How to buy a used car: Top tips from an expert

How to buy a used car: Top tips from an expert



Finding that bargain car is like good comedy: it’s all about timing. Here are the best buys, from superminis to sports cars, and when to buy them

Records show that demand for second-hand cars in Britain has never been higher. But even with plenty of supply the best used cars are often hard to find, although they don't have to be, if you know what you're looking for, and when best to look for them. James Ruppert has built a handy guide to make sure your next used purchase is only the best. 

We all know that cars come in many different flavours, sizes and specs, but that’s only part of the story – or journey – of our cars. They start out showroom fresh and then gradually spiral down in desirability and up in affordability. All we have to do is pick our moment to pounce.

Some motors make more sense at different times in their existence and the fun part is predicting the most opportune time to buy. It all depends on how much of a risk you want to take. But just about everything seems to become desirable at some point in its life – given enough time.

In theory, with unlimited funds and storage facilities, you might eventually win the car ownership long game. But because few of us are lucky enough to be set up that way, or we simply don’t have the patience, we’re going to explain the potential short cut to finding the car of your dreams for less than you thought. We have selected some examples in the most important groups, from practical to highly desirable.

But first, it’s worth knowing the basic rules that almost every car in circulation follows. So here you’ll see the life cycle for many of the cars in our lives. Obviously, Ferraris and Porsche 911s don’t really do these sorts of things, but most motors do. So let’s take a look at just what the future has in store for some of our used car favourites.

*New cars*

For some, new is the only way to buy. New cars are the only cars that can properly deliver that intoxicating showroomfresh aroma. Not only that, but we can also pick our dream specification. However, the price we pay is not only the recommended retail one but also the slightly longer-term – and colossal – cost of depreciation.

*Nearly new*

If you’re clever, you compromise on the car’s colour, wait for the depreciation’s heaviest hit to take its toll and go for nearly new, with a possible hint of pre-registration. All the joys of a new car, then, but with a marginal mileage and a healthy saving on the recommended retail price.

*Approved used*

A year or two down the line and perhaps an approved used model is the way to go. Manufacturers want to keep you in the vicinity of their showrooms, so a used car offer that includes an exhaustive tick list of things that have been checked, and all backed up by a decent warranty, is one way to do it.

*General automotive population (GAP)*

After three to five years, when the manufacturer protection runs out, the car is pitched into the general automotive population via auction, part-exchange or just a retail sale. These cars are usually found with independent dealers or possibly car supermarkets, and they’re still looking pretty good.


Roughly a decade on from their showroom debut, many cars are becoming Bangernomics candidates. Sitting at the bottom of the curve for desirability and with the last few drops of depreciation wrung out of them, these are ideal for anyone willing to take a chance.

*Spares or repair (SOR)*

The point at which any motor can take a turn for the worst – or make a bid for survival. It’s all down to the buyer. On the upside, a car broken for spares could help another similar model to live on, or could go to a scrappie. Barn finds are born here, although we loathe the term and the often corrupt concept.

*Ironic classic*


Old car survivors that haven’t succumbed to rust or neglect can at this point start to look a bit groovy. Previously ignored and even insulted, they are cheap and starting to look different from the rest of the street furniture. Slyly, they’re being given the ironic nod of respectability by hipsters and know-all snarky car hacks. Values are on the up

*Practical classic*


Once accepted as practical classics, cars are welcomed into the flatcapped fellowship of the classic car community and can now be parked in a field most weekends throughout the summer. They can be used to general acclaim on the streets and will always be let out at junctions.

*24-carat classic*

Some practical classics make the short leap from everyday motor to 24-carat must-have. High-profile magazine features help and these models become a staple of the upmarket auction circuit. Values rocket accordingly and everyone wishes they had bought into one rather earlier in its lifetime. If only they had read this feature… 



*When to buy:* New, approved used, GAP

BMW got its boutique offering dead right from the off. Buying new and choosing the specification is all part of the fun. Indeed, Mini showrooms have a sense of cheekiness that is carried over into the approved used scheme, which packs a 12-month warranty, rescue and MOT protection in with a 360deg check. Desirability continues in private and independent dealer sales and all models have depreciated at an improbably slow rate.

The really cheap ones have all sorts of issues that would cost the thick end of a grand to sort. Likely to follow its granddad as an upward appreciator, provided the spec is rarefied and the model just right. Which means you’ll need to find a decent Cooper S if you want to look after your money.

*Ford Fiesta*

*When to buy*: New, approved used, GAP, banger

Fine brand-new buy with a discount but arguably best as a nearly new car with even more off and found lurking in orderly rows at car supermarkets. Also available as the ultimate easy-to-own, cheap-to-run banger.


*Volkswagen Golf*

*When to buy:* New, approved used, GAP, banger, ironic classic

No one ever made a mistake buying a new Golf, even a diesel one. The only potential blot on the purchasing landscape is the possibility of a punitive tax on the oil-burning cheaters, but if the troubles mean a discount, then all well and good. Otherwise it remains a no-brainer buy. 

