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The dangers of buying a used car privately


With most things in life, the more you put in, the more you get out. That’s certainly the case when it comes to buying a used car, because the more effort you put into the purchasing process, the bigger the savings you can make – but unfortunately the stress levels can be that much greater too.

According to a 2015 article, almost half of those who bought a used car privately reckon they were deceived in some way by the seller. And with 40% of used cars sold by private vendors, that’s a lot of unhappy car buyers.

When you buy from a trader you’re paying top whack for your used car – which is fair enough because you’re pretty well protected as a consumer, as you can read in our recent blog on your rights when buying a used car from a trader. But when buying privately, while you can potentially save thousands of pounds compared with buying from a dealer, you’re not nearly as well protected. You do have some rights though.

However, don’t assume the person with that car for sale really is a private seller; it could be a trader masquerading as an individual selling from home. This isn’t an unusual scenario; some dealers are keen to evade their responsibilities when selling, while not having premises keeps their overheads down. Which is fair enough if they’re honest about things. The problem is that they’re often anything but up front about what they’re doing.

When you phone up to ask about the car you want to buy, don’t be specific about which one you’re interested in – just say you want to know about the car that’s for sale. If they ask which one, be wary – they’ve probably got half a dozen on the go at any one time.

The biggest problem when buying from a private seller is that because they don’t have premises there’s more chance of them disappearing once you’ve bought their car – especially if they’re living in rented accommodation. Once they’ve disappeared into the ether you’re almost certainly on your own, because the police won’t want to get involved unless you’ve been ripped off spectacularly.

However, a private seller does have some responsibilities towards you as a buyer, because they must describe the car honestly and accurately. So if they claim it’s ‘as good as new’ or ‘in excellent condition’ but they know it only just scraped through the last MoT with a long list of advisories, they’re hardly being up front with you.

Unless the car is being sold as a project with no MoT, it must be in a roadworthy condition. So if the tyres are down to the canvas, some of the key electrics aren’t working or there’s a big crack in the windscreen they shouldn’t be selling it. However, as all of these things are easy to spot, you’d be pretty daft to buy such a deathtrap.

Anybody selling a car privately must also be entitled to sell it. That may sound like an obvious statement, but because you can’t take a stranger’s word at face value, don’t assume whoever takes your cash is entitled to sell the car.

It may be that it’s a hire car, is on finance or it could be stolen – and if you buy it, you’ll lose the car as well as your cash when the cops come knocking on your door to claim it back for the rightful owner. There’s also the possibility that the car is a write-off that’s been repaired, either well or badly.

If the car has been repaired legitimately that’s fair enough, but its value will be lower than for an equivalent car that’s never been crunched. If it’s been repaired badly, who knows what problems might crop up further down the line…


Protect yourself

Even when buying from a dealer, the standard caveat emptor (buyer beware) rule applies, but when buying from a private individual this is even more the case. We’ve written an entire guide for you on how to buy a used car, but there are a few key things you can do to protect yourself:

Inspect the car at the seller’s home

Never go to somewhere that’s neutral ground. Why does the seller not want you to see where they live? Do they not live at the address on the registration document? They don’t know you and may be security conscious but if they won’t allow you in or near their home at any point is it because they have something to hide?

Check the paperwork

If there’s no paperwork to go with the car, alarm bells should be ringing. At the very least there should be a registration document (V5C) as it’s illegal to sell a car without one. There should also be at least some service history, ideally since the car was first registered. A set of MoTs would also be good, not least of all because you can then make sure the car’s mileage goes up steadily to what’s now displayed. If it goes up then suddenly drops, something is clearly not right.

Invest in a history check.

You’ll be doing well to spot that a car you’re thinking of buying is still on finance, so therefore not the property of the person trying to sell it to you. Are you confident that you can tell if it’s been written off then repaired? How do you know it hasn’t been stolen? The simple answer is that you don’t, so invest in an HPI check so you know you’re getting the full picture.

Professional inspection

If you’re not confident that you can inspect that used car before buying, get a professional to do it for you. They’ll know what they’re looking for and have lots of equipment to check things like the electrics, or the paint thickness to see if the car has been repaired or repainted. Plus if they get it badly wrong they’ll be insured so you can claim against them for your losses. For more on this, including any terms and conditions, check out click mechanic inspection service.

Richard Dredge

November 2016