Used car checklist: what to look for when buying a used car

More of us are choosing to buy a car online with used cars now available, too. But what should you consider when buying a used car online?

Gavin Braithwaite-Smith
Oct 28, 2021

It’s never been easier to buy a used car, especially now you can do it online without even leaving your home. Whether you’re searching for a bargain city car or a high-end luxury car, you’re never more than a few clicks away from finding the right car for you, and, if you're interested, we can help you find the perfect deal for you here on BuyaCar.

Buying a car online is fast becoming the norm - especially following the coronavirus outbreak. In terms of the process involved, buying a used car online is no different to ordering a takeaway on your smartphone or getting home delivery for your grocery shopping. The delivery might take a little longer, but thanks to BuyaCar, you’re only ever 5-10 working days from getting your next used car.

But what should you look for when buying a used car online? Once you've decided what kind of car you need, it's important to make sure it lives up to your expectations in terms of performance, quality and condition. You should always do your due diligence, whether you're buying a used car online or in person, but while you can't sit in the drivers seat and take it for a test drive when you're buying online, there are a few other things you'll want to look out for instead.

We’ve put together a handy checklist of the key things to consider when you're buying a car online, so you can be sure you'll find your perfect match. Read on for an in-depth guide to what you should look out for when buying a used car.

Online used car checklist: how much can I afford?

Before you do anything, make sure you set a realistic budget - whether you're paying with cash or planning to take out car finance. There are currently 24047 used cars for sale on the BuyaCar website, with prices ranging from £4,000 to £391,000 - or from £134 per month to £2,922 per month - so there's a good chance you'll find a car that fits your budget.

If, like the majority of used car drivers, you’re paying for the car with finance, calculate a monthly budget that works for you - bearing in mind how much cash you can afford to put down as a deposit. The more you pay upfront, the lower your monthly payments will be. BuyaCar deals can start from less than £100 per month for a small city car, though a larger family hatchback, SUV or people carrier will cost more.

Remember, the finance payments are only one part of the expense of running a car. You also need to consider the cost of fuel, insurance, servicing, road tax and maintenance. Don’t forget depreciation if you're paying in cash. This is the amount of value a car loses over time. You may pay £20,000 now, but it's possible the car will only be worth £10,000 in a couple of years' time - a loss of £10,000 in this case.

Some new cars lose value faster than others; this makes them costly for the first owner, who receives much less than they paid when they come to sell, but great value as a used purchase, as they cost so much less than the initial price second-hand.

Which car is right for me?

It sounds obvious, but you need to choose a car that’s right for you. You wouldn’t buy a pair of jeans that are two sizes too small, or stay in a hotel with a single-star rating on Tripadvisor if you were looking for a luxury experience.

In the same way, you don’t want to buy a car that’s too small, too impractical, too expensive to run or too big for your driveway. As a result, doing a little planning before picking a car can make all the difference.

There may be many thousands of cars to choose from, but narrowing this down quickly can be simple if you know what you're looking for before you start searching.

What age of car should I choose?

When it comes to buying a used car, newer is better, right? Not necessarily. Thanks to recent advances in technology, a newer car is likely to be safer and better connected than an old one, but you’ll be paying more for the privilege. That means there's a balance to be made between getting a car that has the kit you're after without paying over the odds.

Without going into the full ‘things were different in the old days’ mode, a car that is five-years-old today is far better relatively speaking than a car that was five-years-old when your parents were learning to drive, while the difference between today's brand new car and a two-year old car can be pretty small depending which model you're looking at.

Yes, cars periodically receive slicker smartphone integration and improved driver assistance technology, but often you’re unlikely to notice a major difference between a new car or a two-year old one, or one that is two years old compared with a four-year old version.

Take the Ford Fiesta as an example. A 2017 Fiesta Zetec costs on average £ per month. A near-identical car registered in 2019, however, will go for an average of £. That’s a big difference over the course of a three-year finance contract, especially when the car you're driving is essentially exactly the same.

Mileage: how much is too much?

Mileage is nothing to be scared about. Today’s engines are built to withstand hundreds of thousands of miles of use, so assuming the car has been maintained to the manufacturer’s schedule, it should provide many years of reliable service. A well-maintained car with 50,000 miles on the clock should prove reliable and easy to live with for at least another 50,000, as long as you also look after it.

In fact, a diesel saloon, for instance, that has spent its entire life cruising up and down the motorway is likely to be more reliable than a low-mileage city car that has been used for short trips in the city. That's because town driving can put more strain on the engine and clutch, for instance - as you're often pulling away from a standstill - and the brakes, as you need to use them every time you come up to a roundabout, traffic light or a junction.

Meanwhile, a car that has been driven gently up and down quiet motorways may have much more life left in its engine, clutch and brakes, as all it's done is meander up to speed and cruise along for most of those miles, which doesn't put much stress on many of the components.

The important thing to note is that all cars available on the BuyaCar website have been mechanically inspected and HPI checked to verify their history and mileage. You can be sure that the car you’re promised is the car that will be delivered to your door.

What colour car should I choose?

The BuyaCar used car finder features a handy tool for finding a car in your favourite colour. Right now, 16129 of the 24047 cars on BuyaCar are black, grey, silver or white, so you’ll have more choice if you for something less conspicuous.

Don’t be afraid to go your own way, though. This could help you to quickly narrow down the number of options, too. So, if you fancy a gold hatchback, go for it. If a yellow convertible tickles your fancy, don’t let us hold you back.

