Driving Test Success

Buying Your First Car - A Guide For First Time Car Buyers

Buying your first car, especially if the first car is a used car, can be a daunting experience. Below is a guide to make the process easier.

First of all decide how much you can afford to pay for your first car. Not just the sum to buy the car itself but also the running costs - car insurance, MoT, road tax, petrol, repairs and servicing.

With a figure in mind consider what category of car you want your first car to be in. As new drivers this is likely to be a small car or maybe small family car.

Then do your research. Magazines such as Parkers and The Which Car Guide rate, review and price all types and models of cars. Road tests will give you detailed information on performance, reliability, handling and other important points. When you come to negotiate the purchase of your first car such information will prove vital. You will know the price you should be paying, whether the model has any common faults, specific issues to look out for etc.

Now with a model and price in mind you're ready to shop. So what are the options when it comes to buying a first car?

Franchised Dealer

Usually better quality used cars but at higher prices. Good after sales services and assistance. Buying from a franchised dealer gives you maximum legal protection. Of course dodgy franchised dealers exist so look for an established company with a good reputation. Ask family and friends for recommendations. Generally speaking using a franchised dealer is a good option when buying a first car.

Independent Dealer

Often a wide variety of potential first cars at lower prices. However, variable used car quality and after sales service.


Potential to pick up a first car bargain. Car quality can be inconsistent however, and some dodgy cars can be bought. There is also little chance of financial comeback if the used car develops any serious faults. To get the best out of a car auction it is best to go with someone who knows about cars. Your usual legal rights may not apply if the seller issues a disclaimer, i.e. 'sold as seen', which excludes all or some of those rights. Read the auctioneer's conditions of business carefully to check whether this is the case.

Always carefully inspect any car you are interested in before you bid on it. The car's documents, including service history, will be attached to the car's windscreen in the viewing area, which prospective buyers can browse before the auction starts.


Lots of used cars to choose from and low prices. However, no after sales service and you could get ripped off.

If you buy your first car privately you have fewer legal rights. The car must be 'as described' but the other rules don't apply i.e. there is no legal requirement that the car is of satisfactory quality, although the car must be roadworthy and safe to drive if it is being sold to be driven on the road. The 'as described' covers all statements made about the car, in writing, in a conversation over the phone or in the showroom, in a newspaper, website, email or text, or in documentation

Car dealers will sometimes pretend to be private sellers to avoid their legal obligations and get rid of faulty or over-priced cars. Be suspicious when ads give a mobile number, when you see the same phone number appearing in several ads, when the seller wants to bring the car to meet you.


Never pay the ticket price. Always negotiate. If the seller won't drop the price then walk away, leave them your phone number with the instruction to give you a call if they change their mind and drop the price. Also don't be afraid to ask for a free or extended warranty, even a full tank of petrol.

Used Car Inspection

To help you decide whether a used car is worth buying take a look at this printable checklist If you find yourself answering Yes to a lot of questions in one or more sections then think hard about buying the car. The checklist not only assesses the used car's condition but also the likelihood of it being a stolen or clocked car. General points to look out for:

Bodywork - look for rust, as this is always a bad sign. Look all over the car, checking the wheel arches and as much of the underbelly of the car as you. If you can't get a proper look underneath the car use your hand to feel underneath. If you see small amounts of rust on the bodywork, this may indicate more serious rusting below the surface.

The engine - open up the bonnet and inspect the engine. Does it look well-maintained or dirty or neglected in any way. Pull the dipstick out and check the oil. If the oil looks black this may indicate that the oil hasn't been changed regularly, and that the car hasn't been serviced at regular intervals. The oil should be look fairly transparent.

Check to see that all reservoirs, brake, coolant etc are adequately filled. If they aren't, then this will indicate the car has been neglected.

With the engine on, make sure the engine doesn't rattle or make any other strange noise.

Tyres - check the tyres including the spare. Are they legal? Replacing tyres is costly, so the deeper the tread, the longer the tyres will last. Check the tyres for cracks and bulges. If you find any, the car is unlikely to be legal to drive.

Leaks - Check underneath the car for signs of leaking fluids, such as oil of brake fluid. If the owner has parked the car off their driveway, check the drive way for stains.

Study The Service History

Ask the seller to provide you with a copy of the service history manual and the user manual. Look at the service history to see how often the car has been serviced. The manual will tell you the service schedule. Each service entry should be stamped with the mechanics stamp and dated. Look to see if any other work has been carried out on the car. A good service history will also have receipts for work carried out. If the seller can't provide any service history information then assume the car has been poorly looked after.

It is vital to look in the manual and check when key engine part changes are recommended to take place. For example many cars need their camshaft changing at around 75,000 miles. Such repairs can cost over £200. If the camshaft broke before being changed you would be looking at a bill of up to a £1000. So how many miles the car has done and what replacements are due.

Test Driving A Used Car is Essential

When you do, make sure you're insured to drive the car you're about to test drive! Always start the engine from cold. If the engine has already been warmed up you won't get to see if there are any cold-start or cold-running problems. The printable checklist has a test drive section of things to look out for when test drive a used car. The test drive should last at least ten minutes and you should drive on a variety of roads. Try and get the car up to 70mph to see how it performs at speed.

