Personally, I had to go through two major screw ups before I getting third time lucky, so I think I’ve a good deal of experience on what to avoid and what to look out for. There are some pitfalls out there!
This will be a summary of my experience when buying a vehicle in the UK, which I hope people will find useful.
Checklist when buying a used vehicle
- Buying from a private individual (usually the best option as the van is often much better treated, however these are harder to find)
- Full Manufacturers Service History (not 100% necessary but tends to be a very good sign)
- MOT history without a long list of advisories is a sign it was well treated (in the UK you can access the online database here)
- Good bodywork with original paint job and hopefully no rust (commercial vans are often abused so this is an obvious sign of how it was treated – any sign of having been in an accident is a deal breaker for me! Walk away! See here)
- Good tyres, but not necessarily new! (tyre wear is important to look at when buying a vehicle – have a look here for guidance)
- Get a good look at the vehicle when you see the same model parked on the street. This way you’ll have experience judging the quality of the bodywork for that particular model and what the signs might be of it having been in an accident (see here)
- Watch out for dealers posing as private sellers online – ask them if they are a dealer, a company or an individual.
- Haggle the price to what you think is a reasonable amount – don’t be afraid to do this
Note – commercial vans usually have VAT added on top but, in my experience, whether it comes with VAT or not doesn’t really matter so much as the total price.
Browsing vehicle ads on Ebay, AutoTrader and Gumtree
The vehicle I ended up buying was via Gumtree however the two previous purchases were via Ebay. AutoTrader and Ebay are probably better than Gumtree simply because the pictures on display are usually at a higher resolution so you can make a more educated decision on whether you want to go see it. Nothing beats seeing the vehicle in person obviously – all the angles and details you don’t see in photos are on full display so when you travel to see a vehicle make sure you take your time and don’t let yourself feel rushed (whatever the reason!).
I think the best way to help others looking to buy a used vehicle is to go through the experiences I’ve had. So without further a do here they are:
The first van I bought was from a dealership
The stereotype of a sleazy used car dealer is unfortunately there for a reason. Car or Van salesmen want to sell you the vehicle at the highest possible price and often don’t mind hiding the truth to help get the deal they want. You on the other hand want to buy the vehicle at the lowest possible price and want the vehicle to be in the best possible condition. Therefore this encounter is by definition one of a conflicting interests.
This van looks great right? This is the one I bought and it was a unfortunately a costly mistake.
At time time I saw the advert for this van on Ebay I was in a rush to buy and obviously not in a good head space for a purchase let alone this kind of purchase. In retrospect I would say it’s easy to fall into the trap of feeling desperate when buying a used vehicle simply because it’s often hard to find what you’re looking for at the right price – but there’s no point rushing unless you’re sure it’s a great deal since there are thousands of cars and vans out there soon to be going on sale.
So I rushed off to the dealership by car, which was not near by i.e. around 200 miles away and got there late. I’d called to ask the dealers to wait around for me since I’d gotten stuck in traffic and again this also added a misguided feeling of pressure to go through with the purchase as quickly as possible.
I looked at the van and it looked relatively good although I noticed it had had a less than perfect respray. I test drove the van and it drove well so I went through with the purchase without even doing a HPI check. When I finally drove the van back I’d began to have second thoughts. On closer inspection the roof wasn’t painted and I could also see there was rust near a badly painted spot suggesting they had painted over the rust. The final nail in the coffin was when I saw that the original VIN plate on the van had been replaced as the old one had been scratched off suggesting the vehicle had been subjected to a theft in the past. All those elements made me realise I had rushed into the purchase and I ended up asking to return the van.
Now for dealers this is the last thing they want to hear and to be fair to them, they are not legally required to take back a vehicle unless there is a fault on it. The only reason I had a claim to return the van was because they had claimed on the advert there was only one previous owner whereas after doing a HPI check I could see there had been two. The dealers didn’t want to take back the van either way and after months of chasing them up they offered a partial refund so I took them to the small claims court. It took just over a year to get my money back so if anyone else learns from this screw up then great.
The second van I bought was from a private individual
If the first van was a disaster this second one a virtual knockout to the whole dream in the first place – let this be a warning about scams on Ebay/Gumtree etc. After looking online for a while I was again getting itchy feet to make the plunge and I saw this Sprinter on auction. It was only 5 years old, with relatively low mileage and had some nice tinted back windows, which I was planning to have for my camper anyway. I called the guy up and made the guy an offer for £6000 and he said yes straight away. I missed a couple of red flags; the first when I asked about whether VAT was included in the price or not – he said yes as he thought it was ‘unfair’ having private individuals pay VAT (why would he care?).
I went to see the van, again a good 200 miles away, and it looked very good with only a few small dents; it was clearly a good van for the price. The second red flag was when he was absolutely casual about me taking the van on a test drive without him (surely he would mind if I decided to drive off and not come back!). I came back, bought the van and drove home, made the error of not parking it especially close to the house. The next day it was gone.
Now to me the likelihood of the van being stolen by some high grade car thief, literally the night after I bought it is extremely unlikely. The van was locked and there was no broken glass or any such sign whatsoever. The police only cared enough to file a police report as unfortunately law and order in present day London is a farce. My theory is the seller clearly had installed a tracker in the van, which gives you it’s exact location on google maps. I think when he saw it was safe to come fetch the vehicle he did exactly that before driving it off into the night. I’ve never seen that van since the day I bought it so I assume he hid it in his big old garage before having it stripped for parts or sold on the black market. This was an unpleasant experience so be careful out there!
The third van I bought was from a small company
I would like to say this purchase was perfect but unfortunately I made similar mistakes. Luckily however I was dealing with someone relatively honest.
To give some context here I had just missed what I think was a great deal on a black coloured 2009 Sprinter going for £5500 from a private individual, with full Mercedes service history and looked in tremendous condition. Considering how fast it went I think it’s safe to say it was a good van to go for.
But I’d missed that van and now decided a Sprinter in black was what I was after as I could build a semi-stealth camper with tinted back windows and a black solar panel on the roof etc. In retrospect this shouldn’t have been anywhere near as important as I made it out to be. The van was, again, around 200 miles away, was a 2010 model and with higher mileage (around 168k) and higher asking price £6250 , negotiated down from £6750. When looking at the van I noticed a rip on the seat, there were small rust patches on the body and a scratch/dent on the roof with rust. I bought the van for £6250 but I could have easily negotiated it to around £5500. The problem is I wanted to buy and wasn’t willing to walk away – remember if you want to negotiate you have to be willing to walk away!
The rust was actually a lot worse than I thought on closer inspection since the small patches were developing under the paint in a lot of different places. I ended up spending a lot of time doing touch up paint work and spending £425 on some professional work. Overall just to own a decent van it cost me £6675 and a helluva lot of time. And there are still repairs to do for the scratch/dent on the roof…
I think once you have experience in this area, buying a used vehicle becomes a lot easier and a lot less stressful. Try to be as level headed as possible when going into this type of venture.
The best thing you can do is just take your time and only hurry to see a vehicle if you think it’ll go soon i.e it’s exactly what you’re looking for, at a good price, being sold by a private individual. Also make sure you get some practice examining the type of vehicle you’re about to buy and what kind of price it usually goes for.
When you think you’re ready to pull the trigger, make an offer and always be ready to walk away if you’re not completely comfortable, sure or happy with the deal on offer.