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Buying your first car can be very exciting, but a little research beforehand and a few simple checks can help you ensure you get the right car for you. Here are a few things to consider.


NEW OR USED?

New cars do have many advantages over used cars, as they are often safer (more airbags, ABS, stability & traction control, stronger bodies), more fuel efficient, easier to drive, and you can choose your own colour and options. However used cars are cheaper to buy and can have more 'character' than newer models.


WHAT TYPE OF CAR SHOULD I BUY?

Most first cars are small to medium sized, probably for the reason that they will be broadly similar to drive as the car the driver learnt in. Also, smaller cars are usually more fuel efficient, and cheaper to insure and service. For younger drivers, choosing a faster car with a larger engine size will mean the insurance cost will unfortunately be very high, so be sure to check insurance prices before you purchase.


HOW SHOULD I PAY FOR THE CAR?

You could save up the whole amount for the car before buying, but if you are over 18 and at work you might be able to pay for the car another way - a car dealer would be able to finance or lease the car to you, or if buying privately you could ask your bank for a loan. 


BUYING A USED CAR PRIVATELY

The advantage of buying a used car privately is that it would normally be cheaper than buying a similar car from a dealer - however there are a few drawbacks to consider. Unless it is new enough to have the balance of the original manufacturers warranty, you would have no form of guarantee on the car - so if any faults are discovered later you would usually have no comeback against the seller. Another point to consider is that the car would not have been inspected and prepared before sale in the same way as a dealer, so there might be issues with the car the seller is not aware of and might cost you money to fix later.


HOW MUCH WILL THE CAR COST TO RUN?

Smaller cars with smaller engines will of course be more fuel efficient than larger or faster cars - however there are many other factors to consider. Remember that you must insure your car (check the cost beforehand!), MOT it every year (unless it's under 3 years old), tax it (more efficient cars are much cheaper), and service and maintain it to ensure it keeps running smoothly and doesn't break down on you. Try to estimate the total running costs for the car to see if it's affordable.


MAKE SURE THE CAR ISN'T DODGY

If buying a used car you need to make sure the car is as described and does not have a hidden history that might mean it is unsafe to drive or is worth far less than originally thought. There are various companies (eg HPI) that for a small charge will check the cars history to see if it has been written off, clocked, scrapped, has outstanding finance or a fake identity. Take a good look at the cars paperwork and ensure the cars VIN matches the registration document - take along a friend to help with this if needed.


VIEWING THE CAR

Firstly, make sure you go and see the car in daylight on a dry day - this is because it's almost impossible to properly inspect a car if it's dark or wet. If you are not experienced then take along someone who is able to help you. When inspecting a car some allowance has to be made for the cars age and mileage, so you would accept a few marks or signs of wear on older vehicles that you wouldn't expect on newer models. Here are a few things to look out for;

EXTERIOR: examine closely the condition of the paintwork, checking for excessive stone chips, patches of a different colour and any scratching. Check the car for hidden rust, especially around the wheel arches, behind the doors and underneath. Check the condition of the windscreen, lights and tyres as they are expensive to replace.

INTERIOR: look for any tears, holes or stains on the seats and carpets. Check that all electrical items on the car work properly. Consider if the wear on the steering wheel & drivers pedals matches the cars mileage.

ENGINE: check the engine oil, engine coolant and brake fluid to see if they are topped up. Any wet oil stains on the engine or ground under the car is a bad sign. Undo the oil filler cap and look for white gunge - this could indicate a major engine problem. Ask the owner to start the car while you watch the exhaust - a little steam is normal but you do not want to see any white or blue smoke as this indicates a worn engine.

PAPERWORK: ideally the owner would have a complete history showing all the cars service records, and every MOT the car has passed. Check that the car has been serviced at the correct mileage and time for that model and there are no large gaps in the records. A well looked after car will probably be more reliable and nicer to drive.

For a simple checklist you can use when looking at cars click below.


TEST DRIVING THE CAR

If buying from a dealer they will have 'trade plates' and their own insurance so that you can drive their cars legally. They might ask to see your driving license so make sure you have it handy when you visit. If buying privately you must check your own or the owners insurance will cover you for a test drive - if it does not DO NOT drive the car yourself as this is illegal. In this case ask the owner to drive and assess the car from the passenger seat. If you are able to drive the car be sure to check that all the gears engage smoothly, the brakes and steering work properly and do not wobble or pull the car to one side, the engine accelerates the car well and there are not any rattles, clonks or other noises that shouldn't be there.


NEGOTIATION

If after all of the above you feel you are interested in the car it's time to talk money with the dealer or owner. They will have stated the price for the car, but there is often room for a little discount from the original figure so don't be afraid of making a sensible offer and trying to improve the deal for yourself. If you can't get as much money off the price as you want, try asking for other things instead as things like floor mats, accessories or even fuel and tax might be possible.


PDF of this page

Car checklist form

Buying Your First Car