Used cars: bangers and cash
August 12, 2011 | By:

Has it been clocked? Does the licence plate match the log book? Is it nicked? Just some of the questions you have to ask before you've even looked under the bonnet. Sheila Prophet steers us down the rocky road of second-hand motors

Arthur Daley

A “nice little earner” for him but it could be a headache for you

You have seen a second-hand car with a tempting price tag attached and been invited to view it. The seller and the log book both seem plausible, but should you be suspicious?

Yes, says the Office of Fair Trading (OFT), which has been urging buyers to learn about their rights after complaints about second-hand car dealers surged to more than 60,000 a year.

Experian, which offers an Autocheck service, says that one in four cars checked still had outstanding finance, one in eight were recorded as insurance write-offs, one in 14 had mileage discrepancies and around 160,000 cars checked each year are stolen.

However, there are ways you can protect yourself from these and other scams, including cloning (stealing a car and swapping its identity with a legitimate car before selling it). First of all, advises the OFT, question the seller thoroughly.

What mechanical history and mileage checks have they done on the car you want to buy?

How many former owners has the car had, and is the full service history available?

Has the car been modified from its original specification?

The OFT also says you must insist that important information and answers to your questions are put in writing before you buy, so that you have proof of claims. Don’t rely on verbal claims or promises.

Next, check the car thoroughly yourself, or ask a friend to do it for you if you are not mechanically minded. Take your time over this because, as the OFT spokeswoman says: “Cars are an expensive purchase, so before parting with any money people need to know exactly what they are getting and what they can do if things go wrong.”

The main thing you must check is that numbers on the vehicle registration document, or V5C (a logbook to you and me) match the number plate and the VIN or vehicle registration number, which is on the dashboard on the driver’s side of the car.

You can then check if this information is genuine using the DVLA’s Vehicle Enquiry Line. Phone 0870 241 1878 or use the DVLA’s Vehicle Enquiry online service.

You can also check the car’s MOT certificate is legal and whether it failed an MOT check in the past at Directgov’s MOT pages.

For fuller information on the car’s history, it is worth paying for a used-car data check. This will reveal if the car is subject to an outstanding finance agreement – i.e. the seller does not actually own it – or it is stolen or clocked (when the number of miles on the milometer have been turned back).

A number of companies carry out these checks, for around £20 per car, including The AA, HPI and Autocheck.

Of course, you will also want to ensure you are not paying over the odds, so visit Parkers or What Car to find out what it’s worth.

For more information on consumer rights see Directgov’s Buying a car pages and Which? Car.