What to look for when buying a car privately

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Reading Time: 4 minutes

This has been an area of contention since cars were first invented and the secondhand car market was first established.

Used cars offer better value than new cars, the depreciation is far less and, if you go to a private seller, you can get the car you want at an incredible price. But for all those positives, there is one big, fat, red negative; the risk.

Yes, a private seller has to write an accurate description of the car when advertising it, but with the wiggle room for playing ignorant so vast, it can be nigh on impossible to do anything about the fact you bought a dodgy car.

The great thing is, you don’t have to commit to a car that has any signs of fault because there are plenty of used cars for sale, which puts the power of choice in your hands.  

Still, one question remains, what should you be looking for in a used car to make sure you’re getting a good deal?


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Get To Know The Car Inside & Out

If you are seriously considering the purchase of a car, then you need to inspect every car you look at properly, and we suggest you start by inspecting the exterior.

What you’re looking for is any signs of excessive wear and tear. Things like rust, corrosion, chips, scratches in the paint and dents in the bodywork. These can all be dealt with, sure, but why go through the hassle when you have choice on your side.

The other things you should look out for are ill-fitting panels. If you see anything that does fit perfectly – and we mean as snug as a bug in a rug – then chances are the car could have been in a collision at some point, so just be wary of that.

Then move on to the electrics. All of the electrics. If it uses a button, give it a go; windows, lights, wipers, air-con, all of it.


If you want to really scrutinise the car, then check the rubber on the pedals to see what the wear is like. This will give you some information about the type of driver that came before you (nice work Sherlock!).

Check the tyre’s too, and the spare tyre. It all helps give you a better idea, and it all helps you when it comes to negotiation.

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Always Drive Before You Buy

We can’t stress this enough. Never part with your cash until you have taken the car in question for an extensive drive; long enough to feel any niggles in the engine, the steering, clutch, brakes, suspension anything like that.

It doesn’t matter if it is a swanky Mercedes-Benz that’s only a couple of years old or a Skoda from the 80s.

With the engine, you’ll want to check under the hood first. Check the oil, look for any white substance that could indicate head gasket issues, and insist on starting the car from cold because a warm engine can hide problems.

As for the drive itself, if there is smoke then back away from the deal. In fact, if the engine does anything but roll on silently and pull smoothly, then back away.

You know what a car feels like to drive, so stick by that feeling and, after your drive, check the engine again for any leaks.

The steering is a relatively easy factor in assessing and scrutinising because you’ll see and feel any issues. The thing you’ll want to listen out for is squeals or judders when turning.

We don’t mean listen for the power steering, just anything abnormal. And make sure the car doesn’t pull to one side on a flat stretch of road.

Brakes are another relatively simple thing to test. It should brake in a straight line. There should be no major vibrations, rubbing noises or squeals. And, if you are on a hill, then test out the handbrake.

To put it as bluntly as possible, there should be zero slippage, and we mean zero.
On to the gears. First off, feel where the biting point of the clutch is; this is a good indicator of whether the clutch is okay or whether it is likely to need replacing soon.

As a golden rule, if it’s quite high, then avoid the car. The next golden rule involves using all the gears. All of them. One through to whatever, including reverse. Crunching in any gear is very bad.

If you’re buying an automatic, just make sure the changes are smooth, silent and immediate. Oh, and put your foot down. It’s a great way to see if the gears change like they should.


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