Buying a used car: 7 things you need to know to avoid being scammed

Person buying a second hand car and holding car keys

Knowing your consumer rights can help you understand what to be aware of when purchasing a used car. - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

What do you need to look out for when shopping for your next car?

As the thing that gets you to work and allows you to do the school run, your car is one of the most important things you own – and replacing it is no simple task. To help you save some money, you may be considering purchasing a second-hand vehicle, but before you take the keys, perhaps there are some questions you should be asking first?

“Absolutely,” says Carl Hitchings from Heart of the South West Trading Standards. “Unfortunately, not all used-car sellers can be trusted. The number of rogue traders is on the rise with the result being that people are buying cars that aren’t safe to drive and are losing thousands of pounds,” he explains.

So, what can you do to protect yourself?

1. Know your rights as a consumer

When buying a used car, you have legal rights that the trader must meet:

  • The car must be accurately described when advertised
  • It should be safe to drive unless the seller says otherwise
  • You must not be pressured into making a purchase
  • The car should be fit for purpose.

“It’s good to understand your rights before buying a car so you know what issues to look out for,” Carl says. “You should also research the seller’s history and reviews to see if they are reputable.”

2. Watch out for rogue traders masquerading as private sellers

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“Be very wary of cars being sold on the roadside. The seller may be a trader masquerading as a consumer in an attempt to deny your full consumer rights," Carl explains. 

Family buy second-hand car online in Devon

Ask for photo evidence of the vehicle's documents if buying your used car online. - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

When buying a car privately, you have fewer consumer rights, which is why it’s twice as important to research the seller – don’t automatically assume what they tell you is true.

3. Ask to see proof of the car’s documentation

Good cars come with full documentation to help prove that they are worth buying. Asking for evidence of these documents before buying a second-hand vehicle could save you money, time and stress.

“We receive complaints regularly from individuals that bought a second-hand car online, but when delivered, came with no documents. Many of them had paid in advance,” Carl says. “When they tried contacting the seller again, they couldn’t reach them.”

If buying your car online or over the phone, ask for photo evidence of the vehicle identification plate and the documents (they should match), including the VC5 registered keeper logbook (which helps to prove ownership), to ensure you receive everything you need to make the right choice.

4. Check the vehicle’s service history

Ask the seller to send you a photo of a recent hire purchase check to show they can legally sell the car to you, as well as the current MOT certificate and any invoices for recent or major work on the vehicle.

"You should also check if the seller can guarantee that the car will be safe to drive and everything works correctly. Ask if they will put this on the contract. If not, consider walking away," Carl says. "If the seller agrees to any repairs or improvements, make sure these are recorded on the sales contract so that you know they will be done.”

Try searching the vehicle’s MOT history online to check the mileage and advisories – the advisories could be your next bill!

“If you have any safety concerns, don’t drive the vehicle, instead report it to Citizens Advice,” Carl says. “Refrain from taking the car for repairs, as this may cover up evidence to support your claim.”

5. Stay clear of used-car adverts that say ‘part-exchange to clear’

“It’s best to avoid any car adverts that use the terms ‘trade sale’ or ‘part-exchange to clear’ as these could be an attempt by the seller to constrict your consumer rights,” Carl advises.

Use the Buy with Confidence list from South West trading standards to find a local reputable used car dealer

Enter your postcode into the Buy with Confidence list to find a local, trustworthy second-hand car dealer. - Credit: Buy with Confidence

When purchasing your car, it's useful to keep a copy of the original advert to prove any criminal misrepresentation. You could receive a reduction in price or claim a full refund if the seller has lied.

6. Contact Citizens Advice for help with rogue traders

If you suspect a rogue trader, you can report it to Citizens Advice on 0808 223 1133. They can register the claim with Trading Standards to investigate further and provide free consumer advice on how to seek remedy from the seller.

7. Find trusted used-car dealers using Buy with Confidence

Go to the Buy with Confidence website to find local, trusted used-car sellers that Trading Standards has approved. They have thoroughly screened every company listed to ensure they comply with strict codes and practices, are lawful and abide by UK consumer rights.

“Businesses included on the Buy with Confidence list have been audited by a qualified Trading Standards professional,” Carl reveals. “They undergo continual monitoring to ensure standards don’t drop.

“It’s a quick and easy way to put your mind at ease, protect your money and ensure you find a car that’s safe and roadworthy.”

Enter your postcode into the directory to receive a list of nearby reputable companies you can use to find your next car.

Visit buywithconfidence.co.uk for help finding a trustworthy second-hand car dealer or email bwc@devon.gov.uk.