As you start the engine, listen for any knocks or rattles. If you hear any, be carefully, they are usually signs that something is wrong. Watch that no grey smoke comes out of the exhaust, as this is sign of a worn engine.

During the test drive listen to the engine. If it sounds too noisy there could be a problem, likewise the exhaust.

Test the suspension by driving over some bumps. If the car fails to correct the resulting bounces quickly, or if you hear rattles or knocks, then the shock absorbers may need replacing. Also:

Once you have completed the road test park the car, let the engine tick over, open the bonnet up and check for the following:

Dashboard lights - These can identify a whole host of problems from low oil levels to problems with the ABS or stability control. Check the car's handbook for a full list of all lights specific to the car - general dashboard lights. To check if any such lights are active, you must turn the engine on.

MoT History and Mileage- you can now check online to see a vehicle's registered mileage, and whether it has a valid MoT certificate, although you will need the car's VT20 test certificate or VT30 refusal certificate, which the seller should be able to provide you with. To check the MoT history go here.

To check the car's identity hasn't been changed or cloned check

The VIN or Vehicle Identification Number which can be found under bonnet, under the driver's seat, on the chassis or etched onto a window or sunroof, for signs of tampering. All examples of the VIN must match exactly. If you see areas of glass scratched off windows, headlights, taillights or a sunroof, or if you see stickers concealing altered etching then be suspicious and walk away from the deal. The car manual will tell you all the locations the VIN can be found.

To make sure the car isn't stolen or a ringer make sure

There's a valid V5 registration certificate with watermark, number plate, VIN and engine numbers matching those of the car, name and address of the seller, no spelling mistakes or alterations. The V5 will also list information about the vehicle including make, model and engine size, all of which should match those of the actual car.

If you buy a second-hand car you MUST make sure you are given the correct V5 certificate. You will need to use the V5 to inform the DVLA that you have bought the car and are now the registered keeper.

Alternatively TWOK.co.uk lets you do a free check to see if a vehicle has been reported stolen. You will need the VIN number and registration details of the car.

Has The Car Been Clocked

Clocking means reducing a vehicle's mileage reading. This not only adds false value to a vehicle, but it could add to the longer term running costs of the vehicle as it might have more wear and tear than the buyer realises. With more than 600,000 clocked vehicles estimated to be on the UK's roads, it signifies a huge threat to used car buyers.

To help detect if a car has been clocked use the checklist below.

Is the car a cut and shut?

A 'cut and shut' is when two cars that have been declared write-offs - car involved in accidents so badly damaged that repairing them would be too costly or difficult - are welded together to form a seemingly complete car. Such cars are little more than death traps, and selling them on is illegal, but such scams do take place. To avoid buying one:

Unpaid Finance

An increasingly common problem with buying a used car is unpaid finance. When someone buys a car with a loan, whether from a bank or other finance company, the car remains the property of the company who has leant the money and remains so until all monies have been paid back. Some people sell their cars while still owing money on them. If you buy a car that has an outstanding loan on it when you go to get insurance the company who is stilled owed money will track the car and will in all likely hood repossess it from you. To avoid this happening it is wise you get a car history check.

When Does The Cam Belt Need Changing?

Certain car parts need changing at regular, if not precise intervals. The cam belt is a classic example. If the cam belt was to break or go wrong then the car's engine could suffer serious (£1000 plus) damage. When considering a used car purchase you must first learn when the cam belt needs replacing i.e. after 70,000 miles, and secondly if it has already been replaced. A typical cost to replace a cam belt would be around £300.

First Car Safety

As new and young drivers you road experience is limited. You are far more likely to be involved in an accident then an experienced driver. So when buying your first car it is wise to buy a car that has as many safety features as possible. Look out for

Air bags - designed to cushion your body during a crash. Driver and front passenger airbags are common. Side and rear passenger airbags are less common.

Anti-lock brakes (ABS) - under heavy braking ABS prevents the wheels locking up. This allows the driver to steer and brake at the same time giving better control and decreases the chance of skidding.

Traction control - this automatically monitors the amount of traction (grip on the road) that your car tyres have. If it detects any loss of traction then it automatically acts to counteract it.

Active head restraints - provide better protection from whiplash than standard head restraints.

Crumble zones - protect the occupants of a car by absorbing the energy created by a collision.

Euro NCAP star rating. This is an overall measure of how the car performs in a crash. You should aim to buy a car that has been given for or five stars.

Know Your Rights

The Office of Fair Trading's market study on the second-hand car market in March 2010, highlighted: In 2009, Consumer Direct received over 65,000 complaints about second-hand cars bought from dealers. Where a problem is not resolved by the dealer, the average cost to the consumer of fixing it is approximately £425.The importance of information and education in helping consumers before they purchase second-hand cars.

Make Sure You Get an Insurance Quote Before Buying The Car

Insurance for first time drivers can be considerable. You are likely to pay more for insurance than for the car. See our pages cheap young driver car insurance for more details.

Author Richard Jenkins

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