1) Do your research
Find out as much as you can about the vehicle. How much will you have to pay in insurance? Road tax? Fuel? Are there any common faults with this vehicle that should be checked? Of course, in the age of the Internet, these facts are easier to find than they used to be.
2) Check the book price
This is the best way of making sure that you are not paying over the odds for your car. It can also act as a basis for further negotiation, especially if you are negotiating a discount for problems with the car or missing service history.
3) Check the seller
Once you've found a potential car, there are a few simple things you can do to help check that you are dealing with a legitimate seller. Remember, whilst cars purchased from a dealer will be a little more expensive, you do benefit from a certain amount of extra legal protection should there be a problem with your purchase. When calling a private seller, ask about “the car". If they ask “which car" you may be dealing with a dealer that is trying to pretend otherwise, thus avoiding their legal obligations. Make sure you are able to visit the car at the sellers home (or business premises if they are a dealer). This should match the address shown on the car's V5 registration document.
4) Look it over
Inspect the vehicle thoroughly in daylight. If you are not mechanically minded, and you can't bring along someone that is, it may well be worth getting an independent inspection. These inspections can be expensive but if they find hidden problems, you may be able to use them to negotiate down the price.
5) Take it for a drive
Make sure you are insured on the vehicle and have proof to show the seller. Drive the car for 10-15 miles on a mixture of fast and slow roads, and do some slow manoeuvring both forward and in reverse. If possible, have the seller drive some of the way while you listen carefully for any noises or vibrations, then take over at the wheel to make sure everything feels right.
6) Check the mileage
Does the mileage look consistent with the wear and tear on the car? The wear on the pedals, steering wheel and gear knob is often a good sign of this. Check the current mileage against previous MOTs if it is an older car (the further these go back the better), and the service history for newer cars. The V5 may also show the mileage at the last sale.
7) Check the paper work
Check the big three – V5, tax and MOT (if over three years old). Check they are all present, that the registration number and chassis number match the vehicle (the chassis number will be either in the engine bay or under the carpet by the front door - check these have not been tampered with), and that the name and address match both each other and the person selling the vehicle.
8) Check the service history
A full record of all servicing, carried out on time and by an appropriate dealer is important for all cars, and especially important for specialist vehicles such as 4x4s and high performance cars. If the car is still under manufacturer's warranty, the warranty will only be valid if the services are carried out at franchised dealers within the recommended time frames.
For older cars, the service history is likely to be less complete. However, check to see if the seller has receipts for work he has had done.
9) Get an HPI check
This will reveal if the car has outstanding finance, if it has been stolen, written off or if it has been clocked. The RAC are currently offering a car data check for only £5. The checks are available instantly and are powered by HPI (the company that originated this type of check).
10) Be a good buyer
Be a good buyer by turning up on time for your viewing, making a prompt decision (having done all the appropriate checks), and offering to take the car away promptly. If you need a loan, get it in place beforehand so you are ready to go. Offer the seller a guaranteed method of payment that both you and the seller are happy with.
Being a good buyer that is able to move quickly is the best way of negotiating a good discount on the price of a car that is in otherwise perfect condition.