18 Sep 2012

Guide to buying a second-hand car - the rules

I am asked to give advice on buying a second-hand car fairly frequently by friends, family and online.  And the most common budget is 'cheap'.  I have owned over 40 cars in my 23 years of driving - and have driven many more.  I've also bought and sold a few in order to make a bit of profit.  Sometimes I've bought a car and realised I shouldn't and sold it immediately - usually at a profit.

I've never hung on to a car very long. I usually get bored and want something else after a few months.  My current car, a Golf V6 4Motion, is the longest keeper I've ever had - 2 years.  I do almost all servicing and mechanical work on my own cars and have changed timing belts, turbos, wheel bearings, drive shafts and many other components.

Having bought so many cars I've developed a set of personal rules that, if you abide by them, should serve you well.

This article is aimed at someone looking for a cheap car (under £3,000), that will transport a family, who wants some advice on what to look for but lacks the skills or confidence to do the job properly.  This is aimed squarely at sensible, cheap, reliable motoring.

Rule 1 - Buy German, Japanese, 'English' or Swedish.

You obviously need a reliable car but you also need a car that won't cost a fortune to keep on the road.  The French and Italians are more than capable of building a reliable car but they also have an annoying habit of designing cars with components that are difficult to get at.

A mechanic friend curses when  he gets a Peugeot clutch change job because they are such a pain to do.  They will take longer than the equivalent job on a VW and at a garage time costs money.  German cars tend to be well designed and put together as well as being reliable.  This will save time and money in the long term when parts need replacing.

BMWs and VWs are the most common and best German secondhand buys.  Audis tend to be the same as VWs but cost a bit more.  I would also include Seat and Skoda with German cars as they are owned by VW and have the same quality and reliability.  Mercedes make great cars but during the late 90s and early 2000s the accountants took over and quality suffered.  Avoid cheap C and E class's.  They are prone to rust and component failure.

Japanese cars tend to be ultra reliable.  Avoid cars that were expensive when new but that have depreciated.  That Subaru Impreza might seem tempting but bear in mind parts prices are much more expensive than for, say, a Honda Civic.  Toyotas and Hondas, whilst not being glamourous, are reliable and parts prices are low.

When I say English I mean international conglomerates that you might think are English - in particular Ford and Vauxhall.  Both sell volume cars that depreciated a lot so you can get a decent Astra or Focus for under two or three thousand pounds.  Don't touch MGs or Rovers no matter how tempting the price.  They use an old design of engine called a K-series which are poorly designed and blow head gaskets on a regular basis.

Swedish Saabs can be bought cheaply and are reliable cars.  Parts are not too expensive and they are well designed.  The 9-3 in particular is quite fast, if a little thirsty, and there are plenty of independent garages who will service them.  The engines will last forever but clutches and turbos will need replacing by 100,000 miles.  Never buy a secondhand Saab without checking the turbo and clutch haven't been replaced in the past 40,000 miles.  A turbo costs £800 and clutch £700.

Rule 2 - if there is anything wrong with it run a mile.

More often than not if you ignore this rule it this will cost you money.  Even if you think you know what's wrong with it there is a good chance you are wrong and it'll end up costing a fortune.  I'll give two examples to demonstrate this rule.

1 - I bought a 2002 Mini Cooper that had a noise coming from the front left wheel.  I assumed this was a faulty wheel bearing and told the seller and knocked £400 off the price (assuming I could do the job for £100).  The bearing cost £100 sure enough but when it was changed the noise was still there.  Even the expert I had taken with me to the test drive thought it was the bearing.  It turned out to be a faulty gearbox which cost a lot more than the £400 I knocked off the price.
2 - A friend bought an MG ZR with a blown head gasket (see above).  After replacing the gasket the car was still overheating.  The problem turned out to be cracked head and required a new engine.  the whole job ended up costing more than he had paid for the car in the first place.

Sometimes a fault can be identified and repaired cheaply but the law of averages says you will sometimes be wrong.  The safest bet is not to bother buying a car with a fault.

Rule 3 - age is more important than mileage.

This cannot be overstated enough.  If two cars are available and one is ten years old with 50,000 on the clock whilst the other is five years old with 100,000 on the clock buy the newer car.  As long as it has a full service history the newer car, even with a higher mileage, will last longer and will be more reliable. It will also be worth more when you come to sell it.

Rule 3 - paperwork is as important as condition.