Just remember that not everyone will share your love of ‘interesting’ colours if you're buying the car with cash or opting for Hire Purchase, as the car might be worth less when you come to sell it. Either that or it will take longer to sell. If, however, you're opting for PCP finance - where most drivers choose to hand the car back at the end of the contract - this is less important, as you don't have to worry about selling the car on.

Which options and accessories are important?

Buying a used car means you’re getting more for your money compared with choosing a new model. This extends to the options and accessories fitted to a car, which are rarely worth as much on a used car as they were when the car left the showroom. That means that options that could have added £5,000 to the price new, may only add £2,000 to the cost after a year or two. This is great news if the options fitted are ones that you value.

We’d start by making a list of the options and accessories you’d like to have on your next used car. Maybe split the list into two sections: ‘must-have’ and ’nice-to-have’. That way you can narrow the search to specific makes and models, not forgetting to set the maximum budget, and then get a feel for which one offers you the most value.

One car may have £7,000 worth of options, but if it doesn't have a couple of your 'nice-to-haves,' while another one only has £4,000 worth of options, but it includes all of your 'must-haves' and 'nice-to-haves,' that's probably the car for you.

Meanwhile, an entry-level trim might look attractive on paper, but could you live without some of the fancy features over the course of a finance contract? If air-conditioning, sat-nav and Apple CarPlay are on your list of ‘must-have’ features, stick to your guns. The good news is that you can check the standard specification of used cars for sale on the BuyaCar website by checking the description.

Do your homework

If you’re buying a used car online, it’s important to do a little homework before you commit to a purchase. The majority of models for sale on the BuyaCar website have been reviewed by one of our expert team, so read the review before you buy. This should give you a good feel for whether the car suits your needs.

Pay close attention to what the car is like to drive and live with. If you want your car to feel fast, maybe it's worth avoiding the smallest engines. Would the absence of a folding rear seat limit the car’s usefulness, or make an estate version a much better choice? Are your children too big for the cramped rear seats?

Although it’s not possible to test drive a used car when buying online, all cars purchased via the BuyaCar website are covered by a 14-day money-back guarantee. Once the car is delivered, you’ll have two weeks to ensure that you’re completely happy with it.

All cars for sale on the BuyaCar website are HPI checked to verify their history and mileage. However, did you know that you can check a car’s MOT history - for models that are more than three years old - online? Simply head to the government website and key in the car’s registration plate. It provides a history of the car dating back to 2006, showing whether it has passed its MOTs and whether any issues were raised.

Study the photographs

Although nothing beats getting up close and personal to a used car, you can tell a lot about a vehicle by looking at photographs. Nearly all cars for sale on the BuyaCar website come with a set of images, so you can take a virtual tour of your next set of wheels. And in the unlikely event there aren't any, you can always phone up and request these.

Take a look at the bodywork. Are there any obvious bumps on the bodywork? Does the interior colour scheme suit your tastes? Study the images of the alloy wheels. Are many of the wheels scraped? If so, you may want to put a little aside to get these addressed if you want your used car to look as good as new.

Trust your instinct. If something doesn’t look right, either find out more or keep looking at other cars. There are plenty of good, honest used cars to choose from.

If it looks too good to be true

As the saying goes, 'If it looks too good to be true, it probably is'. If you’re buying a used car online, make sure you’re dealing with a reputable company. If you spot an SUV that is worth around £30,000 being advertised for £15,000 this should raise a few alarm bells, for instance.

Similarly, never pay up front for a used car you haven’t seen. With BuyaCar, a car can be reserved with a small deposit that’s displayed in the description of every used car. The rest can be settled on finance via Hire Purchase (HP) or Personal Contract Purchase (PCP). Alternatively, the full amount can be transferred using online banking or telephone banking.

Look into the future

While we’re not advising you to invest in a crystal ball or to call upon the services of Mystic Meg, you should consider your future before buying a used car online.

A trendy two-seater sports car might look attractive now, but it will be of little use if you’re planning to start a family before the end of the finance contract. Similarly, an uneconomical SUV could be cripplingly expensive to run if you expect to switch to a job that requires a 100-mile daily commute.

It’s easy to get carried away when buying online. Some websites will use tactics designed to encourage you to upgrade to a more expensive model, which may or may not suit your needs. Use a facility that allows you to set strict parameters - whether that's searching by monthly budget or setting a cash limit for the search. This should ensure you don’t end up with a particularly expensive car when you set out to get a more affordable model.

Don’t get carried away

To recap, it’s important to define your boundaries. Setting a budget should be the first consideration - and if you're paying with finance, make that a specific monthly budget, since cars with the same cash price can have very different monthly payments, especially with PCP finance - and make sure you stick to it. If you’re paying monthly, consider what deposit you can afford to pay, as well as your monthly budget and give yourself a safety net, just in case your circumstances change.

Remember to select the right engine, transmission and body type, along with a list of features that will make the car easier to live with over the course of a finance contract. Our guide to what car to buy should be your first port of call.

As a basic rule, a petrol car is likely to be best for anyone covering up to 12,000 miles a year, but a diesel car is ideal for drivers covering long distances. You may also want to consider the new breed of electric cars - especially if you do lots of urban trips and rarely cover more than 100 miles in one go - as these could deliver significantly lower running costs.


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