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10 Warning Signs When Buying A Second-Hand Car

Buying a used car can be very stressful, but if you’re methodical about things there’s little to fear. The key is to make a series of basic checks, any one of which will highlight whether or not the car is likely to be a safe bet. So if you go to look at a second-hand car and you encounter any of these warning signs, make a sharp exit or you just know that you’re going to have nothing but trouble once you’ve handed over your money.

Poor panel fit
Modern cars are built by robots with laser-guided accuracy, so you can expect gaps between panels to be tight and even. If they’re not, the chances are the car has been repaired since it left the factory. The gaps most likely to be wonky are in the nose (the bumper, bonnet and front wings) or the rear of the car (the boot lid/hatch and rear wings).
Signs of overspray
When a car is repaired after a shunt, only certain sections tend to be repainted. That means instead of the whole car being resprayed, just one section of it will be. So the paint has to be applied up to a cut-off line, such as a panel seam or any sealing rubbers, so you can’t see the join. But look carefully and you may well see a join, where the finish is different or the colours don’t quite match.
Missing V5C
There’s no excuse for a missing V5C, or vehicle registration document, as it’s easy enough to get a replacement in the event of a loss. Bearing in mind this piece of paper tells you who is the registered keeper (but not necessarily the rightful owner) along with the key pieces of information that’ll help you identify the car, it’s essential that you see it. If you can’t, alarm bells should be ringing very loudly.
Mobile number only
The problem with some mobile numbers is that they can’t be traced. So if your only point of contact with a seller is via a mobile phone, you might just find that once you’ve bought their car, they can’t be contacted. And if major problems crop up after you’ve bought the car, not being able to get in touch with the person who sold it to you might just cause you untold grief. So make sure you get a landline number and an address from the seller. There are still no guarantees, but there’s a bit more protection.
Seller wants to meet on ‘neutral territory’
One of the rules of buying a used car is that you always meet at the seller’s house, which must match the address on the registration document. There can’t be any exceptions to this, because if there are problems after you’ve bought the car, you need to be able to contact them. Also, if you don’t meet at the address on the V5C, how do you know they haven’t just pinched the car along with its V5C?
No test drive possible
You should never buy a used car without taking it on a test drive first – even if the seller has disclosed that there are faults. If the car is being sold as a non-runner that’s obviously different, but don’t allow the vendor to convince you that there are good reasons for not being able to drive the car. Check you’re insured then take the car on a decent run on different types of road. You’re checking for a clutch on its way out, brakes that pull to one side, the engine overheating – anything that doesn’t seem right. Once the car is yours you’ll soon notice anything that doesn’t stack up – so make sure you spot any issues before you sign on the dotted line.
No service history
Cars are complicated machines that need to be maintained, so if there’s no evidence that this has been done, be very wary. Who maintains the car matters as much as how often it’s been done – once every few years isn’t good enough. Also, a service history helps to verify that the recorded mileage is accurate. If the car was serviced two years ago with 120,000 miles on the clock, but somehow just 70,000 miles are now showing, something clearly isn’t right.
Weird noises on the test drive
Cars are complicated machines but they shouldn’t make creaking, groaning, squeaking or chattering noises – or any other sound that’s disconcerting. So on the test drive keep the radio switched off and listen for any sound coming from the car that doesn’t sound right. If in doubt get the car checked out by a mechanic before buying, but you shouldn’t need to rely on this if something is obviously amiss.
Only one key is available
For years, cars have come with at least two keys – and often a third, master key. If only one is available with the car you’ll probably have all sorts of problems and costs if you lose it, as the car may have to be reprogrammed, which will cost hundreds of pounds. If only one key is available, you have to ask yourself why. Has the car been stolen, with just one of its keys?
The chassis number isn’t right
On most cars there’s a 17-digit chassis number or VIN (Vehicle Identity Number) at the base of the windscreen, on the passenger side. If this doesn’t match the one on the registration document (V5C) there’s something funny going on. Except it won’t be very funny when the law catches up with you, because you’ve bought a stolen car. So if the VIN isn’t identical in both places, exit quickly and tell the police.
Richard Dredge
June 2015