How to protect yourself when buying a used car

Posted by Chris Stamp in Personal Finance on 30 May 2012 - Chris is IT Director at checkmyfile

The announcement today by Jaguar Land Rover (JLR) of its best-ever recorded profits – at £1.51bn – is part of the Worldwide boom in car sales, despite difficult economic conditions. JLR saw a 76% rise in sales in China, were up 57.4% in France, saw 38.1% increased sales in Russia, a 22.3% increase in sales in Germany, and even struggling Spaniards bought 18.1% more of its cars. Across the water in the US, Toyota has seen its sales rise by 90%, and a combination of pent-up demand and the availability of stock is forecast to help all car makers increase sales by around a third this year.

All of which means that there will be a knock-on effect of a glut of used cars being privately sold.

When it comes to buying a used car privately, doing your homework can save you wasted journeys and unexpected issues with running costs and even resale values when you come to sell your car. Initial research is key, especially if you are travelling a distance to view and potentially purchase the car, especially given the cost of travel nowadays.

Firstly, the most basic step is to draw a shortlist of cars and ensure you understand the issues with ownership, running costs and repair costs – what are the common faults? Sizeable savings can be made buying privately, but not without taking increased risks and almost inevitably involving a bit of a journey for the car you want. It’s certainly not true to say that car dealers are guaranteed to sell you a great car, on the contrary in some cases, but private sales have very limited routes to recover losses if you buy a car which turns out to be a pup, or worse has been stolen or written off previously.

Once you’ve found a car through the usual suspects such as AutoTrader, eBay, or your local paper, it’s time to become an amateur Inspector Clouseau.

Research the seller – contact them and get their name and address – try and find them on social networks such as Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter and get a feel for what they’re involved in – if you’re lucky you’ll get a picture too, so if you’re confident you’ve tracked them down, you can check it’s the same person who shows you the car. Verify their association with the address through a quick search on Learn more about where the car is being sold from, and check that the profile of the area aligns with the car being sold – checking a postcode profile on our free Postcode Check will enable you to see the type of people living in the area, and give you a view of the prosperity – if you find an expensive, luxury car in an area where the houses are very cheap, and there are high levels of unemployment, alarm bells should be ringing loudly.

Delve into the history of the car with the seller, before spending anything on a Vehicle Check, research as much as possible for free. Request that the seller emails you a photo of the V5C – the document that records who is the registered keeper of the car.

Importantly, this does not prove ownership, but realistically, it’s as good as you’re going to get. Check the basics such as the colour and spec of the car matches up with the V5C document, and that the seller is the registered keeper, and located at the address on the V5C. Finally, extract the V5C’s reference number and head to the Directgov website to use the excellent MOT history service – the combination of the number plate and the V5C reference number will provide a full history of MOT tests, noting any advisories and the mileage recorded at each test – use this to verify any seller claims about the car, and also to dig into what action was taken to remedy any advisory items.

Once these initial checks are looking good, it’s time to identify a cheap Vehicle Check – smart phone apps such as MyCarCheck offer the key checks for less than £3 – establishing whether there is a history of write-off, or whether the car has been reported stolen now, or in the past – try to do this as close to viewing and/or purchasing the car as possible to increase the chances of identifying a vehicle as having been stolen.

When you view the car, try to avoid any attempts by the seller to meet away from their address – for a first viewing this is not essential, but if at all avoidable, don’t part with the cash until you have attended the address on the V5C and ideally do the deal there.

Perform the usual checks on the bodywork and engine, looking for signs of excessive wear and tear or damage. Does the condition match the mileage? Check the paperwork is authentic the V5C has watermarks if held to the light. Check that the MOT is up to date before driving and that the tyres are road legal. Finally, take the car for a drive – listen for any strange noises, look for odd smoke or leaks, check all of the electrical features and ensure that you drive the car on as many types of road as is possible in the 15 minutes or so that you should spend driving the car.

If you have nagging doubts, walk away – there will be other cars. If you decide to proceed, go through the final checks – re-check the paperwork, validate the VIN number against that on the chassis of the car and ensure the tax disc is genuine and in date. When it comes to payment, if paying a deposit ensure a receipt is written which confirms the full price to pay and the sum of any deposit(s) paid – ideally make all payments using bank transfer using the vehicle’s registration number as a reference. Again, check that the bank account name matches up with the seller, or that there is a reasonable explanation if it doesn’t.

Smart phones typically facilitate instant transfer between payees – if you can set that up before paying the final amount it saves a lot of time and provides an audit trail in the event of any issues – with the Faster Payments service, most transactions will show instantly on the seller’s online banking. It’s possible you will have to use the seller’s computer to make the transfer – if so, check that virus protection is installed, and consider changing your password when you return home. Cash should really only be used as a last resort.

