What condition should a used car be in?

What should you expect from a used car? Modern cars can last for decades, but you can expect a certain amount of wear and tear as they age

John Evans
Sep 15, 2020

When they roll off the production line, new cars are identical to the ones that come before and after - bar differences in colour and specification. Used cars, on the other hand, are unique. A one-year old taxi that has racked up 100,000 miles may be relatively new, but it could have battered bodywork, stains across the cabin and need a mechanical overhaul. Meanwhile, a 10-year old car with the same amount of miles driven gently by one owner may look and feel practically new. 

Not only does every car have a unique registration number but they also have a unique condition and history. These variables are what make a used car used but their significance changes as the car ages. You can have a pretty good idea of what to expect from a typical one-year old car that has covered 10,000 miles, just like you can be confident of what to expect from a five-year old car with 50,000 miles on it.

Of course, there will be exceptions like high-mileage taxis - which are normally pretty easy to spot - but you can expect a typical one- or two-year old used car to look, feel and even smell pretty much like new. Meanwhile, a five-year old car may potentially have a few small marks on the bodywork and several signs of wear inside, though it should still feel fresh and up to many more miles to come.

So, the term ‘used car’ itself changes with time. A very young used car that has covered less than 100 miles is likely to be 'pre-registered'. This means it's effectively new, but the dealer has registered it before finding a buyer, so it counts towards their sales targets. Meanwhile, a car that is up to a year or so old and has covered up to around 10,000 miles may be termed 'nearly new'. However, anything older or with higher mileage is certainly used.

How a used car is described changes with time but often car buyers' expectations of what constitutes a good one do not. It's easy for drivers to expect any used car to be in perfect condition, but when you think how simple it is to scrape a wheel when parking, or to bash the door when getting out, for instance, that's not the case. What you can generally expect, regardless of the car's age is for a good used car to be free of dents - though there may be a few light scratches on older cars - and interior damage.

Where there have been repairs to the body, these should be to a professional standard and almost impossible to detect. Tyres should be of good quality and in good condition, and alloy wheels free of big scrapes and gouges. The service history should be complete, there should be no warning lights blazing and aside from a few minor rattles, the car should drive well. All keys and documents should be present and correct.

Expectations of used cars are often particularly high when returning a car at the end of a finance agreement, since the finance company receiving it back will charge a fee for any damage beyond fair wear and tear. However, since fair wear and tear depends upon the age and mileage of the car, that level will vary depending whether the car is one year old and has covered 8,000 miles or six years old with 48,000 miles on the clock.

With that in mind, here’s what you can expect from a used car at key stages in its life, so you know what condition a car should be in when purchasing a used model. As it ages, you may have to adjust these expectations - the higher the mileage or older the car, the more wear you should anticipate - although in the case of used cars sold by BuyaCar, all should meet a high standard regardless.

What condition should a used car be in?

'Pre-reg'/delivery mileage

'Pre-reg' - short for pre-registered - refers to cars that have been registered by the supplying main dealer, most likely to help achieve a sales target and trigger a so-called registration bonus from the manufacturer.

Since the dealer has effectively bought the car from itself, the dealer’s name is on the registration document as the first owner. Because VAT has been paid, pre-reg cars are much cheaper than their unregistered equivalents but because they've been registered they won’t qualify for the best new car finance deals from the manufacturer.

The only mileage the car is likely to have covered is that associated with its transit from the factory and its pre-delivery inspection by the dealer. That means it's unlikely to be more than 50 miles - no more than any other 'new' car.

The car should be like new in every way, right down to the factory-fresh smell of its interior and unmarked tyres still bearing production paint on their treads. All keys and documents should be present.

Nearly new/5,000 miles

A nearly new car is one that has only recently been registered and which, depending on its registration, could be mistaken for a new car. Up close, it's likely to differ from the pre-registered car in important ways, though. That new-car smell may be less obvious, the tyres may be half-worn - depending how it's been driven - and there may even be a light scratch or two around the bodywork.

While it’s hard to imagine much could have happened in its short life, a nearly new car may very well have been a dealer demonstrator, a short-term lease car or even a hire car. So, while many nearly new cars are in immaculate condition, it's normal for a car of this type to start showing several signs of wear.

For this reason there may be signs of minor body, paint and wheel repairs with a car of this age, though in most cases the car will still look practically new and any repairs will be impossible to spot. With this in mind, neary new cars should also be much cheaper to buy than a brand new equivalent.

One-year old/8,000 miles

This is a great age at which to buy a used car since it will have already lost a substantial chunk of its initial price, so it should be great value for money, despite often being the very latest version (unless the car has received a major update in that year).

It’s unusual for a typical driver to change their car after only one year, so you can expect such a car to have been on a short-term lease with a company or business user. The good news is that this means the original driver will have had to keep the car in good condition - meeting fair wear and tear standards - or face end-of-contract charges. For this reason you can expect it to exhibit only a few light scratches at worst but otherwise to look and feel fresh.

Accidents happen, though, so there may have been more serious damage, though this should have been repaired professionally and to a high standard. If that's the case, you shouldn't expect to see any signs of notable damage. Any repair work undertaken should be clearly noted in the car's history.

Being up to a year-old, it’s important the car’s service history is up to date or the manufacturer’s warranty may be at risk. Many cars require their first service after 12 months or 8,000-12,000 miles, while a large number may not need their first service until two years or potentially up to 20,000 miles. As a result, some one-year old cars should have had their first service, while others won't be due a service yet.

