Buying a car

Buying and running a car is expensive so making the right choices over the vehicle you buy, where you buy it from and how you pay for it is important. Our advice is to do your homework before you buy a second hand car.

If you've seen a car you like then follow these simple steps before you buy;

  • Check the MOT history of the vehicle for free online, all you'll need is the vehicle make and registration number (number plate). This shows you any advisory notices on the vehicle and the recorded mileage each time the vehicle has been MOT'd.
  • Check the vehicle description against DVLA records for free. You can find out if the vehicle is taxed, when the MOT expires, date of first registration and confirm the colour, engine size and year of manufacture.  Does this match what you have been told about the vehicle?
  • Make sure you test drive the vehicle. Beware of any unusual noises such as knocking, rattling, grinding or squealing? Ask yourself did the vehicle drive as you would expect it to? Did any of the engine warning lights illuminate on the dashboard? Unusual sounds, warning lights and driving irregularities mean something is wrong with a car and you should avoid it. 
  • Examine the vehicle carefully in daylight on a dry day – does the bodywork look in good condition? Are there any areas where the paint doesn’t match or are there any traces of paint on windows or the plastic trim? If there are this could be a sign the car has been re-sprayed following an accident.
  • Make sure you see all the relevant paperwork associated with the car, this includes the V5 (vehicle registration document), any service book or records particularly if the trader claims the car comes with a full service history and make sure you compare the service history to the MOT record.
  • Consider carrying out a HPI on the vehicle or asking to see a copy if the seller has carried one out.
  • Consider getting the car independently examined by one of the motoring organisations.
  • Advice on where to buy a used car from the Money Advice Service 

Unroadworthy cars

The Road Traffic Act 1988 makes it an offence to sell an unroadworthy car. However the Act doesn't distinguish between private sellers and motor traders.

What is an unroadworthy car?

If a vehicle is not satisfactory in any of the following areas it may be unroadworthy:

  • steering and steering gear
  • brakes and braking systems
  • tyres
  • exhaust systems
  • seatbelts and seatbelt anchorages
  • general condition (corrosion, suspension etc.)

What can Trading standards do?

It's a criminal offence for selling an unroadworthy car. If you sell one, you could be prosecuted and if found guilty may be subject to a fine of £5000 on summary conviction.

When will Trading standards act?

A prosecution will only be considered if we've evidence to show that the vehicle was dangerously unroadworthy at the time of sale.

It's our policy not to prosecute private individuals for selling unroadworthy cars.

If your car has been purchased from a private individual, you may be able to take action against the seller yourself.

Where does this evidence come from?

The vehicle needs to be examined by someone who will be credible in court, and is prepared to say that the vehicle was dangerously unroadworthy when it was sold.

The vehicle therefore needs to be examined. The first step is for you to have an MOT test carried out on the vehicle. If the MOT examiner’s comments give an indication that the vehicle could be dangerously unroadworthy, an expert engineer’s report which can be used as evidence may be commissioned by us.

These steps should all be completed within four weeks of your purchase of the vehicle.

What can I do if the engineer says the car is unroadworthy?

You should stop using the vehicle on public roads immediately - otherwise you could be in danger of committing criminal offences and your insurance will be invalid.

Further advice...

If you need further advice about a faulty or dangerous vehicle or about a repair that has failed, contact Citizens Advice consumer helpline on 03454 04 05 06 or complete their online enquiry form. The helpline will report any suspected unroadworthy vehicles to Trading Standards.

If you want advice before you buy see the Citizens Advice consumer helpline guide.

The Office of Fair Trading has produced guidance [pdf] and a checklist for traders who sell second hand cars.