How to buy a second-hand car online

Buying a car online might seem both scary and exciting, but when you know how the format works, you can leave the fear behind

James Wilson
Oct 20, 2020

Buying a second-hand car online might be an alien concept to some drivers - after all, aren’t we supposed to put potential purchases through their paces, examining every panel and assessing each major mechanical part? In theory, yes, but that needn't be the case.

First off, cars are so complicated these days that the chances of any of us remembering (let alone understanding) all of the things to check for are rather slim. Especially if you have a salesperson breathing down your neck and bombarding you with confusing bits of information. Secondly, there are different things to look out for with different models. 

That means that evaluating a car is often better left to a professional, who can assure you that it meets a set standard, so you can be confident that it should last for many years to come. Go for this option and there's suddenly no need for you to travel around the country physically looking at cars before buying one.

It is this idea that is central to buying a car online; when you can take your pick from cars across the country that all meet a set standard, there's no need for you to book time off work or spend your weekends travelling back and forth spending money on fuel just to look at a couple of cars. Reputable companies that sell cars online ensure that all models are thoroughly checked and sold with a number of important quality assurances.

Examples include a recent service, a long MOT (apart from cars under three years old, as they won’t have needed their first MOT yet), a warranty and even a money-back guarantee should the delivered car not be as described. All cars sold through BuyaCar, for instance, have to meet such quality assurances before being prepped and handed over to you.

To put things in perspective, it wasn’t that long ago that the idea of buying clothes, food and even holidays online would have seemed crazy. While the car industry has been slow to adopt online shopping as a way for people to buy, this is rapidly changing.

That's because it offers much greater convenience - just think about all the things you now buy online that you would have had to travel to pick up 10 years ago - something which is becoming even more valuable following the coronavirus outbreak. As a result, more and more motorists are searching for, ordering and paying for their cars online.

Plus, in the current Covid-era, purchasing a car online removes the need to go into a showroom, dramatically limiting the human interaction needed to purchase a car, with the possibility of contactless delivery further reducing your chances of being infected.

Interested in finding out more about buying a second-hand car online? Then read on for a breakdown of the typical online car buying process.

Buying a second-hand car online

Finding the perfect car and reserving it

Your journey to finding the perfect car starts by visiting an online car supermarket where you can browse through thousands of cars - without leaving the comfort of your sofa. There are an increasing number of options, including established sites, such as BuyaCar, which has been running since 2002, while manufacturers and dealers are also beginning to sell second-hand cars online. For example, Mercedes lists all the used cars available through its dealer network on its website, with many available for online purchase and home delivery.

The best second-hand car selling websites take all the stress out of finding a car to buy, with the more sophisticated sites enabling you to filter cars by make, model, age, mileage, insurance group, number of seats, fuel type (i.e. petrol, diesel or battery-powered), fuel economy and much more. Having a slick search function means you can quickly narrow down your choices from the thousands available on many sites, looking only at cars that have heated seats, for instance. Searching can be done at any time and from anywhere with an internet connection - the sofa is a perfect candidate.

A top tip is to have a reasonable idea about the type of car you need before starting to search online. This way, you filter out as many unsuitable options as possible - there's no point sifting through two-seaters if having at least seven seats is a must for you. A good starting point is setting your budget at the beginning - if you want to pay using finance it's worth having a specific finance budget (meaning a monthly maximum figure, assuming a set deposit amount, finance type and contract length, as changing all of these factors will affect your monthly payments). BuyaCar also lets you order searches by lowest monthly payment - and highest monthly payment - helping you to see the best value cars first.

In addition to budget, narrowing down the type of gearbox you want - if you need an automatic car, selecting an automatic gearbox should quickly cut down the amount of cars available and filter out those with a manual - and fuel type should further narrow down your options to a much more manageable number. Meanwhile, if you know you need five doors, for instance (meaning the car will have two passenger doors on each side and a 'hatchback' at the back for loading luggage, where both the metal and the glass raise out of the way), selecting that should help slim things down no end.

Once you've found your ideal car, most online platforms will require users to reserve them. This can be via a refundable deposit, which is typically around £100 to £300. Reservation deposits like these are mostly about making sure a buyer is serious about purchasing the car they have selected and securing the car, preventing other motorists from buying it.

