Second-hand cars: better safe than sorry

The second-hand car market is no place for the unwary. How can you avoid buying a car that’s an accident waiting to happen?

By Steve Smethurst

Much of the appeal in buying a second-hand car lies in the fact that the purchase of a new one is so expensive. There's also the depreciation to factor in. By the time this average car is a year old, it's typically worth £21,000 – a drop of more than 25% over the first 12 months. By the time it's 2 years old, it will have lost a further £3,750 in value.

That's partly why the second-hand car market is so buoyant, as people try to find a car that's right for them, won't break the bank and is 'reliable'. But there are some big decisions to make before you undertake your search.

What's needed, says Carl Kendall, regional leader for Car Store, a UK dealership that sells 3,500 used cars a month, is a firm grasp of the basics – the number of doors, the transmission, fuel type and budget. “This is important,” he says, “because you could spend forever trawling through second-hand car websites. There's a hell of a lot of choice out there.”

He's not wrong. At the time of writing, one of the main UK car buying sites, Autotrader, has 487,128 used cars for sale 1.

But one factor is often overlooked when choosing between horsepower, economy, emissions, style and colour... safety.

Don't underestimate safety

Reliability is obviously a key concept when buying a second-hand car, but it's usually talked about in terms of inconvenience and garage bills. For Aviva's Claims Manager Martin Smith, this is a mistake.

Martin feels that a neglected part of buying a second-hand car is not only how does it look, do you like the brand, and what's the mileage, but also: 'how is it going to protect me in an accident, if I’m unlucky enough to have one?'.

"It's one of those points that crops up when parents are thinking about buying a first car for their offspring. Your 17-year-old has just passed test and they want their first car – do they spend £500 on a 1997 Rover or do they spend a fair bit more on a more recent Honda Jazz - it's a choice that's put into very stark terms in a crash-test video 2.

"The youngster will want to know: 'Does it have a stereo, how dark are the windows, how wide are the alloys?' Whereas, the parents should be asking: 'How safe is this car if you have an accident?'

"The car of today is a wonderful piece of engineering design," he adds. "Nearly all vehicles have anti-lock brakes and a stability control system. Increasingly, they have driver-assistance systems and autonomous emergency braking (AEB), which will apply the brakes with the intention of either avoiding an object ahead of you, or at least reducing the impact speed and minimising the collision. That's a great safety benefit and it's no longer the preserve of new £50,000 Mercedes and BMWs – they're out there in the second-hand market too."

Matthew Avery, director of insurance research at Thatcham, the car insurance industry's vehicle interrogation centre, says that AEB is most significant active safety technology in recent years.

He adds that if you're looking for the safest manufacturers, Volvo has been "consistently good”, while Mercedes, Toyota and the VW group "continue to prioritise safety".

The reassuring news is that almost all manufacturers have cars that perform well in the Thatcham tests, although he does pick out low-cost manufacturer Dacia for its limited safety performance and says he's disappointed with Jeep, which received a one-star rating for the Wrangler, and with Fiat, which recently scored zero stars for old designs that are still on sale.

Before you arrange to see a car...

Once you've identified your basic needs, it's worth using sites like Parkers, What Car? and Top Gear to find out more about particular makes and models. As well as reviews, you can check vehicle safety record and its emissions.

Matthew advises that as a minimum you should check that the vehicle has a valid Euro NCAP 3 rating (past six years) and prioritise five-star cars. "Bigger cars (even five-star) are typically safer than smaller five-star ones," he adds.

Then, when you've been online or out in person to find a vehicle you like the look of, use the HPI website 4 to check it for outstanding finance and to see if the car has ever been written-off (cost from £9.99).

If you're looking at a car on sale at a dealership, Carl says that it may well show up as having outstanding finance. This is something to check with them, as it may be their stock funding rather than anything to worry about with regard to previous owners.

Assuming you haven't been put off, you should then visit the DVLA website 5 to verify the vehicle's MOT history, when its current vehicle tax expires, the date it was first registered, engine size, year of manufacture, CO2 emissions and the current vehicle tax rate. For all these, you will need to know the licence plate number.

If in doubt about anything, the government has produced a handy step-by-step checklist to the legalities around buying a vehicle:

Are write-offs safe?

On the subject of safety, a potentially confusing area in the second-hand market relates to insurance write-offs that are available to buy, often more cheaply than they might otherwise have been. But is it safe to buy them?

Martin explains: "The write-off categories have been modified to provide greater clarity as to what they mean. We now have: A, B, S and N, where category A is effectively 'scrap only'. Vehicles that been burned out would fall into that category, for example.” 

Category B vehicles, meanwhile, have sustained substantial damage – and while there might be some parts that could be reused, the actual vehicle itself shouldn't be repaired. These vehicles cannot be re-registered with the DVLA. 

Category S is a repairable vehicle, but it has suffered structural damage. An insurance company has decided it's not viable for them to repair it, but it doesn't mean that the vehicle is necessarily beyond repair. Martin says: "If you see a category S you should make sure that those repairs were carried out by an appropriate person using the correct materials, equipment and methodology so that it's still a safe car.”

Finally, category N vehicles have suffered non-structural damage. Martin says: "Often it's quite an old car with a low intrinsic value that makes it less viable to repair. However, there's no reason why somebody doing the repairs themselves using second-hand parts, for example, might not put that vehicle back on the road.

"When buying these sorts of cars, it's sensible to go into it eyes wide open, making sure that you're doing due diligence and that you're happy that the vehicle's structural integrity and safety has been maintained.”

Dangerous driving

Caution is essential when buying a second-hand car. Only last year, London Trading Standards (LTS) found that a fifth of used cars advertised through online platforms had safety issues 6. LTS investigated 155 car advertisements and found that 18 vehicles had outstanding safety recalls, while six didn't match their advertised mileage, suggesting the odometer had been tampered with, or 'clocked'.

Perhaps more worrying, 10 vehicles were found to be insurance write-offs, a fact that had been omitted from the advert. Although this is a legal requirement for dealerships, private sellers don't have to inform buyers, as long as the vehicle is considered legally road-worthy.

What's more, 18 of the cars were either untaxed or had no MOT, so it would be illegal to take them for a test drive.

This is why it pays to do your research thoroughly. As Nicola Tudor, Chair of LTS' Fair Trading Group, noted: "When you're buying a second-hand car, it's important you don't get taken for a ride."

Find out what physical checks you should make on a vehicle, here.