Thinking of buying a used car? Here's your essential guide

There are a number of key factors to consider before buying a secondhand car.

These factors will influence your decision on what type of car you choose to go for.

Consider carefully what style and size of car will suit your needs best.

It is important that you buy a car that is practical for your lifestyle.

For example, if you carry sports or music equipment you may need a car with a bigger boot, or if you need to tow a trailer you may need a car with a bigger engine and stronger suspension.

If you live in a town or city and you don’t use your car that often, then perhaps a much smaller car may suit you best.

Think about the mileage you are likely to do in the car and take into account ongoing running costs such as fuel, services and tax.

Essential questions

Some of the questions to ask yourself include:

- What will you use it for?

- How long do you expect to own it?

- Are you looking for reliability?

- How many miles do you plan to do?

- Do you want to buy the car for practicality, for fun — or perhaps a bit of both?

- Do you want something luxurious or thrifty?

- How much are you willing to spend (include other costs such as insurance, tax, services and fuel)?

- What type of model and manufacturer are you leaning towards?

Wealth of choice

There are plenty of used cars available on the market, so you have plenty of options.

Shopping around will also tell you the average price for the type of car you want so that you can work out your budget and plan how you will pay for the car.

If you are trading-in your existing car, you need to consider the “cost of changing”, i.e. subtracting the value of your trade-in from the price of a new car.

Get to know how much your trade-in is worth by looking at similar models online. Remember that a dealer’s sale value includes profit and refurbishing costs.

This value will not be anything like the offers you should expect to receive on your own car.

Take your car to three or four used car-dealers currently selling cars similar to yours and see what they will give you for the car.

After you’ve done your research, you will know the lowest and highest sale values for your car. When the dealer asks what you want for your car, have a strategy to get the best price you can for your car.

Four main checks

There are four main kinds of checks that you really should do before buying a second-hand car:

(1) Check the condition of the car

(2) Test drive the car

(3) Check the history

of the car

(4) Check the paperwork

(1) Check the condition of the car: Checking the condition of a car can be daunting, especially if you don’t know much about cars, but there are a few basic things everyone can look out for, even if you have no experience.

Use our car purchase checklist to help you check exactly what you should be looking for, and what to walk away from. You should carefully check the entire car, inside and out.

Be sure to look out for the following:

- Outside the car:

(a) Visible signs of damage — dents, scrapes and panels or doors not matching up evenly

(b) Broken or cracked lights and marks on bumpers. If light clusters are not the same make, they may have been damaged and replaced after a crash

(a) Other signs of damage, wear and tear such as rust under the sills or wheel arches.

(c) Tyres that are different makes or unevenly worn. This could mean they may have been replaced following damage.

(d) Are there signs of leaks on the ground where the car has been standing for a time. There could be a simple explanation for this but you should always ask.

(e) Check the spare wheel and wheel replacement kit. If the car has alloy wheels, make sure you get a “key” to release and secure them.

Check the oil — there’s an oil dip stick and an oil filler cap. Have a tissue at hand, pull out the oil dip stick, wipe it off and insert it back in again. And now pull it back out and see where the oil comes to. At the end of the stick about an inch up you should see two markings, one for min. and one for max. The oil should be up near the max, not very low and not over filled (both are as equally damaging).

If there’s no oil, don’t buy the car.

If the oil is as black as coal it will indicate the car hasn’t been serviced in a while. If it’s golden it normally indicates clear oil and it’s just after being serviced (most diesel oils will be darker, and the colour may not indicate recent servicing).

If the oil on the dipstick is creamy or coffee colour, this normally indicates that the oil is mixing with the water and the head gasket is gone. If this happens, don’t buy the car.

The oil filler cap may have this creamy residue on it put that’s normally due to condensation in the engine and is fine.

- Inside the car:

Check how many airbags the car has and ask if they are in working order.

Ask if the car has other safety features such as a three-point centre seat belt in the back, secure fixing points for a child seat (IsoFix), Anti-Lock Braking system (ABS) etc.

Check and take a note of the reading displayed on the odometer.

It will be displayed in miles or kilometres. If you think this has been tampered with or ‘clocked’, for example, if the mileage seems low compared to the condition of the car, you should contact the Gardaí.

The average annual mileage of petrol cars is about 17,000 kilometres (10,500 miles). Diesel cars, if they have been used for business purposes, could have an average of about 24,000 kilometres (15,000 miles).

Ask the seller to confirm in writing the right mileage reading before you buy the car. Check the wear and tear inside the car on the seat covers, pedal rubbers, gear knob or steering wheel to see if it is consistent with the displayed odometer reading.

Start the car — turn the ignition onto the first click and all the warning lights should flicker on. Ensure all lights come on (airbag etc.) and they go back off again. If they don’t come on it could mean the bulb was removed to try and hide an existing, expensive problem.

Ask the seller if they would leave the car sit for half an hour or an hour before you come so that you can start it from cold. Starting from cold can highlight some problems which starting from warm wouldn’t.

Never examine a car at night or in low light. Always do it during daylight hours and try to view the car when it’s dry as rain can hide scrapes or scratches.

(2) Test drive the car: Always try to take the car for a test drive before you buy it. During the test drive, turn off the radio and air-conditioning and make sure:

- There are no strange noises or rattling.

- There is no strong smell of oil, petrol or diesel.

- It accelerates comfortably and the brakes don’t squeak or squeal.

- The gears shift comfortably and smoothly.

- You drive over a reasonable distance on different road surfaces to fully test it.

(3) Check the history: You can check the history of the car you are thinking of buying and it is a very good idea to do so. There are a number of companies who can do this for you for a fee; search online to find the right service provider.

You should be looking to at least get the previous recorded odometer readings, details of any insurance claims or outstanding finance, if the car has been used as a taxi and details of any crashes. Alternatively, if buying from a garage ask them to give you these details. All SIMI (Society of Irish Motor Industry) dealers have access to a car history check service.

Check the registration — you can check if someone else has just bought this car and realised their mistake and tried to sell it before it costs them any more money. offers a very useful service by which you can see if the car has changed hands within the last three months.

By typing the registration of the vehicle into the above system you will find that it will give you one of the three following options:

- “No Vehicle Registration Certificate issued in last three months.”: This means the car hasn’t changed hands in the last three months according to the system. The car may still be in someone else’s hands — just not the registered owner. This is why you always check a form of ID with the seller and check the logbook to see if it’s the same. If it’s not you should then ask how they got the car.

- “Transferred to an Individual on…”: This means the car has changed hands in the last three months. Three months is a very short period of ownership for a car. The person could have a genuine reason for selling it, but there could be something wrong with it and the current owner only realised after they bought it.

- “Purchased by a Dealer on...”: This means the car was taken into stock by a Dealership in the last three months. This means that whoever you are buying the car from is a dealer.

(4) Be sure to check out the paperwork

- The Vehicle Registration Certificate (VRC).

- The vehicle’s service history/ log book.

- NCT or MOT details.

- A valid tax disc.

Everything must be present and correct, or you should walk away from the deal. Make sure all the documents are original – don’t accept photocopies.

For further information: 



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