sent to the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) or Driver & Vehicle Agency (DVA) in Northern Ireland for updating. This may be true. For example, the seller may have changed address recently. But be wary: it means you cannot check the car's ownership and identity details.
  • If the seller claims the car was bought very recently and the V5 or V5NI is with the DVLA or DVA for the change of ownership to be recorded, the seller should have a green slip (this applies only to cars issued with V5s or V5N is from March 1997).
  • There are spelling mistakes or alterations to the V5 or V5NI, or it does not have a watermark.
  • The name and address on the V5 or V5NI are different to those on the seller's driving licence, passport, or recent gas or electricity bill.
  • The three main identifying numbers listed below don't match the numbers on the V5 or V5NI: The vehicle registration mark (the number plate), the vehicle identification number (VIN); the engine number. The VIN can be found on a metal VIN plate, usually in the engine compartment, and stamped into the bodywork under the bonnet and the driver's seat. As a security measure, some cars have the VIN etched on their windows or lamps.
  • The engine and VIN numbers have been tampered with. Areas of glass may have been scratched off the windows, or stickers may cover up etching which has been altered.
  • The seller cannot show you the insurance policy for the car.

Cars still owned by a credit company

A car bought on hire purchase or conditional sale belongs to the finance company until the payments have been completed. If you buy such a car, the lender can take it back. You can sue whoever sold you the car, but only if you can find them.

There are only a few exceptions to this. If you were not aware the car was subject to an outstanding hire purchase agreement and bought it in good faith, you may be allowed to keep it. This does not apply to stolen cars or cars which are subject to a hire agreement.

There are companies that can tell you if a car is clear of any outstanding finance deals or are insurance write-offs. You can usually find details of such companies in motoring magazines. If you are buying from a dealer, ask whether this check has already been carried out.

Clocked cars

Low mileage can be a selling point, but the clock can be turned back to reduce the number of miles shown. Sellers sometimes protect themselves by covering up the milometer or issuing a disclaimer saying that the mileage may be wrong. To be valid, such a disclaimer must be at least as noticeable as the mileage reading and as effectively brought to your attention.

If the mileage is low, but wear and tear on the car looks heavy, the car could have been 'clocked'. Clockers sometimes change pedal rubbers, steering wheels and gear knobs to hide this. Another sign is that the milometer numbers don't line up correctly.

Car history

There are several ways you can find out about the history of the car:

  • Check MOT certificates and service documentation for mileage readings taken by mechanics.
  • Contact previous owners named on the V5 and ask what the mileage was when they sold the car.
  • Get mileage information from companies that research the car's history (you can find these in motoring magazines).
  • If buying from a dealer, ask whether the dealer has used trade-only database companies such as IMVA and VMC to check mileage.

If things go wrong

Buying from a car dealer

If something goes wrong and you have purchased your car from a dealer, then go back to the dealer straight away, explain the problem and say what you want done. If the dealer led you to believe the used car was in good condition when he or she sold it to you, you may be entitled to a refund if the car turns out to be faulty. If the dealer has sold you the car under the impression that there are no faults, it will be their responsibility to remedy the situation. The dealer is not, however, responsible for fair wear and tear on the car, nor is the dealer responsible for any faults which they informed the customer about before making their purchase.

Buying privately

As stated previously, there are more risks involved in buying a car privately than buying from a car dealer. You will not have the same rights available to you if you were to buy from the dealer. The car must be described, but the other rules do not apply. If the seller lies about the condition of the car, you can attempt to sue, although this will be difficult because it will be the seller's word against yours. Best to have the car inspected before making your purchase as the general rule of caveat emptor applies here.

Selling privately

When selling your used car, a buyer could try to sue you for losses caused by a fault that you did not point out to them at the time of its purchase. Before selling your car, you may want to take some steps to protect yourself against this happening to you, such as entering into an agreement with the buyer.

Additional contacts if things go wrong