Two years old/16,000 miles

An affordable way to run a reasonably new car is to purchase a two-year old model and keep it for two or three years. This is because cars lose value fastest in their first few years, so buying a two-year old car gets you a great value car for the money, yet it still benefits from the balance of its manufacturer warranty - with a number of cars now coming with five-years' warranty or even seven years' warranty from new. Meanwhile, a five-year old car should still look and feel relatively fresh, so if you're planning to buy with cash, it should be reasonably easy to sell it for a good price at this stage.

While some two-year old cars may still look new, others will be showing mild signs of wear, though either way, the car's service history should be complete to preserve its new-car warranty. There should be nothing more than the odd, light scratch and the paintwork and interior should still look and feel fresh. Saying that, car keys may be starting to look a little worn, with light scratching of door handle areas and gear knobs starting to appear.

Depending how the car has been driven, the tyres may now be very worn - on most cars it's the front tyres that wear fastest. If you're lucky they may have been changed more recently, therefore, you may find a two-year old car with two or even four new tyres fitted. Along the way, the spare tyre may also have been swapped so it may be worn, too, though fewer and fewer new cars come with spare tyres in the 2020s. The brake discs may be ‘lipped’, too, though hopefully not seriously.

All keys and service books should be present. If not, it suggests carelessness and raises questions over how carefully it’s been driven and maintained.

Three years old/24,000 miles

This is the age at which most people typically change their cars. For many, the love affair has started to fade and with it potentially the driver's will to keep the bodywork gleaming, the wheels smart and the service history complete. The good news is, since a vast majority of new cars are financed, the original owner will have had to keep the car fully serviced and in good condition or face end-of-contract charges.

Even if the car wasn't immaculate when returned at the end of the initial contract, it may well have been restored to a good standard by the finance company, before they looked to sell it on. At this stage cars are also due their first MOT test - which assesses their roadworthiness - so assuming a car has passed this, you can rest assured it’s safe and compliant with emissions regulations.

Depending on how careful the previous owner was, the car may be looking and feeling a little tired around the edges. There could be the odd small dent and the bonnet may be chipped in one or two places. The windscreen may also now have a chip or two, and these will need attention if they're in the driver's line of sight or right at the edge of the glass.

The car’s interior should still be smart but you can expect light ring scratches and a worn carpet beneath the clutch pedal in manual cars especially. Don’t expect to find the old floor mats but at this age, cars can fall prey to dealers scavenging them for handbooks and parcel shelfs for other similar, sold cars, so be sure they’re present. It's the same for any tool kit that may come with the car originally.

Four years old/32,000 miles

Assuming it’s been serviced properly, this mileage is still very low for a modern car. That’s some comfort especially since - unless it’s a Toyota, Kia or a Hyundai, for example - the car is likely to have run out of warranty after three years.

While it’s likely to have full service history (although more recent services may have been carried out by independent workshops rather than manufacturer ones) be aware that previous owners may have skimped on certain supplementary jobs such as the air-conditioning service and perhaps even the second brake service (it’s often scheduled every two years).

Meanwhile, expect one or two wheels to be kerbed, and to find stonechips on the nose (some may even show early signs of rust if they've spent years zooming up and down the motorway) as well as scuffed bumpers. Fewer four-year-old cars are fresh from finance or lease schemes so are likely to have more dents, bumper scuffs and interior wear than younger cars. Subscriptions to providers such as the sat-nav mapping may have lapsed, which could mean that the car doesn't recognise the newest road layouts.

Five years old/40,000 miles

By this age many used cars are on their third owner and have started to be serviced at independent garages rather than manufacturer main dealers. There may even be gaps in the service history. This is not so important where a mainstream car such as a Ford Focus or Vauxhall Corsa is concerned but can affect the value of more expensive models such as an Audi A4 or BMW 5 Series.

Tyres may be mixed brands - instead of all matching, as you might expect with a newer car - but the specifications should be the same. There may be evidence of body repairs but they should be to a high standard.

Alloy wheel damage and bodywork dents should be repairable by so-called smart repair services that can perform them while you wait. However, some drivers may be happy to accept a few bumps here and there in exchange for a lower price than with an immaculate used car of the same age.

Six years old/48,000 miles

As with a five-year-old car, it’s likely to be the bodywork and interior, rather than anything mechanical, that is an issue at this age. That said, thanks to long anti-perforation warranties, body corrosion is unlikely to be present, so you shouldn't have to worry about rust. Where rust is visible, expect it to be related to a poor repair rather than the car rotting away.

Some of what the motor trade calls consumables (things that are expected to wear out with use - for example, the brakes, clutch and tyres) are likely to need attention unless they have been properly serviced and replaced when necessary. Low-quality interior trim in out-of-the-way places such as below the dashboard may be worn. The boot interior is also likely to look a little worse for wear, especially the loading lip which may be scuffed and bashed - especially in cars that are likely to have carried lots of loads, like estate cars typically chosen for their practicality and boot space. If present, the parcel shelf may be sagging due to having been overloaded at some point in its life. A replacement can cost from £100.

Tyres may not match and should be examined for uneven wear, indicating steering and/or suspension problems. A fresh MOT requiring the emissions system to be tested is worth having. On that point, be aware that 'Euro 4' or 'Euro 5' diesels don't meet the latest emission standards and so you will have to pay a 'ULEZ' charge to drive into central parts of London and an increasing number of other UK cities in the near future.

 

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