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Saturday, 9 October 2010

Buying a car: your consumer rights

There are thousands of new and second hand cars on the market, so choosing a car can be complicated. It makes sense to know how to choose a seller, your rights and what to do if things go wrong.

Your rights when you buy a new or second hand car

You have more rights if you buy a car from a dealer than if you buy from a private seller. The Sale of Goods Act 1979 may apply to contracts between private individuals, but only certain parts of it.

If you buy from a private individual you can expect the seller to have the right to sell the goods and for the goods to be as described.

When you buy goods from a trader, they should also be of 'satisfactory' quality. This means that the goods meet the standard that a reasonable person would regard as satisfactory, taking into account:

  • the way they are described
  • their price
  • any other relevant circumstances, such as they are second hand


Manufacturers’ and other warranties offer protection that is over and above your legal rights under the Sale of Goods Act. A warranty cannot offer a consumer less than they would expect from the Sales of Goods Act.

Generally when a warranty is offered, the terms and conditions are set by the warranty provider. Therefore it is up to you to make sure that you are aware of what the warranty provides.

Buying from a dealer

Choosing a dealer

Avoid dodgy dealers by looking for a firm with a good reputation. Ask the advice of friends and look for a trade association sign which should mean the dealer follows a code of practice.

The Retail Motor Industry Federation or the Scottish Motor Trade Association can give you a list of dealers that are trade association members. 

Before you buy

Make sure you ask the dealer questions like what mechanical, history and mileage checks they have done on the second-hand car you want to buy.  Also, ask for important information about the car to be put in writing before you buy - don't just rely on what the salesperson tells you.

Your rights when buying from a dealer

When you buy from a dealer, the law says a car must be of satisfactory quality. It must meet the standard a reasonable person would regard as acceptable, taking into consideration:

  • the way it was described
  • how much it cost
  • the age and the mileage of the vehicle

This covers things like:

  • appearance and finish (paintwork)
  • safety
  • durability (how strong they are)

The car must be free from problems, except where they were pointed out to you by the seller. The car must also be as described. So if the advert says ‘air conditioning’, then the car should have this feature and it should work.

The car should also be reasonably fit for any normal purpose, which means it should get you from one place to another. The car should also be reasonably fit for any other purpose you specify to the seller, for example, towing a caravan.

Buying from a private seller

Buying privately should be cheaper than buying from a dealer, but it is riskier. The car may be stolen, or it may have been used as security for a loan or hire agreement and actually belong to a finance company. It’s always a good idea to complete an HPI (hire purchase information) check on a car. This might show up any outstanding finance or insurance claims made on the vehicle.

Your rights when you buy from a private seller

You have fewer legal rights if you buy privately. The car must be as described, but the other rules that apply to dealers don't apply.

If a private seller lies about the condition of a car, you can take them to court and sue for your losses. You can contact your local Citizens Advice Bureau for advice.

Are they a dealer?

Some dealers pretend to be private sellers to avoid their legal obligations and get rid of faulty or over-priced cars. Warning signs to look out for include:

  • adverts which give a mobile phone number or say a time to call (it may be a public phone box, not the seller's home)
  • the same phone number appears in several adverts
  • the seller wants to bring the car to you
  • when you get to the seller’s home, there are a lot of cars for sale on the street

If the seller is really a dealer, then your full legal rights apply.

What to do if things go wrong

Making a complaint

Use Consumer Direct's template letters to make a complaint about a car-buying issue

Always try and resolve any problems you have with the seller of the vehicle. If you aren’t satisfied and the dealer is a member of a trade association, then contact Motor Codes Limited or the trade association for advice.

If you are still not satisfied, an option may be to go to court. This may often be the case if you have been dealing with a private seller.

If you buy a vehicle with a credit agreement or a credit card, the finance/credit card company may also be in a position to help if problems arise. However if you buy using a Hire Purchase agreement, your legal rights only allow you to raise problems with the finance company.

Different ways of buying a car – what to look out for

If you want to know what you should look out for when buying a car at auction or over the internet, follow the link below.

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