Golfs take far longer to become bangers these days as the premium finish and packaging slows depreciation. It’s always advisable to stick with the performance models if you want fun, and Volkswagen has offers for showroom visitors. A Golf GTI makes sense, but a Golf R may be the one to keep for the long term.

*Ford Focus*


When to buy: Approved used, GAP, banger

The working man/woman’s Golf. Great to drive and own. Like all Fords, not best bought brand new unless you get a whopping discount. Recent models have proved themselves to be worth a punt further down the ownership line and well out of warranty.


*Ford Mondeo*


*When to buy:* Nearly new, GAP, banger

If you were to buy a car by the square yard, the Mondeo would offer spectacular value for money. As with the Ford Focus and Ford Fiesta, it’s ideally not bought brand new but mostly enjoyed second or third-hand. There isn’t any obvious halo model to go for. If all you want is a roomy motor, the hatch is more than enough, and the estate can swallow luggage for the nation.

Nearly new is great if you intend to use the Mondeo on the motorway. If it’s going to serve as a family hatch, then a few years down the ownership line will deliver a Titanium-spec piece of practical loveliness. It will descend into reassuring bangerdom in a decade and, most important, always deliver.

*Skoda Superb*


*When to buy:* Nearly new, GAP, banger

As default minicabs go, the Superb is decent in every respect, from space to sophistication. It’s great to buy nearly new and from there run it into the ground. Long term, it’ll only ever be a supersized Skoda. Provided you don’t buy from a minicabber, you’ll be fine.


*Ford S-Max*


*When to buy: *Nearly new, approved used, GAP

Admitting that you need a box on wheels in your life, especially if you’re not a plumber, can be depressing. At least the S-Max adds a welcome dash of entertainment. You’d be a bit bonkers to buy a new one, but nearly new or approved used is all good. The other upside of an S-Max is that it has a certain style, and decades down the line it could even be Volkswagen Transporter cool (possibly).

It’s always better to let someone else pay for the highest-possible Titanium spec and right now diesel is the only way to go, unless you were thinking way ahead and can pay the modest 2.0-litre petrol bills. Actually, if you believe that the future could belong to heavily patinaed S-Maxes, a 2.5 V6 would be perfect – and a proper rarity.

*Citroën Nemo Multispace*


*When to buy:** *GAP, banger, ironic classic

Here is a marginally quirky Citroën that, aside from being buyable purely because of its lovable name, is roomy, practical and economical. It’s all the family vehicle that most will ever need. This snout-nosed oddity is even possibly a future Deux Chevaux with plastic knobs on. Never pay a fortune for one.


*Toyota Prius*


*When to buy:* Approved used, GAP, banger

However wrong-headed it may have been to brand the pious Prius as the saviour of planet earth, it was one of the first half-electric half-petrol cars we could buy – and it’s clearly the most successful. Although the future should have belonged to the seriously cool rocketship-shaped original Honda Insight, the Prius won out through sheer force of numbers. Despite looking like a designer chicken coup on wheels, it was bought in droves by progressives, but since then, being congestion charge free has helped the capital’s Uber slaves.

Replacing the battery pack costs less than a grand and being a Toyota is always a big help when it comes to not breaking down. In the brave new post-diesel world, the Prius looks like the brightest green thing in the car park. It is dull but significant and actually efficient as both a family mover and a city centre assault vehicle.

*Renault Twizy*

*When to buy:* Nearly new, approved used, GAP

What, no Nissan Leaf? They could become fairly huge paperweights in a decade’s time if you can’t replace the battery pack. The Twizy at least looks like you could use your gran’s mobility scooter to jump start it. It also looks groovy and is huge fun to get about in.


*Volvo XC90*


*When to buy:* New, nearly new, approved used, GAP

Surely, there’s some mistake here, isn’t there? The Range Rover ought to be on top in the posh 4x4 stakes, right? Well, if we’re being picky, the Toyota Land Cruiser should be here, except that it’s as stylish as a bog brush – which is where Volvo comes in. If you thought the previous XC90 was cool, clever and anti-bling, the latest one is the new middle-class hero of school-run mums with none of the nasty Range Rover baggage.

That’s reason enough to join the queue and pay full retail. Sensible buyers may choose to wait, possibly years, until the latest XC90 becomes truly affordable and any operating issues have been sorted. For those who can’t wait, there are dealer demonstrators in circulation, which seems like the best route for early Scandie Tractor adopters. It will be just as solid in half a century’s time.

*Range Rover *and* Range Rover Sport *

*When to buy:* Approved used, GAP, banger, ironic classic

As 1970s three-door Rangies reach the value stratosphere, it’s hard to imagine that the latest gaudy gin palace Footballers’ Wives ones are going to do the same. We suspect that the slightly naughty Sport will have more of a future-proof afterlife – provided it doesn’t break down.