Never, ever buy a car without a full service history.  With an older car this doesn't need to be a dealer service history.  Independent garages charge half what dealers do and often do a better job.  Specialist independents are the best of the bunch.  A BMW with a BMW specialist (but not dealer) service history will have been looked after better than any other.  Also, don't worry about home serviced cars.  As long as all receipts have been kept and a record of when the work was done (date and mileage) is present this is good enough.

If a car has a low mileage make sure the servicing has been done regularly.  If a car has only done 5,000 miles a year make sure it has been serviced annually rather than at 10 or 12,000 mile intervals.

MOTs are more important than you think.  My general rule of thumb is only buy a car with more than 11 months MOT.  When someone comes to sell a good car they will automatically MOT it.  If they know it won't pass the MOT due to a fault then they will sell it with whatever MOT it has left.  If a car has 9 or 10 months MOT they probably MOTd it to sell but haven't been able to sell it.  Ask yourself why.  Does it have a fault?  Is it priced too high?  Avoid.

Rule 4 - never pay the full asking price.

If a car is advertised at £2,000 and it's a good car offer £1,600 and expect to buy it for between £1,700 and £1950.  Never buy at the advertised price.  Always ask for money off.  If I want a £2,000 car I will look at cars advertised from £2,000 to £2,500 knowing that I'll get some knocked off.  If it has no tax or the tax is due to run out soon then shave a few pounds off - or even better tell the seller you'll buy it if they tax it.  If the tires don't have much life left then tell the seller and knock £50 off the asking price for each tire.

Rule 5 - inspect it well and take it for a test drive.

Spend an hour with the car you intend to buy.  First of all look all over the body.  Check for blemishes, dents and rust.  Pull and push all wheels to check for play - they should feel pretty solid.  Feel all around the wheel arches for rust.  If you can have a feel through the spokes of the wheels for the brake pads and make sure there is still some life left in them.  Feel the edge of the brake disk - if there is a lip around the edge the disk is worn and will need replacing.

Wear old clothes and take a torch - you'll need to get on the ground and look and feel around to check for rust underneath.  Check the exhaust for rust.  Is there a pool of oil under the engine?  Is there oil all over the bottom of the engine?  Unless it's a Land Rover (they all leak) avoid.

Get inside and check all buttons and switches.  Check all the lights and make sure the indicators work.  Make sure the heater and aircon work.  Make sure the windows work.  Check the seats and trim for ingrained chocolate and cigarette burns.

Check under the bonnet.  Make sure all the fluids are the right colour and at the right height.  Check under the oil filler cap for mayonnaise coloured fluid - this is a mix of oil and water and indicates a blown head gasket or heat exchanger.

Take it for a drive.  Test the steering and brakes.  Make sure the clutch doesn't bite right at the top (it'll need replacing if it does).  Listen out for strange noises and don't let the seller tell you it's nothing or it's usual for that model of car.  Open the window and listen out for strange engine noises or knocking.

Rule 6 - buy and use an OBD2 scanner.

OBD stands for On Board Diagnostics and allows anyone with a scanner (or reader) to plug it in and read the fault codes that are stored in the car.  They cost under £50 and are a worthwhile investment.   All petrol cars from 2001 onwards must be OBD2 compliant.  This means they will have a point somewhere in the car into which you can plug in an OBD2 reader.  Look up the plug point before you go to look at the car because they are often hidden away.

A cars on board computer will store impending error codes so, for example,  if the (expensive) O2 sensor is on its way out the OBD2 scanner will tell you so.  The picture shows mine - an Autel Maxiscan that cost me £100 two years ago but have now come down in price to £50.

My scanner has paid itself back many times over.  Recently my Golf started to misfire.  A garage would have charged £100 for a diagnosis but my scanner told me it was a failed coil in cylinder 3.  I replaced the faulty coil and the misfire went away.  The scanner also reset the engine management light.

This link will take you to Amazon where you'll find lots of OBD2 scanners.

Rule 7 - only buy from someone who you feel is trustworthy.

Gut instinct can serve us well.  I usually buy privately (I don't like giving profit to dealers) and what I think of the seller tells me as much as the car itself.  First impressions count.  You don't have to like the seller but ask yourself if they are genuine or not.


My guide to buying a cheap car is based on personal experience that has served me well.  You may not agree with everything I have said.   You may take my advice and still buy a lemon.   But if you read and act on my rules your chances of buying a rubbish car will be diminished.  And that will save you money in the long run.

If you think I have missed anything out then please let me know.