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Your guide to buying a used car online

Buying a used car online may not be cheaper than at a dealership, but the simplicity and the convenience will win out for many car buyers

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Well before we were grounded by lockdowns, the number of times a car buyers would visit a physical dealership before choosing a new or used car had been decreasing.

New car buyers were only visiting an average of 1.2 dealerships prior to the coronavirus pandemic, having digested all the online road tests, compared prices and used the specification configurator to select the perfect piping for the carpet mats.

There will always be those who find this a pleasure, but more and more customers are getting used to the idea of foregoing the traditional dealership altogether. Covid-19 has enforced contactless handovers for traditional dealerships, but most car buyers have still ended up at a showroom to test drive or collect their new car. Some brands are now offering home delivery, however, and it’s been well received by customers.

But it’s not just new cars. There’s been an explosion in fixed-priced online used car buying as well. The entire process can now take place without ever having to leave your home, from companies such as Cazoo and CarShop (both partners of ours here at The Car Expert), as well as others like Carzam and Cinch.

Cazoo is one of the UK's biggest sites for buying a used car online

The basics of all-in online used car buying

There are differences between these new companies offering used car delivery to your door, but aspects common to all are:

  • A stock of used cars from different brands, which are refurbished and checked to set quality standards
  • Online listing with numerous exterior and interior photos and in some cases indications of blemishes above normal wear and tear
  • Details of the car’s service history online
  • A fixed price, with the ability to add finance and extras, and reserve with a small deposit
  • A part exchange valuation tool
  • Delivery to your home or office by an operator who will give a detailed handover
  • A ‘no quibble’ returns policy for seven or 14 days after delivery

Pros of buying a used car online

Buying a used car online is potentially as easy as buying anything else online, like a new mattress or a fridge. The ability to compare and research as much as you want, securing exactly the car that you want and not having to sell your old car separately. You know exactly what you are buying. There should be a good standard of customer service coupled to a delivery slot to suit you and a handover which should feel as special as having a new car arrive.

Various types of finance, such as a hire purchase (HP) or personal contract purchase (PCP) will be offered alongside your used car as is common practice on manufacturer websites but don’t forget to compare the interest rate with a bank loan, as it can be very high on used car finance.

Some suppliers offer a panel of lenders, while many will also be able to offer an extended warranty, servicing and breakdown cover for an additional monthly fee.

It doesn’t have to be done entirely online. Car supermarket Carshop offers both home delivery and the chance to compare cars in one of eleven locations and to test drive. Cazoo has 17 locations across the UK where you can collect the car in person and some also have servicing attached.

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Cons of online used car buying

A used car site or supermarket’s stock will tend to reflect the preferences of the company car market of two or three years ago, because a lot of the cars will be returned lease vehicles. That can mean less choice. For example, selecting petrol rather than diesel can narrow your choice because, three years ago, fleets still bought a lot more diesel cars than petrol ones.

A manufacturer’s approved used car site usually allows you to get down to a specification which can be much more precise than the generic tick boxes of a mixed car used car supplier – for example, a used Mini with a specific option pack or colour combination.

The price is fixed with an online used retailer. This can be either a pro or a con, depending on how you look at it. The companies maintain that their prices are lower in any case because of reduced overheads. However, don’t assume that it will always be less than a manufacturer’s approved used price.  It’s usually easy to cross compare any chosen car of the same specification and some approved used and big dealer chain sites have a ‘make an offer’ or ‘make a bid’ option.

Manufacturers’ approved used car schemes tend to offer a minimum 12-month warranty, whereas 90 days is the norm for a used car retailer. Again, look at your end price – there may be spare cash to add an extended warranty.

The mixed brand online used car retailers won’t usually offer test drives, so you need to be sure that the car will suit you. Don’t forget the simple things such as checking the dimensions to make sure you’re not going to be hitting the gatepost or scraping the raised garage door!

What about my part exchange?

Like new and approved used car sites, you can the enter your current car’s registration number and mileage for what is usually called a ‘no obligation’ part exchange valuation. Although you’ll be asked to provide as much detail as possible, the final decision won’t be until the company has inspected your old car in person when the new one is delivered

The company will reserve the right not to accept the part exchange – for example if it is damaged, won’t start or is unroadworthy – and cancel the order. These will be listed on the terms and conditions.

Alternatively, there are equally simple ways to sell your car online without part-exchanging it to the dealership. For example, The Car Expert has partnered with online selling agency Motorway to allow you to sell your car to the trade quickly and easily.

What if I just don’t like it?

If you can’t take a test drive, what if it becomes clear that you soon find the seats make your back hurt, the engine seems too weedy or it’s too big or too small? Luckily, you have clear consumer rights when buying a used car online.

The new online used car retailers all have returns policies with no need to provide a reason but you have a limit of seven or 14 days to request a return. This is unlike manufacturer approved used car schemes which have 30-day exchange policies based on a fault being developed or not needing to specify a reason. However, you are locked into an exchange with the same dealer, not getting your money back.

All of the new breed of online used car suppliers provide details of their return/cancellation policies on their websites, where they must explain any extra charges. A common condition for accepting a car back is not having covered more than 250 miles. Fair wear and tear is accepted but you’ll have to pay for any damage. However, one major deterrent to sending your car back is that you won’t get your part exchange returned, although you’ll get the cash equivalent or be offered help to find a replacement.

Beyond retailer policy, you are also protected by the law – specifically the Consumer Contracts (Information, Cancellation and Additional Charges) Regulations 2013. This is ultimately more powerful and valuable than any company policy, which can be altered by any business when it suits.

In a nutshell, you have the legal right to cancel your purchase from the moment an order is placed until 14 days after taking delivery of the car. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a new or used car, the law is the same.

To conclude; buying a used car online may not be as cheap as it may appear and you still need to do your research to find a car you’re not likely to return, but the simplicity and the convenience will win out for many.

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Russell Hayes
Russell Hayeshttps://amzn.to/3dga7y8
Russell Hayes’ early career was 14 years of motoring journalism in print, television and online. He worked for What Car? and Complete Car magazines, the BBC's original Top Gear programme and Channel 4's Driven. Since 2007 he has written motoring history books on subjects including Lotus, TVR, the Earls Court Motor Show, the Volkswagen Golf, Volkswagen Beetle and Bus and the original Aston Martin V8. Now a full-time author, two more books are in the pipeline for 2023 and 2024.