Finally follow the instructions on the V5C - complete and sign the new keeper parts of the V5C which should then be countersigned by the seller, retain the appropriate section from the right hand side and leave the main part with the seller to return to the DVLA. Take all paperwork with you, resist any attempts to retain certain parts that are part of the history, if not covered already ensure that your insurance and breakdown providers are aware of your purchase and drive home without too much vigour.

Some careful research, most of which can be accessed for free - such as the Directgov MOT check service, is the most essential part of purchasing a used car privately – letting your heart rule your head can easily result in you losing at least what you pay for the car and the dream can rapidly descend into a nightmare without care and taking some simple precautions.

Chris is our Head of IT. He has a degree from the University of Plymouth in Computing & Informatics. You can contact him at

How To Get The Best Car Finance Deals

New car sales may have slowed in recent years, with the economy, emissions scandals and Millennials all being cited as the root cause at one point or another. But the number of people choosing to use credit as a means of driving away in a new car continues to rise, according to figures from the Finance & Leasing Association which shows that the new car finance market grew by 15% in July 2018 when compared to the previous year.

Published on 8 Oct 2018 by Kiah Phillips

Full Article

We're Now More Likely To Be Borrowers Than Savers

UK Households are now more likely to be borrowers than savers, with savings at their lowest since 1963, according to a study by the Office for National Statistics. Households are increasingly borrowing more – by taking out loans, car finance, and mortgages – than they are collectively depositing into savings accounts.

Published on 5 Oct 2018 by Sam Griffin

Full Article

The Credit Crunch 10 Years On: What’s Changed?

For many people, especially the those lucky enough to not have been old enough to be directly affected, the economic downturn of 2007-2009 seems like a distant memory. The first iPhone had launched a mere two months before the recession hit, and since then they’ve rebooted the Spiderman film franchise not once, but twice. But more importantly, has enough time passed for the borrowing/lending market to revert to its old tricks?

Published on 26 Sep 2018 by Jamie Mackenzie Smith

Full Article

The Limitation Act 1980 and Debt Time limits

The majority of credit consumers believe that once a debt has been acquired, that debt will remain until the full balance has been cleared regardless of the length of time passed. This may not be the case though, thanks to a little-known piece of legislation known as the Limitation Act 1980.

Published on 19 Sep 2018 by Erika Bone

Full Article

UK Households More Likely to be Borrowers Than Savers

UK Households are now more likely to be borrowers than savers, with savings at their lowest since 1963, according to a study by the Office for National Statistics. Households are increasingly borrowing more – by taking out loans, mobile phones, car finance, and mortgages – than they are actively depositing into savings accounts.

Published on 3 Sep 2018 by Sam Griffin

Full Article

Wonga Administration: What it Means For You

On Thursday 30th August the payday lender Wonga filed for Administration, following a spike in compensation claims and increased pressure on the payday loans industry. This follows a steady decline in this form of lending since the FCA began introducing stricter regulations 2013 in the name of protecting consumers.

Published on 31 Aug 2018 by Jamie Mackenzie Smith

Full Article

How a Baby Name Can Affect Creditworthiness

A lot of preparation (and usually arguing) goes into choosing a baby name – books, ‘top 100’ lists, place names, family names – the list of possibilities is endless. The trouble is, most parents don’t give much thought to the long-term impact of the name they decide on, beyond checking to make sure it doesn’t sound ridiculous when paired with the last name or that when put into initials it doesn’t spell something unfortunate.

Published on 19 Aug 2018 by Jamie Mackenzie Smith

Full Article

The Advantages & Disadvantages of Store Cards

There are a number of reasons you might take out a store card: whether you’re just waiting in-line at the shop and find out you can save on today’s shopping or they offer the promise of making money in the future, these cards regularly find their way into wallets (or phones via an app). Most big retailers offer their own cards, which allow you to take your purchases home – often with a nice discount applied – without having to part with a penny at the till.

Published on 10 Jul 2018 by Tom Blandford

Full Article

What Happens To Your Credit Report When You Move Country?

Moving from one country to another results in a lot of changes and new things – a new place and culture, new job, new people and in some cases even a new language. However, one thing lots of people do not realise is that you will also be starting afresh when it comes to your Credit Report. Credit Reports and the information they contain are country-specific and do not follow you from one country to another.

Published on 27 Jun 2018 by Kirstie Day

Full Article

What To Do If You’re a Victim of Data Breach

Another day, another high-profile data breach, with the morning news bringing word of another leak of personal information that affects millions of consumers. This time it’s the turn of Dixons Carphone - the company behind PC World, Currys and Carphone Warehouse.

Published on 14 Jun 2018 by Jamie Mackenzie Smith

Full Article


We are rated number 1 for customer service on