Direct Line magazine

A guide to buying your first car

Updated on: 29 March 2021

a woman smiles behind the wheel of her new car

Buying your first car is a major moment. Whether you’ve saved up for it, taken out a loan to finance it or the bank of mum and dad are stepping in, it’s something you’ll never forget.

To help you make the right choice we’ve put together this guide to buying your first car. You don’t want to waste your money on a lemon, so follow the points below to make sure you get the drive of your dreams.

Setting your budget

It always makes sense to set a hard budget and stick to it. The temptation can be to have a price in mind and then keep letting little ‘nice to haves’ bump you up and up.

But don’t just budget for the cost of the purchase. Consider all the running costs that you can’t avoid. These include:

  • Car insurance - Which can be expensive for new drivers.
  • Road tax – Unless your car is exempt.
  • MOT – After a car is older than three years it must undergo an annual MOT test to ensure its roadworthiness. Any maintenance needed to make it fit for driving has to be carried out. This can include brakes, headlamps and tyres.
  • Fuel - You’ll need fuel if you want to drive anywhere.

Finding your first car

These days, finding a car is the easiest part. You can either visit local dealerships or head online to browse new and used cars at your convenience.

If you want to buy a second-hand vehicle through a private seller then the internet is just as helpful. AutoTrader have an online search system with hundreds of thousands of cars listed, then of course there are places like GumTree and FreeAds. It might take some searching, but that’s half the fun.

Salesman showing young couple features of a car

Checking things over

If you’re buying a new car you're protected by law and covered with a warranty should anything go wrong. However, it’s a good idea to give the car a visual check before driving it off the lot. The reason being that if you spot a scratch or ding when you get it home it’s very difficult to prove it didn’t happen after you left. If your car is being delivered, many dealers allow no quibble returns if you're not happy with the car.

Buying a second-hand car is a different matter. You’ll either be buying from a dealer or from a private seller. When you buy from a dealer you’ll have some protection, whereas buying privately really is a case of buyer beware.

If buying from a dealer, remember:

  • Many used car dealers have their vehicles independently checked, and will be members of a trade association. This means they will follow codes of practice and should ensure you’re in safe hands.

  • Used car dealers are bound by law to make sure that everything they sell is:

    • Of satisfactory quality – This means that the quality of the car is in keeping with its age, make, model, mileage etc.

    • Fit for purpose – That the car is capable of carrying out all the functions you would expect of it.

    • Legal to drive – It is illegal for anyone to sell a car that does not meet legal requirements.

    • Matches its description – If the advert says the car has central locking it must be in working condition. If any features that are described in the advert are missing or non-functioning then the dealer is in violation of the Sale of Goods Act.

Remember that dealers aren’t liable for any damage you cause through accident or misuse, neither are they liable for what is deemed fair wear and tear.

When buying from a private seller you don’t have much recourse should something prove to be wrong with the vehicle, or is not as you expected. So, remember to keep the following in mind:

  • Check all the paperwork. If they can’t provide documentation or the car is registered in a different name, the documents contain mistakes, details that don’t match (such as the vehicle colour and engine number) or it lacks a current MOT, this should start alarm bells ringing.
  • Is the mileage consistent with the age and look of the car? It is possible for old, well-maintained cars to have low mileage but be wary.
  • Check the mileage on the car against MOT tests certificates and service records if they have them.
  • Is the paint finish even, or can you see panels that look different?
  • Look in the boot and under the bonnet. Are there signs of unusual welding or rust?
  • Do the tyres have sufficient tread? If they are low they will need replacing either immediately or in the near future.
  • Is the spare tyre, jack and the vehicle’s toolkit present?
  • Are the seatbelts functioning and undamaged?
  • Do any fault lights appear on the dashboard? Check against the manual.
  • Are your washers and wipers functional?
  • Are all lights functioning? You may need someone else to help you with this, or simply ask the owner to activate them all while you inspect from outside.
  • Do all the locks, windows and internal controls for air conditioning, radio and so on work properly?
  • Are there signs of rust under the footwell mats or under the car?

Take it for a spin

If you’re satisfied with the above then the next stage of our first car buying guide is to take the car for a test drive. If the owner or dealer doesn’t want you to, then walk away. Otherwise hop in and take it for a drive. Be sure the engine is cold before you begin, because an engine that has been warmed could be hiding problems. As you drive keep the following in mind:

  • Test the clutch – Before pulling away be sure to test the biting point of the clutch. If it doesn’t bite until the clutch is almost fully engaged then it is probably worn and in need of replacement.
  • Performance – How does the car behave as you accelerate? Does it pull to one side? How does it take corners? As you put the car through its paces listen out for any odd sounds or vibrations.
  • High-speed driving – Problems with the front portion of the vehicle can be masked at low speeds, so make sure you push the car over 60mph for at least one part of the test drive.
  • Smooth gear shifts – When shifting through gears, does the transmission feel smooth or can you feel problems?
  • Test the brakes – When you apply the brakes how does it feel? Is the braking responsive or does it feel soft and require a lot of pressure? Also, be aware of the car pulling to one side as you brake.
  • Steering wheel vibrations – Does the steering wheel vibrate when driving?

While dealerships are likely to have insurance in place for a test drive, private sellers may not have any such cover. Be sure to check with your insurer about cover for test driving a car.

Remember that a major part of your running costs will be insurance and tax

How to haggle

Here are some tips for getting the best deal possible, and remember the price on a new car is no more “fixed” than that of a second-hand car:

  • Get an idea of what you should be paying for the car. You’ll find online car valuation tools, as well as buying guides from the major car magazines. This applies for both new and used cars. Use this information to set your starting price, or ask a dealer to match or beat.
  • For a used car, always go in low. Don’t go lower than the bottom range of prices for that model, or you risk making the seller unwilling to bargain. But by going in low you can let the seller negotiate up, which gives them a sense of control.
  • If on checking the car over, and test driving it, you find some problems or minor issues, you can use these to keep the price down. Some issues can be worth sorting yourself if you get the car for a good enough price.
  • Don’t be afraid to walk away. Remember it’s just a car, and you shouldn’t pay more than you expect to. There’s a balance to be struck to keep both parties happy, but really the power is on your side.

Insurance and taxing your car

Remember that a major part of your running costs will be insurance and tax. For a first car it’s always a good idea to get something that isn’t massively powerful and in one of the lower insurance groups. These will also often have lower road tax costs, with some having none at all.

Hopefully this guide to buying your first car will help you choose the right vehicle.

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