Once you have found the perfect car to have delivered to your door, it's time to decide what is going to happen to the old one. Whether you paid cash and own it outright, or financed the existing one and still have outstanding finance that needs to be settled, you can trade in the car. Bear in mind that if you still owe money on it, bundling this into the finance on your new car (known as negative equity car finance) will increase your monthly payments. If, however, the car is worth more than the remaining finance balance, you can put this extra value - known as equity - towards the deposit on your new car, reducing your monthly payments.

Get a valuation of your current car

Part exchanging a car against a new purchase is very common in both on- and offline purchasing. If anything, internet car buying platforms cater for quicker and easier valuations with the added bonus of no awkward conversations with sales people.

Most value estimations require a car’s registration number, mileage and an indication of condition. Once they have all been entered, an offer will be generated which can be accepted and included in the deal or rejected and excluded.

Just make sure you're honest about the condition of the car. There's no point saying it's in excellent condition - which will give you a higher online valuation - if it's in a poor state, as you'll just be issued with a charge when the car is collected. The more accurate you are in your description, the more likely you'll receive the online valuation issued.

Now the fate of your old car is sealed, it’s time to think about paying for your new one, the biggest question being: are you paying with cash or are you going to finance the car?

Decide on payment type: cash or finance?

Cash or finance - it doesn’t particularly matter which one you prefer as online second-hand car sellers will cater for both. Using BuyaCar as an example, cash buyers can use a debit or credit card to pay the reservation fee. The remaining balance then needs to be paid by bank transfer. One thing to bear in mind is that using a credit card to pay the reservation fee means the whole purchase is protected under the Consumer Credit Act. Handy.

Things are slightly different for those financing a car - although the reservation process using a debit or credit card is the same. Most online car sellers will have a selection of lenders buyers can go to, depending upon their circumstances. There is always the option of sourcing finance independently but online sellers can have very competitive deals, which could give you lower monthly payments than getting finance elsewhere.

The most common types of car finance are Personal Contract Purchase (PCP) and Hire Purchase (HP) so expect to see these being advertised. For a refresher of what the different types of car finance are, take a look at our car finance explainer video. In a nutshell, PCP gives you lower monthly payments, while Hire Purchase will cost you less overall if you want to own the car. Once the payment type is sorted, it is time for a spot of paperwork.

Did someone say paperwork?

Fear not, this won’t be some arduous task that requires reading hundreds and thousands of pages of small print. Typically this part of the process revolves around proving a customer is who they say they are and (if they are taking out finance) that they can afford the monthly payments.

The best way to get a feel for how likely you are to be approved for finance is to get a finance quote. Once everything is submitted, checked and signed some money needs to be exchanged.

Arranging payment

Paying for your dream machine couldn’t be easier. Cash buyers will simply need to transfer the cash price minus the reservation deposit paid earlier. Those going down the PCP or HP finance routes will need to pay the finance deposit (the reservation deposit can be used to contribute to this) and set up for monthly payments to be taken from their account.

The finance deposit will vary based on the value of the car being bought and other parameters covered when choosing a lender. Many drivers choose to pay no deposit upfront. Just be aware if you want to do this, that it will increase your monthly payments and slightly increase the total amount of interest you pay, as you're borrowing more. Then there is just one last job.

Delivery or collection

In the current climate, delivery seems like the best way to go. At BuyaCar all cars are delivered to customers' front door. Some drivers many prefer to go into dealerships to collect their new car, though - something which other online car sellers offer. For those not wanting to do this, though, simply provide your delivery address and select a date and time that is most convenient and the car comes to you.

At BuyaCar, delivery isn’t the end. We provide a 14-day money-back guarantee and a 30-day warranty, while extended warranties can be arranged to give you extra peace of mind. On top of this, our team can be reached over the phone or via email for any aftersales support needed.

Meanwhile, if you're part-exchanging your current car, with BuyaCar this will be collected from your home once your new car has been delivered. This means you don't have to do without a car at any stage or worry about dropping your old car off at a depot in the middle of nowhere and making your own way back.


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