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Make sure you know your consumer rights when buying a used car privately or from a car dealer. We have consumer rights, advice on how to spot a stolen car & advice on buying a car with outstanding finance.

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The following information has kindly been supplied by the Office of Fair Trading. This fact sheet is intended to provide general information only, and should not be taken as a full statement of the law on this subject. Phone your local Consumer Rights Direct centre, or contact an alternative consumer rights support service if you need further or more detailed advice.

Consumer Rights - Before You Buy

Consumer Rights - Buying from a dealer

Consumer Rights - Buying privately

Consumer Rights - Stolen cars

Consumer Rights - Cars still owned by a credit company

Consumer Rights - Clocked cars

Consumer Rights - If things go wrong

Before you buy
Decide what you want and how much you can afford. Include the cost of insurance, MOT, road tax, petrol, repairs and servicing. If you are taking out a loan, add up the repayments. Its also well worth adding to your budget the cost of a vehicle data check for peace of mind. The cheapest at the moment is offered by the RAC at £5.00 for a comprehensive check. Visit RAC Hpi check site.

Don't rush into a decision. Shop around. Look at car magazines and price guides to see what is available for the price you want to pay.

If your knowledge of cars is sketchy, use the Office of Fair Trading consumer rights fact sheet Buying a used car - checklist. It gives the main things to look out for when assessing a used car's condition, and tells you the signs that point to a car which has been stolen or “clocked” (had its mileage altered).

If you don't know much about cars, it's a good idea to take someone with you who does. Or you could pay for an independent inspection by a professional mechanic or one of the motoring organisations. It costs between £100 and £300, but could save you money in the long run.

Buying from a dealer
Buying from a dealer is the safest way of buying as you get the maximum protection of the law. But there are dodgy dealers, so look for an established firm with a good reputation and exercise your consumer rights fully. Ask the advice of friends and look for a trade association sign which should mean the dealer follows a code of practice.

The Retail Motor Industry Federation or the Scottish Motor Trade Association can give you a list of dealers that are trade association members and follow a code of practice.

Look for a dealer whose cars have been inspected by an independent engineer or one of the motoring organisations. Ask to see the report on the car you want to buy. It will not be as detailed as one you pay for yourself, but will provide useful information. Or choose a dealer with a quality-checking scheme, such as Ford Direct, Rover Approved or Vauxhall's Network Q.

Your rights
When buying from a dealer, the consumer rights law says a car must be:

  • Of satisfactory quality.
    It must meet the standard a reasonable person would regard as acceptable, bearing in mind the way it was described, how much it cost and any other relevant circumstances. Amongst other things, this covers the appearance and finish of the car, its safety and its durability. The car must be free from defects, except when they were pointed out to you by the seller.
  • As described.
    A car said to have “one careful lady owner” shouldn't turn out to have three previous owners, all males under 22.
  • Reasonably fit for any normal purpose.
    It should get you from A to B.
  • Reasonably fit for any other purpose you specify to the seller.
    For example, towing a caravan.

These consumer rights are not affected by any mechanical breakdown insurance (which is often sold by dealers if the manufacturer's warranty has run out), guarantee or warranty giving additional protection. If you inspect the car, or someone does so for you, the dealer may not be liable for any faults which should have been uncovered by the inspection. It's a good idea to get a description of the vehicle's condition from the dealer: ask whether there is a pre-sale inspection checklist.

Buying privately
Buying privately should be cheaper than buying from a dealer. But it is also riskier: the car may be stolen, or it may have been used as security for a loan or hire agreement and actually belong to a finance company.

You have fewer legal consumer rights if you buy privately. The car must be as described, but the other rules don't apply. If a private seller lies about the condition of a car, you can sue for your losses - if you can find the seller.

Some dealers pretend to be private sellers to avoid their legal obligations and to get rid of faulty or over-priced cars. They advertise in local newspapers and shop windows. Warning signs to look out for include:

  • Ads which give a mobile phone number or specify a time to call (it may be a public phone box, not the seller's home).
  • The same phone number appears in several ads.
  • When you phone about the car, the seller asks “Which one?”
  • The seller wants to bring the car to you or meet you somewhere, rather than you going to the seller's home.
  • If the seller is really a dealer, then your full legal rights apply.

