’s Guide to Buying a second hand car

Thinking about buying a car?

When buying a second hand vehicle, you are expected to do some research (service history, previous owners, etc) which can sound quite daunting at first.

The few tips below should help you get started and familiar with what you need to look out for and which questions to ask.

Once you’ve browsed the site and have found a vehicle that matches your criteria, the next step is to contact the seller.

Before you call:

  • Read through the ad’s description carefully
  • Check the seller / dealer’s feedback
  • Compare with other similar cars

On the phone:

  • Tell the seller you’re calling about the car for sale. If he asks you which one, he could be a car dealer, in which case he has to notify you.
  • Ask for any important details that are not showing on the ad’s description (NCT, tax, any crash?)
  • Ask for the vehicle’s registration number and check the vehicle’s history using one of the following websites ,,,
  • Arrange a test drive during the day

Checking the car:

– Questions to ask:

  • Has the vehicle ever been crashed?
  • Has any bodywork been done to the vehicle by you or by others?
  • Has any major mechanical work been done on the vehicle by you or by others?
  • What is the correct mileage for this vehicle?
  • How many previous owners has the vehicle had?
  • Is there any outstanding finance on the vehicle?
  • When was the last full service carried out on the vehicle?
  • Has the vehicle been imported and if so, have all relevant charges been paid (VAT, VRT, etc…)?

Questions which can also be asked when buying from a motor trader

  • Are you a member of any trade association?
  • How long is the guarantee period on the vehicle?
  • What does the guarantee cover (parts, labour, etc…)?

Physical check:

  • What to look for on the outside of a vehicle:
    • Check for any sign of damage and wear and  tear (dents, doors out of line, gaps, rust, etc)
    • Check the tyres for wear and tear.
    • Look out for leaks on the ground.
  • What to look for inside the vehicle:
    • Check that lights, doors, wipers, and all other electric equipment work properly
    • Check how many airbags the vehicle has and ask if they are in order. Ask what other safety features are present, like a three-point centre seat belt in the back, secure fixing points for a child seat, Anti-Lock Braking system (ABS), etc…?
    • Check and note the displayed mileage on the odometer. Note whether this is displayed in miles or kilometres. You need to be absolutely certain that this is the correct mileage before you buy the vehicle.
    • Check that the boot will suffice for all of your daily needs. Check under mats for anything untoward like leaks, or holes in the floor which could indicate that a tow bar was present at one time.
    • Check that the spare wheel, and full wheel replacement kit is there. Some cars might have what’s called a “space-saver” wheel which is smaller than the wheels on the vehicle. Such wheels are usually subject to both speed and distance restrictions. If the vehicle has alloy wheels, check that the tool or “key” to release/secure these is present.
  • What to look for under the bonnet:
    • Check that there is a Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) present in the engine bay which matches the vehicle’s registration documents. If the VIN is not present, has numbers scratched off, or the numbers do not match the vehicle’s documentation, you should not buy this vehicle as there is every possibility it has been tampered with, or it may even have been stolen. You should also report the matter to the Gardaí.
    • Are there any signs of leaks?
    • Remove the dipstick and check that there is an appropriate amount of oil in the vehicle and that the oil is clean.
    • Are there any strange noises when the engine is running?
    • Ask, and note, if and when the timing belt has been changed as problems here can prove very costly.
    • Are there any signs of spray paint or a different shade of paint in the engine bay (this is known as “overspray” and could indicate the vehicle has been in a crash and has been re-sprayed)?
    • Are there any signs of freshly welded metal (this is a good indicator of damage and should be questioned)

It is strongly advised that you get a mechanic, an auto engineer or a person with some mechanical background to inspect the vehicle. A professional has no emotional attachment to the vehicle and should give you an impartial view.

– Test Drive

  • Try to take the vehicle for a test drive over a reasonable distance, on differing road surfaces and conditions (country road, in-town and motorway). Make sure you are insured to do this before setting off.
  • Look, feel, listen and smell for anything untoward while driving the vehicle. Remember to turn the radio off so you can listen properly.
  • The presence of unusual noises, smells and/or blue smoke from the exhaust once the engine is running may be bad news and you should seriously consider walking away from the deal if you notice these.
  • Consider how it handles, accelerates, stops, how comfortable it is and how easy it is to use all the functions in the cabin.

– Documentation

You will need to check that the details in the vehicle’s documentation accurately match every detail of the vehicle, right down to colour and body type. A seller should be able to supply you documents.

  • In the case of cars sold before January 1, 1993, the relevant documentation is called the Logbook.
  • For cars sold between January 1993 and May 2004, cars will have been issued with a Registration Certificate before being taxed, and a Licensing Certificate (RF101) after being taxed. The seller should be able to supply you with both of these documents.
  • Cars sold after May 2004 will have a single document called a Vehicle Registration Certificate.

You should carefully check the vehicle’s handbook (which guides you through all the functions of the vehicle) to see that it matches the model of vehicle you are looking at and, ideally, that it has a full, stamped service history with regular service intervals.

Once the sale is agreed:

– Payment advice

  • If you are paying a deposit, make sure to get a signed receipt. If you are attaching conditions to this deposit, such as “pending inspection”, be sure to have that written on the receipt
  • Paying by cash is not safe as it’s not traceable and could lead to difficulties if something goes wrong after the sale.
  • Paying by cheque or bank draft leaves a paper trail.

– Handover

Once you have the money in place to make the payment, make sure that the seller can supply you with:

  • The relevant Registration Document.
  • A written warranty, if possible.
  • The vehicle’s handbook.
  • All the keys for the vehicle – new cars are normally supplied with two keys! You should check that each key operates all the functions that they are supposed to.
  • A written or verbal warranty stating that the mileage on the odometer is genuine. If the statement is verbal, make a note of what was said.
  • A  signed receipt for payment.

If you are dealing with a private seller, make sure you have an address or a landline number in order to follow up the matter should you have problems after the purchase

For information on how to transfer ownership, visit the Citizens Information’s website

Your rights

Your rights depend on whether you are buying the car from a trader or from a private individual.

  • A trader is generally referred to as a “dealer”, and buys and sells cars as part of their business
  • A private seller generally has only one car to sell, and is not selling it in the course of a business

In general, if you are buying a car for private use from a dealer, you are fully protected by consumer laws, which also give you the right to take legal action if your rights are not upheld.

But the same consumer rights do not exist when you are buying a car privately, as the seller is not acting in the course of a business. So you need to be more careful and well informed before buying a car in this way.

Similarly, if you are buying a car/jeep/van for your trade, business or profession, you may not be covered by consumer law.

While consumer protection legislation generally does not cover private sales, there is still a requirement on a seller to give you accurate and truthful information to any questions that you ask. However, there is no obligation on the private seller to offer up any information freely, so you will have to know which questions to ask in the first place. If you have been, or believe you have been, supplied with dubious information which left you out-of-pocket you should consider taking legal advice to see if you can recoup your loss.

Safety Tips

  • Be wary of sellers not willing to be contacted by phone. It could be a scam.
  • Never send out any money by wire transfer (Western Union, etc) and never give any money, even a deposit, before you see the car.
  • If the deal sounds too good to be true, it probably is!
  • Seek professional advice before you buy the car.

You can download the NCA’s guide to buying a car here.

If you are unsure about an ad on our site, please report it using the report button or contact us at [email protected] and we will be more than happy to help.

Happy car hunting!