What happens if you buy a used car and it develops a problem soon after you start driving it? What if it develops mechanical or electrical problems, or it turns out to be in considerably poorer condition than you were led to believe?
It's not unheard of for a used car dealer to overstate the condition of a used car - to the point that it becomes a rather bad deal - especially if a raft of repairs are required to keep it roadworthy.
The good news is that even after you've parted with your hard-earned cash, once you've entered into a contract with a seller, you have rights. These rights apply whether you buy from a main dealer or a used forecourt.
The Consumer Rights Act 2015 states that any item you buy from a trader - anywhere selling goods as a business either online or offline - must be:
● Of satisfactory quality
● Fit for purpose
● As described
If the item doesn’t meet these criteria, it's considered faulty, and you should contact the trader as soon as possible.
In most cases they should be able to offer you one of the following:
● A repair
● A replacement
● A refund
The Consumer Rights Act 2015 means you are entitled to a full refund if you return the vehicle within 30 days of purchase - if you can prove there's a fault.
Should a fault develop after 30 days, getting a refund will be far less likely. However, the seller is still responsible for the car being in satisfactory condition six months after the sale. And even if you do get a refund, you will probably get back less than you paid because the car will have lost some of its value in that time.
But you still have legal rights for six years after the sale (five in Scotland). However, you may find it tricky to prove any fault was present before you made the purchase. A second opinion from a garage may help. Keep the dealer informed of what you plan to do.
Buying from a private seller
You won't have the same rights if you buy from a private seller, so make sure the car is in good working order before you buy. Ask for a receipt of sale, with a list of any faults. This should give you some comeback if the vehicle develops a fault.
Sale of Goods Act 1979
If the used car from a private seller turns out not to be as described, then you have the Sale of Goods Act 1979 to support you. If the car is not of satisfactory quality, not fit for purpose, or not as described, you can ask for some kind of compensation - most likely in the form of paying the repair bill.
If this fails, you can ask the seller to recoup the difference between what you paid and the actual value of the car.
And if that doesn’t work, you can send a letter of complaint to the seller. If they ignore that, you can opt for the alternative dispute resolution (ADR) route, or as a last resort, the small claims court, but this can take a long time and comes at a cost.
What you should insist on when buying a used car
Get any agreement in writing, and make sure you ask questions about the vehicle's history and condition. What mechanical and mileage checks have there been? How many owners has the car had? Is the full service history available? Has the vehicle been modified or involved in an accident?
To summarise, it's critical to know your legal rights when you buy a used car. Buying from a private seller means you should take extra steps to ensure the car is in working order, because you don't have the Consumer Rights Act 2015 to fall back on (but you do have protection from the Sale of Goods Act 1979).
Things to check when buying a used car
Do a quick visual inspection. Look for damage to the body panels, wheels, tyres (these can be costly to fix). Also Look for dents and scratches, and make sure the light lenses have not filled with water or clouded over. Look out for lips on brake discs - which suggest they need to be replaced - and check the brake pads for wear.
Under the car, look for wishbone bush damage, and rust in the arches and sills.
Dashboard warning lights
Look for fault codes on the dashboard. Any lit icon suggests the car has a problem.
Check oil levels, brake fluid and coolant. Also ensure the belts are not worn out, since they drive the alternator, air con and other components. And ask the dealer when the cam belt was last done.
Check the chassis legs are not bent, since that would suggest a front-end impact, and ensure there are no oil leaks around the engine. Make sure the rocker cover gasket is in good condition. Look under the engine for any untoward leaks.
Ensure the good operation of the windows, seats and handbrake. Also look out for undue wearing of the steering wheel and gearstick, as this suggests the car has been driven hard. While you're inside, check the service history and that all the lights work.
Start the engine from cold and listen for any undesirable noises. Ensure the seller doesn’t insist on the radio being on to mask any suspicious noises! Listen for any rattles, make sure the steering is working well, and move through all the gears. Also check the brakes and ensure the car doesn’t pull to one side, which suggests possible tracking, alignment, suspension or braking system faults. And don't forget to check the heating system.
Checking a car for faults may be a little onerous - especially if your mechanical knowledge is limited. While these checks are a good idea, you may wish to buy through a manufacturer's approved used car scheme. These usually come with warranties lasting between 6 and 12 months.
If you’re buying from a dealer, look out for a 30-day no-quibble return guarantee - since most issues will become apparent in this period. However, you may be offered a replacement rather than a refund.