Stolen cars
If you buy a stolen car, the police can take it from you to return it to the original owner or the insurance company. You will not get any compensation even though you bought the car in good faith. You can sue the seller for your losses, but this might be difficult if you bought privately and the seller has disappeared.

Also, if you bought the car on credit, you may still have to pay off the loan - it depends on the type of agreement you have. Its always good practise to get a car data checked to reduce your risks. Comprehensive data checks are now available from the RAC for £5.00.  More Info

It can be hard to tell whether a car is stolen. Its identity may have been changed. For example, the identity number and number plate of a legitimate car may be transferred to a stolen one. Vehicle registration documents can be forged or obtained by fraud.

But there are tell-tale warning signs to look out for:

  • The seller can't produce the vehicle registration document (V5) - a common excuse is that it has been sent to the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) for updating. This may be true - for example, the seller may have changed address recently. But be wary: it means you cannot check the car's ownership and identity details.

  • If the seller claims the car was bought very recently and the V5 is with the DVLA for the change of ownership to be recorded, the seller should have a green slip (this applies only to cars issued with V5s from March 1997).

  • There are spelling mistakes or alterations to the V5, or it does not have a watermark.

  • The name and address on the V5 are different to those on the seller's driving licence, passport, or recent gas or electricity bill

  • The three main identifying numbers listed below don't match the numbers on the V5:
    - The vehicle registration mark (the number plate).
    - The vehicle identification number (VIN) - this can be found on a metal VIN plate, usually in the engine compartment, and stamped into the bodywork under the bonnet and the driver's seat. As a security measure, some cars have the VIN etched on their windows or lamps.
    - The engine number.

  • The engine and VIN numbers have been tampered with. Areas of glass may have been scratched off the windows, or stickers may cover up etching which has been altered.

  • The seller cannot show you the insurance policy for the car.

Cars still owned by a credit company
A car bought on hire purchase or conditional sale belongs to the finance company until the payments have been completed. If you buy such a car, the lender can take it back. You can sue whoever sold you the car, but only if you can find them.

There are only a few exceptions to this. If you were not aware the car was subject to an outstanding hire purchase agreement and bought it in good faith, you may be allowed to keep it. This does not apply to stolen cars or cars which are subject to a hire agreement. Contact Consumer Direct for professional advice on this subject.

There are companies that can tell you if a car is clear of any outstanding finance deals. You can usually find details of such companies in motoring magazines. If you are buying from a dealer, ask whether this check has already been carried out.

Clocked cars
Low mileage can be a selling point, but the clock can be turned back to reduce the number of miles shown. Sellers sometimes protect themselves by covering up the mileometer or issuing a disclaimer saying that the mileage may be wrong. To be valid, such a disclaimer must be at least as noticeable as the mileage reading and as effectively brought to your attention.

If the mileage is low but wear and tear on the car looks heavy, the car could have been “clocked”. Clockers sometimes change pedal rubbers, steering wheels and gear knobs to hide this. Another sign is that the mileometer numbers don't line up correctly.

There are several ways you can find out about the history of the car:

  • Check MOT certificates and service documentation for mileage readings taken by mechanics.

  • Contact previous owners named on the V5 and ask what the mileage was when they sold the car.

  • Get mileage information from companies that research the car's history (you can find these in motoring magazines).

  • If buying from a dealer, ask whether the dealer has used trade-only database companies such as IMVA and VMC to check mileage.

If things go wrong
If something goes wrong, go back to the dealer straight away, explain the problem and say what you want done.

If you aren't happy with the outcome, contact Consumer Rights Direct for advice.

If the dealer is a member of a trade association that follows a code of practice, then the Retail Motor Industry Federation or the Scottish Motor Trade Association may be able to help.

If the car is still under manufacturer's warranty, then contact the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders.

If you are a member of a motoring organisation, they may be able to help if you have problems.

Car history
There are companies that can tell you whether a car is an insurance company write-off or belongs to a finance company. They may also have mileage information. They charge for this service. Check car magazines for details.

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