Buying a second-hand car

If you can't afford a new car, or the idea of getting any scratches on your brand new baby is far too stressful, then buying a used car may be your best option. But what are your rights when buying second-hand and how do you know where to buy one and what to look out for?

Girl driving a car

"Should I be worried about that whirring noise?"

Do I need to be careful about buying a second-hand car?

You can buy second-hand cars from a wide range of places, which makes buying one even more confusing. Your rights are the same as when you buy other goods, but there are some important differences you should be aware of before parting with any cash. This is especially important with cars that may have hidden faults; it may be that the price you paid for it and the description given by the seller means that you won’t be able to take any action against them if you complain. Your rights will also depend on where you bought it from.

What if there are problems with the car?

If you find a fault, tell the seller as quickly as possible as your claim will depend on the condition of the vehicle at the time of the sale.

How do I make sure the car wasn’t stolen?

If you weren’t given the vehicle registration certificate because the seller claims they lost it, ask them to reapply for a duplicate from DVLA before you make any commitments to buying the car. If you find out the car you bought was actually stolen, then unfortunately ‘your’ motor still belongs to its original owner.


If you pay a deposit then decide you don’t want it after all, you may not be able to get your money back unless the seller previously agreed that the deposit was returnable if you changed your mind. This could be after you’ve had an independent inspection done, for example. If you change your mind before you get the car then the seller can’t force you to buy it.

Buying from a dealer

If you buy a car from a dealer then it should match its description, be fit for its purpose and be of satisfactory quality. This will depend on its age and make, past history, and how much you paid for it. You may find that the car needs more extensive repairs than seemed necessary at the time you bought it, but unfortunately this doesn’t mean that the car is not of satisfactory quality.

If your car develops a problem soon after you bought it, stop using it and collect all your documents together, such as your sales invoice, guarantee or warranty and credit agreement. Contact the dealer as soon as you spot the fault and take the vehicle back. Depending on the fault and the severity of it, ask for a full refund, repair, replacement or compensation, and set a time limit for any work to be completed. If the dealer doesn’t agree on the cause of the problem then you may need to get a second opinion from a trade association, the AA, RAC or someone who’s suitably qualified. If the problem is fairly major and you part-exchanged your car then you’re entitled to have it returned if it’s still available, or to have the full value refunded if it’s been disposed of.

You may need to take further action if:

  • There’s a breach of contract, such as certain repairs not being done by a certain date
  • They’ve pretended to be a private seller
  • They sold you an un-roadworthy vehicle
  • They altered the mileage of the vehicle or sold you one with an altered reading
  • There’s a term in your contract which is unfair, such as something that is impossible to understand

Buying your car at a live auction

You have limited rights when you buy a car at an auction because if you buy it ‘as seen’ and something is wrong with it, often there’s little you can do. Some auctions will offer insurance against the car turning out to be stolen and some will offer you a cooling off period – although this could be only a few hours. “Do your homework and find out how much the car is worth and how much to bid,” says Tim Naylor at British Car Auctions. “Bring someone with you who knows a lot about cars if you’re a novice.”

Private sellers

You have very few legal rights when it comes to buying from a private seller. Nevertheless, the car should match the description given of the vehicle and it must be roadworthy. The seller must also have ‘good title’, which means that they must be the legal owner in order to sell it to you. If the seller breaks a specific contract term, then you may be able to claim against them.

Cars bought from internet auction sites

There are different types of sale available on internet auction sites and your rights will depend on the type of sale, for example, ‘Buy-it-now’ on eBay, are not auction sales at all. If you do this you may well have the same rights as if you bought it from the dealer face-to-face.

Thanks to Citizens Advice Bureau for help with this article.

Photo of girl driving by volunteer photographer Gareth Reid

Next Steps

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Updated on 29-Sep-2015