Buyer beware: how to spot clocking, stolen cars and hidden damage in today’s used-car market

The vast majority of UK car buyers opt for used over new cars, but they need to be aware of potential problems before taking the plunge


Going used is by far the most popular way to buy a car in the UK. Anyone taking this route needs to be aware of several pitfalls they may encounter in the process, but thankfully, avoiding them is pretty straightforward, thanks to car history checking service carVertical and its hand-picked experts we’ll quote here.

But first, let’s look at the potential issues:

Clocking

Whether it’s an older car with a mechanical odometer or a newer vehicle with a digital unit, it’s possible to wind back the mileage. This will make the car appear fresher than it really is, thus increasing the price it could achieve on the used market.

Interestingly, the act itself of clocking a car isn’t illegal, but selling a vehicle without disclosing an altered mileage is against the law. Should you become a victim, you could be looking at higher repair and maintenance bills, owing to the greater level of wear on the car, while being further out of pocket due to the drop in value once the vehicle’s true mileage is revealed.

Hidden damage

A car that seemingly looks fine on the outside could be hiding some nasty secrets. It might have been involved in an accident, meaning it’s worth less and in some cases could even be unsafe to drive. It could have been written off by the insurance company – meaning it either cannot be repaired or would be uneconomical to repair – a fact some buyers decide to hide.

There are four categories of insurance write-offs, the letter designations of which have been rejigged in recent years:

●  A: Vehicle cannot be repaired and must be crushed

●  B: Vehicle cannot be repaired, shell must be crushed but other parts may be salvaged

●  S: Vehicle can be repaired to roadworthy condition after sustaining structural damage

●  N: Vehicle can be repaired after sustaining “non-structural damage”

If you’ve unwittingly bought a vehicle previously involved in an accident, at best you’ll be stung by the loss of value, and at worst it may need to be crushed. Meanwhile, some deliberately choose to buy a vehicle disclosed as a category S or N written-off vehicle owing to the decreased values, but buyers should be careful, says James Martin of YouTube channel JayEmm on Cars (below).

“Some of them have been written off because they were considered old and worthless at the time and given away for scrap without real damage done to them, but then gained the status of a classic,” Martin says. “But there are also cases when you buy a category N car and then realise there are way more serious problems underneath.”

Driving a write-off could lead to increased insurance premiums, while some providers may refuse to cover you at all.

Outstanding finance

When buying a car, you’ll need to complete the new keeper supplement of the V5C or ‘logbook’, which the seller will then send off. The DVLA then dispatches a fresh V5C with your details on it, indicating that you are now the registered keeper. That wording is important.

“Note the term registered keeper,” says motoring journalist Mat Watson (above), adding, “This means you are responsible for the car in terms of tax, insurance and fines. But it is not a sign of ownership.” The owner could, in fact, be a finance company which hasn’t yet been fully paid back for the vehicle.

Those in the middle of Hire Purchase or Personal Contract Purchase contracts aren’t allowed to sell the car they’re stumping up monthly payments for, unless the outstanding balance is paid. Not that this stops some unscrupulous sellers.

Stolen cars

According to the Home Office, over 100,000 cars were stolen in Britain last year. While lots of them are broken for parts and/or are taken out of the country, many end up on the UK used market. If you’re one of the unlucky ones who buys a stolen car, you can expect to lose both the vehicle and the money you spent on it. Sometimes stolen cars are sold with cloned plates, masking their history.

It is possible to legitimately buy a car that has been officially-declared stolen and recovered, however. It can be bought either from a private seller, a dealer or directly from a police auction, taking advantage of a lower price.

What can you do about these issues?

While much of the above sounds frightening, it’s really easy to protect yourself. Many of the issues outlined can be avoided with a car history check which will tell you if a vehicle has been stolen, written off or has outstanding finance and more. If you end up unknowingly buying a car with outstanding finance, you do at least have the right to keep the car under ‘good title’ rules, and it’s up to the firm owed money to prove otherwise. It’s also worth checking yourself if a car’s registration number and VIN match what’s on the logbook.

It’s a good idea to get an independent inspection on a car to look for hidden issues, ensuring the seller is being honest. However, taking every potential purchase to a mechanic can be both time-consuming and expensive. Using a carVertical history check, you can filter out the ‘bad apples’, – stolen, damaged, or clocked cars – so you only pay your mechanic to inspect cars you’re really likely to buy.

Ignas Urbanovičius of Lithuanian auto channel UBR Team explains how you can use carVertical to check for clocking: “Because car mileage is usually clocked just before the MOT tests and if you only look at the MOT data, the mileage graph rises steadily, but when you add the data from the servicing history, you can see the bumps,” he says.

You might also want to consider how you pay for the car. If buying from a dealer you could use your credit card for part – or all, depending, on the purchase price – as doing so gives additional consumer protection.

For more information on how to protect yourself when buying a used car, head over to carVertical’s in-depth guide now.

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