How to buy a cheap car online
There are true bargains to be had online – but there are also pitfalls. Our guide explains what to watch out for
Britain loves buying cars online. Between three of the biggest used-car classified sites: Gumtree, Auto Trader and eBay, there are anything up to 800,000 used cars adverts to browse at any one time.
If you’re in the market for one of these cars and your budget is relatively low, you could find yourself looking at cars for sale by private sellers. It’s also possible you’ll be looking at local buying and selling networks, as well as local Facebook groups.
Many of these sites host a significant number of adverts for older vehicles. The majority listed on Gumtree are over 10 years old, although these still rub shoulders with plenty of more expensive models.
And while many buying, selling and trading sites are making reporting problems ever easier, there’s still an element of risk for the used-car buyer. Most adverts – and the cars and sellers behind them – are genuine, but fraudsters are out there, so you should understand the potential pitfalls.
Below you’ll find out how to keep you and your money safe when buying a cheap car online. Most of this advice concerns buying from a private seller, but if you’d like some tips on buying from a used car dealer, head over to our advice article on that subject and read guide to the best used cars you can buy for under £5,000.
1. Be very suspicious if a seller is unable or unwilling speak on the phone. If they say they’re on holiday, working abroad, with sick relatives or any other reason why they can’t talk, be wary. There’s no substitute for speaking to someone to gauge their trustworthiness.
2. If you receive a text message asking you to email a reply, this should raise a red flag. A common scam involves con artists sending convincing emails, either directing you to a seemingly authentic payment service (when you’re buying a car), or purporting to confirm their online payment has been made (when you’re selling). Both may be bogus. If you need to check the amount of money in your online escrow account, such as PayPal, never head to it via a link in an e-mail.
3. Never send money via an unconventional route, or one you’re unfamiliar with. Ideally stick to cash or payment made via your bank, either through your online (or telephone) banking service, your banking app, or your established escrow service. Never use the seller’s computer or phone to organise payment and make sure the number or website address you’re using is familiar and authentic.
4. Get as much information about the car and buyer as you can: why are they selling the car? How long have they had it? Have there been any problems with it? Is there a full service history? Write down the answers to these questions, then double-check them when you see the car in the metal. The answers will help establish credibility and trustworthiness.
5. Run a background check on the car. The DVLA’s own check facility is free and should confirm details of the car’s tax and MoT status, as well as its colour. An HPI, RAC or AA car history check should reveal if there’s any outstanding finance on the car, and for the sake of around £20, performing one of these is well worth it. Some buying and selling sites even provide the facility to do this within their adverts.
6. When going to view the car in person, stay safe. Meet them in a safe public place, in daylight. Take a friend for extra reassurance, plus they could help you spot problems with the car.
7. Don’t take cash with you to the sale. If you’re satisfied the seller and the car are genuine, either go to the bank with them, call your bank to organise payment, or make an online payment via the banking app on your smartphone.
8. Even if the car is worth a few hundred pounds, check the paperwork. It should have an MoT (unless explicitly stated) and the VIN number (usually found on a plaque at the bottom of the windscreen, under the bonnet or in the driver’s door jamb) should match the number on the V5.
9. Don’t pay a penny without seeing the car in the metal. Be dubious about any online link or website the vendor directs you to and use conventional, established payment methods you’re familiar and comfortable with. You shouldn’t be required to pay a deposit before seeing the car, either.
10. If a deal seems too good to be true, it may well be. Checking a used car’s value is easy, so the £40,000 SUV you see listed for £10,000 is more likely to be a ruse to lure the unwary than a genuine pricing error.
11. If in doubt, walk away. There are hundreds of thousands of cars for sale in the UK, and your instincts about the owner are just as important as your feelings about the car. If something feels off – even if you can’t put your finger on it – politely decline to take the sale any further.
Of course, the normal rules about buying a secondhand car also apply, so head over to our in-depth guide to buying a used car for more information.