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You have more rights under consumer law if you're buying from a dealer
When you're looking for a secondhand car, dealers are generally the safest route. You'll get the maximum legal protection with the least risk.
Buying privately can save you some money up front, but you won't be protected legally if the car doesn't come up to scratch. It's up to you to ask the right questions and have the car thoroughly inspected.
Buying over the Internet your rights will depend on the contract and the law governing that contract. Read terms and conditions carefully, and check which country's law governs your contract.
If you buy at auction you again have very little legal protection. If you find defects after you've bought, you'll only have redress against the auctioneer if the auction house misled you.
Don't buy a car on 'private sale' terms if you suspect the seller might be a dealer – you have relatively few legal rights when buying privately and some dealers use this scam to avoid their own legal responsibility.
If you call in response to an advert, say you're calling 'about the car you advertised'. If the seller has to ask which car, they may be a dealer.
Be wary of adverts quoting mobile numbers or numbers that appear in several ads.
Don't let the owner bring the car to you or meet you in a lay by, petrol station or similar – view it at their home, in daylight and take someone with you for company and security.
Does the seller really appear to be the owner?
You have more rights under consumer law if you're buying from a dealer but it's still best to try to go on reputation or personal recommendation. Owner's clubs and forum sites can be a good source of hints and tips as well as helping you find recommended dealers if you're looking for something specific.
If you do buy from a dealer check that any extras offered are competitive – you might be able to buy a used car warranty yourself for less than the one offered for example.
If you need to borrow part of the amount, don't automatically take the dealer's finance. It's always worth getting alternative quotes – preferably before you start viewing cars so you know what you can afford.
It's vital to check the terms of any warranty offered. A mechanical breakdown warranty will probably cost extra and won't cover everything.
It's best not to buy a used car at auction unless you know your way around an engine and you're aware of current price trends. You have very limited legal rights and should check the auction's terms and conditions of business as it is likely you will be buying 'as seen' with no come back if there are problems.
Take someone with you – preferably someone familiar with auctions and who knows about cars.
There are two main complications associated with buying a car online – you may not actually see the car before you do the deal, and it may not be clear who or what type of business or individual you're buying from.
If you buy online from a dealer you have the same rights as if you buy face-to-face along with the added protection of a cooling off period during which you can cancel.
Buy from a private seller online and you only have the same rights as if you bought face-to-face.
However tempting the offer, don't rush into making a purchase – you could save yourself a lot of time, trouble and money. Remember, if a deal sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
Make sure that you know exactly who you're buying from:
Read the small print before you click that 'Buy' button:
If you decide to buy, print off all details:
A long way from home?
Get confirmation of your order by post, fax or email.
(23 March 2012)
Check if a car has outstanding debts or a dodgy history, or let us give your potential new car a thorough, mechanical inspection.