*Subaru BRZ*


*When to buy: *New, approved used, GAP

The return of the real driver’s sports coupé is something to be celebrated, and the fact that this one comes decorated with a Subaru badge should be good news for the rehabilitation of a withering performance brand. Don’t ignore its Toyota GT86 twin, but the simple truth is that the number of Scoob versions sold is a fraction of that of the Toyotas. It’s always cooler to be exclusive, and that’s only going to help its classic car prospects.

Right now, though, it’s a cutting-edge, pared-down sports car, the grown-up’s Mazda MX-5 with a fixed roof. The SE version is all a real driver will ever need, but there is a LUX for softies. It’s so cheap that you could consider buying one brand new and sticking it in a barn for 25 years, but where’s the fun in that? Buy used.

*Hyundai Veloster*

*When to buy:* Approved used, GAP, banger, ironic classic

If you bought one new, well done. With only three years in UK showrooms before it was cancelled, here’s a future ironic classic. It has stubby styling and is not a great drive, but when Hyundai is bigger than Ford, this rare oddity could be one to keep and enjoy. Dare to be different.


*Mercedes-Benz SLK*

*When to buy:* New, approved used, GAP

If you want a convertible in the UK and you’re slightly soft, an SLK is perfect. You never know when the climate is going to change for the worse, so thank heavens that Mercedes made the flip-up tin-top the new normal. You could have spent a fortune on extras when buying new, so better to let someone else do that for you and come in later to enjoy the ride. It’s usefully bigger than the old one, too, and there’s a 55 AMG for when you want to get serious.

Hardly any were bought with manual gearboxes, so that may be a tip for the future. It looks good inside and out and is relatively affordable as an SLK200, but the 3.5 V6 could be the pick of the range instead of going for diesels.

*Mazda MX-5*

*When to buy:* New, approved used, GAP, banger, ironic classic, classic

We can never get away from the MX-5, and why should we? It will always catch us up. Even though the original one with the pop-up headlights is rusty but respected, they still aren’t silly money. Maybe they never will be. Here is a sports car built for driving at any age. Lots of perfect private ones to choose from.


*Jaguar XF*

*When to buy: *Approved used, GAP, banger, ironic classic

Well, yes, there is the smaller XE these days, but XFs are older and cheaper and will be due for a thorough reappraisal in the future. It still looks like golf club car park fodder but with a modern twist. We need to get the old fellas out of the driving seat, and we can do that by buying and driving these instead of the predictable Germans. Jaguars become affordable pretty quickly and there are a lot of engines to choose from, although the 5.0 V8 has to be the pick if you’re sandbagging for the future. Otherwise it would be the not very special diesel for everyday use. The later, facelifted cars look much better and the build quality is where it ought to be. Here’s living proof that you don’t need a BMW 5 Series or Mercedes E-Class.

*Audi A6*

*When to buy:* Nearly new, GAP, banger

An XF has appeal, but you might want an A6, which often finishes third behind the 5 Series and E-Class, although it shouldn’t, with an impressive finish and lots of engine and drivetrain options. The huge Avant estate has room for everything, too.


*Maserati Quattroporte*

*When to buy:* Approved used

You’d be mad to buy a Maserati when there are so many Mercedes, Bentley and Lexus-shaped alternatives – which is precisely why you should go down the four-door Ferrari route. Maseratis these days are far better built than they ever were during the darkest 1970s and 1980s era, plus this model has bedded in nicely over the past decade.

It isn’t really a limo as such. Instead, the Quattroporte is something you’d want to drive yourself around in while never looking like you’re operating a luxury minicab. It’s a big car and you’ll feel great about owning it. By all means, buy from new, but a dealer’s used car or buying from an independent with a cast-iron warranty is the best way forward. Long term, it will be a classic.

*Jaguar XJ*

*When to buy: *GAP, banger, ironic classic

This is proper Jaguar territory: grace, pace and all that. The XJ looks every inch the modern barge, although there are very few in circulation. Diesel is always the obvious buy, but the V8 petrol is there for the brave because depreciation has cut right through them.

What to buy: 2010 XJ V8 Premium Luxury, £21,000


Porsche 911s, Ferraris and Lamborghinis are not like other cars. Their life cycle is rather different and, in some cases, they may not depreciate very much at all.

The proper exotica shifts from new, possibly nearly new and to approved used at roughly the same sort of prices. At no identifiable point will a Ferrari ever become a marginal banger. Even when it leaves the dealer network, it won’t be a GAP, but more likely SAP — for ‘specialist automotive population’ — provided the owner has maintained its history and value.

The only way these models ever reach ‘spares or repair’ status is if they’re written off. However, if for any reason the Ferrari or Lamborghini is parked in a lock-up and then ignored for a generation, it only enhances its future appeal and value, because the mileage won’t move. Patina is cool — and it costs.

Not all 911s are equal, of course. After periods in the wilderness, the affordable 996-series and 997-series 911s have become more sought after, and anything with ‘RS’ or ‘Porsche Turbo’ in its name never has a problem being more desirable than other models. Again, no 911 is ever a banger, and it will only enter GAP status for a short period before someone rescues it and spends money on it and the value cycle rises again.

This article was originally published on 20 February 2017 and updated on 30 June 2022. 

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