Buying a car How to buy a used car

Whether you fancy a Mini or a Mercedes, our 10-step guide will help you find your perfect used car at the right price. 

Then, when you've found a car you like, click through to our advice about essential car checks and the test drive.

Find out just how reliable each car is - sign up to Which? for just £1 to see the full results of our car survey

Video guide to buying a used car


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Video: Your rights when buying a second-hand car


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Top 10 used car buying tips

Find the car that suits you

Think about how much space you need and what running costs will be

1. What do you need? 

Before you start your search, think about your practical requirements. Do you need space for a baby buggy in the boot, or the added ground clearance of a 4x4? 

Then work out your budget: every car review on the Which? Car website (for models old enough to have reached the second-hand market) includes a second-hand starting price to give you an idea of what you can afford.

2. Think about running costs

Depreciation (reduction in value due to increasing age and mileage) is usually the biggest running cost, although buying used often means you avoid the steepest drops in value, which happen early on in a car's life. However, as a car gets older, maintenance often becomes more intensive and expensive, which is worth bearing in mind, particularly if you're considering a luxury or sports car.

Remember to budget for insurance, maintenance, car tax and fuel, too. Our online cost calculator will help you decide whether a petrol or diesel car will suit you best.

3. Research prices

Independent car dealer

Independent car dealers may offer a warranty, so always ask

Keep an open mind when drawing up a shortlist of potential used cars – an unpopular engine or an unfashionable badge could lead to a bargain. Diesel cars tend to hold their value better thanks to their perceived better fuel economy. However, if your annual mileage isn't huge, or you spend most of your time driving around town where a diesel's fuel consumption advantage isn't so great, you may save money by choosing a petrol car.

You can get an idea of how much various cars will cost by browsing classified ads online, in local papers and in listings magazines.

4. Get a valuation

Online car-valuation tool gives you a bespoke valuation for the car you’re thinking of buying. Glass's and CAP Connect are the two main used valuations providers. 

5. Dealer or private?

An ‘approved used’ car from a manufacturer's franchised dealer is usually the most expensive option, but the car should have been checked thoroughly, and it will come with a warranty. 

Independent dealers generally offer lower prices and more choice, as they’re not tied to a particular marque. However, any warranty offered may be limited. 

Haggle hard!

Always haggle for a discount, but keep your tone even and polite

Buying from a private seller is usually cheapest, although most cars are ‘sold as seen’, so you will have very little legal comeback if things go wrong. You may also have to arrange your own insurance cover to legally test drive a car offered by a private seller, whereas most dealerships will have a policy that covers test drives.

Finally, a car auction could be cheaper still. Auctions are fast-paced, though, so make sure you set a budget and stick to it. Attend a sale first to learn the ropes before you decide to bid.

6. History and finance check

A used car history or vehicle provenance check will show if a car has outstanding finance, or has previously been stolen or written off by an insurance company. We recommend checking any potential purchase in this way, particularly if it's being offered by a private seller.

Most reputable vehicle-provenance companies get their data from various sources, including the DVLA, the Police National Computer and the Association of British Insurers. 

7. Haggle hard!

If, after checking and test-driving the car, you decide to buy, it's time to negotiate a price. Look for things that could be costly, such as a short MOT or worn tyres, and use these as bargaining points. It's worth bearing in mind that road tax is no longer transferable between owners, so you'll need to pay for at least six month's tax when you take ownership of the vehicle.

Check finance rates online

Before you buy, check the Which? website for the best finance rates

Decide how much you're prepared to pay, and don't exceed this amount. Once you have agreed a price, write it down. This should avoid any potential confusion later.

8. Car to trade in?

If you’re buying from a dealer, you may decide to trade in your current car. However, you’re unlikely to get as much for it as you would if you sold it privately.

If you do take the trade-in option, remember it’s the ‘price to change’ that matters: the difference between what you get for your old car and what you pay for your new one. The smaller this gap, the better.

9. Arrange finance

The cheapest way to buy a used car is to pay cash up front. If you can’t afford to do that, check the Which? website for the best finance rates – dealer finance can be expensive. 

You could also consider leasing (effectively a long-term hire with fixed monthly payments). In all cases, make sure you know exactly how much you’ll be paying.

If you need help finding the best finance deal, you can speak directly to one of our money experts.

10. Save on servicing

Congratulations - you've bought a car! Some used cars will still be covered by the manufacturer's warranty, but that doesn't necessarily mean you need to go to a franchised dealer for servicing and repairs.

Independent garages are often cheaper and, according to the Which? Car Survey, usually offer a better service, too. Read our guide to finding a good garage and save money.

More on this...

Other sections in this guide

  1. Overview
  2. How to buy a used car
  3. Where to buy a used car
  4. Check and test-drive a used car video
  5. Used car video reviews

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