Buying and running a car is expensive for anyone. There are lots of decisions to make, but the most important one is to start off with the right car. The motor trade has some very good honest dealers, but some are not so reliable, so it's important to make your purchase carefully. If a car dealer looks dodgy, the car is too cheap or there is anything else that makes you suspicious then walk away.
If you have just started a new job and it's some distance from home, there's no point in buying a car with 180,000 miles as there isn't much life left in it. If you only have to travel a few miles every day or the car is mainly so you can meet up with friends then a high-mileage well maintained car might be fine.
Before deciding on a particular car, consider all the costs that will be part of ownership too.
If you pick up speeding tickets or, even worse, a conviction for using a hand held mobile phone, premiums will increase and you may find some insurance companies won't offer you cover.
2. MoT test
It is a legal requirement for all cars over three years old to be tested annually. Do some basic checks before you present the car for test – make sure all the lights and horn work and that the engine has enough oil. It's worth checking the tyres over for tread depth and any damage too.
Choose a test station where you can talk to the tester after the test and get a feel for the general condition of your car. They can give advice on what sort of repairs you should expect, even if the car passed the test this time.
Fuel is very expensive, so it's worth choosing a car with good fuel consumption and then follow some basic eco-driving tips to save a bit more.
Tyres are another big expense so try to get the most out of them – with regular maintenance and gentle driving you should be able to get a minimum of 20,000 miles out of front tyres on a front-wheel-drive car and around twice that for rear tyres.
Check pressures regularly – both under and over inflation can increase wear. Also check for uneven tread wear – worn suspension or incorrect wheel alignment will cut tyre life. Incorrect wheel alignment also increases drag on the tyres. Drive gently – avoid hard cornering and braking.
Although tyres might look like one of your most boring purchases they are your only link with the road surface so don't be tempted to buy part worn tyres, many of which have dangerous defects.
5. Servicing and repairs
Regular servicing is essential, but most cars only need a service once a year so budget for it. It's worth asking locally for reliable independent garages; main dealers can be more expensive. The car should be supplied with its service history/service record.
Timing belts must be changed at the manufacturers' recommended age or mileage – whichever occurs first. The belt tensioner must also be renewed at the same time because tensioner failure is just as likely as belt breakage. If either the timing belt or its tensioner breaks, serious and expensive engine damage almost always occurs.
Warning lights – red means stop
Warning lights illuminate to tell you something has gone wrong – either in the engine management system (so exhaust emissions are affected) or the engine is low on oil, for example. Other lights tell you the ABS isn't working, there is a fault in the airbag system, or, on some cars, the tyre pressure monitoring system has detected pressure loss. Check the vehicle handbook for information on all the warning lights and what they mean. A red light means you should stop immediately and get the fault repaired, but you can't ignore amber lights either. These usually mean it's okay to finish that journey, but the fault should still be checked before you use the car again.