How to choose a second hand car

As one who has been there and fallen into the black hole of expenses waiting for anyone who is forced to venture into the dark forests of used cars, i have much experience and some advice to share...

Back in 1989 before the car theory test existed, lucky me, I passed my driving test. My weekly wage, received every Thursday, barely lasted the week-end, so buying a car was something of a distant dream. And thanks to playing fast and loose with a burtons clothing store card, my credit file was a wreck, so no loans either, then the gods smiled and send a small inheritance my way, at least i thought it was a smile at the time, turns out they just wanted to have some sport with me...


I rushed out to a car auction with words of advice from my father ringing in my ears, and dropped £900 on a ten year old brick coloured Vauxhall Astra. And it worked, i got my insurance and my road tax and i was off. Being something of an insomniac i would take to the roads late on a Friday night and drive through the night to the other end of the country for a weekend stop. 


Doing an average of 90mph all the time, its a miracle the garage bills took as long as they did to start pouring in. At least six months. But once they did, it became a snowball effect, at first i still had a good two grand inheritance left burning a hole in my back pocket so i went to a Lucas auto care, one repair would lead to another until my money started dwindling.


On my final visit to Lucas, their next quote exceeded what i had left over so, considering how much i had spent with them, i asked advise on how to fix it myself. They realised this particular gravy train was over but still their reaction was an almost spluttering indignation that i had such a cheek to ask.


Trying to ignore their sniggering at my back, I took my ailing Astra to the small, greasy back street garages who took over the mantle from Lucas and continued to take my money. The only difference was, they asked for slightly more reasonable fees with a slightly more sympathetic tone of voice.


To this day i am convinced they were taking out good car parts and replacing them with bad so as to ensure my swift return. Oops can i really say that? Well what is a young person with no real knowledge of the world or cars going to do? 


Chances are, you are going to have a similar experience as me, because lets face it, nobody learns from other peoples mistakes.  And at some point in that second hand car experience, you are going to reach a crossroads, do you continue throwing good money after bad or do you call it a day?


When you reach the same crossroads i did, and you will, it will be a hard decision because you will have formed an emotional attachment to that first car, no matter how much financial pain it has cost you. 


Over the years i have bought numerous second hand cars, mostly over ten years old, each time thinking i am a wiser person and this time will be the charm, this time i have gotten lucky, this time the car will not pick my pocket on a regular basis. In thirty years of car ownership i have NEVER gotten lucky.


If you are reading this, then i am going to give you some advise on what to look out for on an old car but in the end, it whatever you buy will still end up breaking your heart. So for what it is worth, if you do not have a mechanic father, uncle etc. you can take along, and you don't have the budget or will to pay the AA, RAC, etc to inspect the car for you, here are a few things to look out for:


1. Under the bonnet, how clean is the engine? is there signs of congealed or leaking oil? does it look like the engine has been washed to mask these signs.


2. Shock absorbers, pushing down on the wings of the car, does they spring back up ok?


3. The sills, looking under the car at the bodywork below the doors, is it in good condition or is it weak and rusting, has it been patched up?


4. Tyres, what is the tread like? 1.6mm (sweet sixteen) is the legal minimum. Changing tyres can add several hundred to the cost of the car.


5. Exhaust, look inside the exhaust, is it a reasonable sooty black colour, or excessively blackened and wet looking from burning oil?


6. What about the rest of the exhaust, is it rusting where the box joins the pipe? is the exhaust securely fitted and those fittings are not in an advanced state of rusting?


7. Overall, what is the general condition of the car like inside and out? does it look like it has been cared for Is there a service history to back this up? (There are websites you can use to find the history of any car)


Do NOT override your instincts if it is putting up red flags, and do your best not to form an emotional desire to that car while you are in the browsing stage. This will be hard to avoid because your brain will be in buying mode and you will be hungry to begin experiencing the open road. This is why it is so hard to apply the mistakes of others and benefit from their experience. But try anyway.


In the end, buying a second hand car will never be about saving money, it is a false economy each and every time and you need to understand and accept this. Even if the car is old but has low mileage, parts perish, tyres, batteries, belts need changing, and garages WILL rinse you. 


So what is the alternative to buying the cheapest old car you can afford? My advice:

  1. If you can possibly manage it, go for a car no older that five years, with a max of 60,000 on the clock. This should be your absolute ceiling.
  2. If your credit is good or you have someone to act as guarantor, and you can absorb the monthly payments, then negotiate a nearly new car on finance. (cars don't need MOT's for the first three years of their life)
  3. Choose a popular car brand  such as Vauxhall, because when you do need a repair, the parts are likely to be less expensive.


I wish you luck on your journey and feel free to add your own advice and experiences to the comments box below, as my advice is far from comprehensive. Thank-you for reading, please share this to anyone who could benefit.

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