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Where to buy a car

By Adrian Porter

Is a dealership the best place to buy a new or used car? From car supermarkets to classifieds, we explain and rate all your car buying options.

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Depending on past experience, buying a car could conjure an image of a glossy showroom, pristine cars and the patter of a helpful but focused salesperson – or you might imagine a scruffy forecourt staffed by an Arthur Daley lookalike looking to pull a fast one.

The former is, of course, a far more realistic view of most car dealerships, and visiting one remains a perfectly legitimate way to purchase your next vehicle. But it may not be the best – the range may be quite limited, perhaps to a single manufacturer (in the case of franchised ‘main’ dealers), and you’ll have to haggle to avoid paying over the odds.

Instead, you could visit a large car ‘supermarket’ to view a broad range of makes and models in one place, often sold at low prices. Or you could use a broker to avoid the haggling, letting them do the leg work to find you the right new or used car at a good price. Or you could use an online car-buying service that lets dealers ‘bid’ for your business by sending you their best prices – let’s have a closer look at the options.

Not sure which car you’d like to buy? See the ones we recommend by viewing our Best Buys.

Car-buying options compared

Buying a new car? Lucky you – it can be one of the most exciting purchases you’ll make. Here are the pros and cons of the main places you can buy from.

Buying a car from a franchised dealer

Customer service counts for a lot, which is where the large, well-funded franchised ‘main’ dealers often excel – and they know if they deliver a good service customers are likely to return to have their new car serviced there, or when they’re in the market for another one.

Pros

  • Face-to-face service; someone to answer questions
  • Order the exact specification you want if buying new
  • High quality new and used cars to look at and test-drive
  • Easy to part exchange your old car
  • Best comeback if things go wrong

Cons

  • Expensive – but haggle hard and you can usually get a fair discount
  • Choice may be limited to models from a single brand
  • Selling your old car privately usually beats part-exchange values
  • Dealers may push unnecessary insurance or finance add-ons

Verdict: If you’re going to buy from franchised dealer, make sure you know what you want in advance. Be prepared to haggle.

We’ve found that dealers tend not to push optional extras such as cruise control or parking sensors, the latter being the most in-demand feature on a car, as voted for by Which? members in 2016. Instead, they’re likely to focus on keeping the cost of the car itself as high as possible, doing their best to avoid giving too generous a discount.

Furthermore, a Which? investigation found many dealers we spoke to pushed questionable finance options on our undercover shoppers, such as pricey insurance add-ons and GAP (guaranteed asset protection) insurance that cost hundreds of pounds more than you can find and buy for yourself online.

So if signing the dotted line at a dealership, make sure you know exactly what you want form your car, be wary of dodgy insurance extras and be prepared to do some serious haggling.

Buying a car from a broker

Tell a broker what car you want, and they’ll go off and buy it for you. That means avoiding the dealership and, therefore, no haggling. A good broker will get you the car you want and save you thousands off the list price. Some brokers only operate online, but many allow you to call up and speak to an adviser.

Pros

  • You can save thousands of pounds on main dealer prices
  • Most now source cars from other UK dealers, so it’s easy to compare prices and specs
  • You can usually order the specification you want
  • One-stop shop for many different makes and models

Cons

  • No test drives available and limited personal contact
  • Delivery times and fees can vary – check up front
  • Not many offer a part-exchange service
  • Sometimes unclear if a car is truly ‘new’ or a pre-registered example – check where the car is being sourced from before buying

Verdict: A good option to outsource any haggling if you don’t potentially mind waiting a bit for the car to arrive. Ensure you know exactly what you want before ordering.

For peace of mind, you may also want to do a check on the broker you intend to use. Search for the company online and check customer experiences on forums such as Money Saving Expert to find details of previous customers’ experiences. Big brokers include Drive The Deal, Orange Wheels and Carfile.

Buying from an online car-buying service

As with most other products, you can now buy a car entirely online. Services such as Buyacar, Carwow and Autoebid allow you to choose and order the exact car you want, and they’ll help you get a good price. The process does vary, though: Buyacar offers a phone line where Carwow does not, and operates similar to a large broker – it sources the car for you at a good price, and you pay it rather than the dealer. Carwow and Autoebid are online-only and presents the best prices from up and down the country, but it’s up to you to close the deal.

Some car manufacturers offer the ability to buy a car direct from their site, but that means there’s no chance to haggle the price down. For that reason, we’d very much encourage you not to pursue this option where it exists.

Pros

  • Good prices – and no haggling required
  • Choose from almost any make and model
  • Order the exact specification you want
  • Cars sourced from reputable dealers or direct from the manufacturer
  • You can order from your sofa (although we’d still recommend some test-drives)

Cons

  • No test drives available
  • Generally only offer new cars
  • Contact or progress information may be limited
  • Don’t usually offer a part-exchange service
  • You may still end up dealing with the dealer, either to iron out the options you want, or to arrange delivery

Verdict: Increasingly popular and certainly convenient, but check exactly what the process is and test-drive cars before you commit.

Buying from a car supermarket

Car supermarkets are a growing threat to established car dealers. Their stock is mainly used, though many also sell factory-fresh and pre-registered cars with very low mileage.

Pros

  • Very competitive prices – especially compared with main dealers
  • Lots of makes and models on one site
  • Test drives are available – though rarely offered
  • Most offer finance packages
  • Drive the car away the same day

Cons

  • Choice depends on what’s in stock
  • 'No-frills’ approach to customer service in most cases
  • New cars may be imports, so check for full UK specification
  • Clock will already be running on pre-registered cars’ warranties

Verdict: Convenient and fast, but mainly cover used or nearly new cars, and you can’t usually order a new car to your precise specifications.

Selective classified websites

Some websites show classified adverts for cars for sale from selected sources only, to offer buyers peace of mind. Most cars are used, nearly new or pre-registered, rather than brand new, and you can’t order a car from the factory. Bear in mind these websites are simply places for dealers to advertise their stock – they aren’t selling the cars themselves.

Three of the biggest are AA Cars, RAC Cars and Trusted Dealers. These allow only dealers that meet set criteria to sell cars via their sites, and usually have more than 150,000 cars advertised for sale at any one time.

AA Cars and RAC Cars offer cars from both franchised and independent dealers, while Trusted Dealers is the web portal of the National Franchised Dealer Association and only advertises cars on sale at the franchises.

AA Cars and RAC Cars offer some added benefits, including a vehicle history check and free breakdown cover (AA 12 months, RAC six months). The AA will have inspected selected cars (128-point check) and provide a detailed report. If the car hasn’t been inspected, you can pay extra for a 154 basic or 206 comprehensive point safety check.

The RAC, meanwhile, runs its RAC BuySure scheme; cars sold through RAC Approved Dealers will have had an 82-point check, and come with at least three months' RAC warranty and breakdown cover. However, note that non-approved dealers - and even private sellers - do also advertise on RAC Cars, so look for the BuySure certificate.

Traditional classified websites

The biggest of these is Autotrader, which regularly has listings for over 400,000 used cars. The sheer volume of cars on offer means you’ll have plenty to compare, and even buyers after rare models should be catered for.

As with the selective classified websites above, these are just a place for dealers (or private sellers) to advertise the cars they have to sell – and they are essentially a free-for-all so you could find dodgy back-street dealer cars alongside ones for sale through franchised main dealers.

With classified sites, it’s important to remember that if a car’s price looks too good to be true, then it probably is. And if you buy from a private seller, you’ll have little legal comeback if it turns out to be a banger – so proceed with caution.

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