Should I buy a new or used car?

Used car sales outnumber new car purchases by around three to one in the UK. The lower price is the obvious attraction to buying second-hand, but new cars come with a full warranty. There are other pros and cons to consider when you're trying to decide whether to buy a new or used car:

Buying a new car

Pros

  • You can choose the exact specification you want – engine, colour, trim, options.
  • You'll get a full warranty package and any extra deals on offer when you buy.
  • There's no unknown previous history to worry about.
  • Compared with models no longer in production, current cars will have more advanced technology, particularly in the areas of fuel efficiency and safety. 

Cons

  • You'll pay the full retail price of the car, including 20% VAT.
  • Most breakdowns in the latest cars stem from electrical faults, many of which are not easily cured at the side of the road.
     

Buying a used car

Pros

  • Someone else has taken the biggest hit in the car's depreciation – around 20% of a new car's value is wiped out as soon as it leaves the showroom, and few new cars are worth more than half their purchase price after three years; many will have lost up to two thirds of their value.
  • There are around seven million used cars for sale in the UK, so there's no shortage of choice.
  • Any initial glitches will probably have been sorted out by the previous owner.
  • Factory warranties are getting longer, which means some cars are still covered even when they are sold on, boosting peace of mind for used buyers.
  • Manufacturers' approved used schemes offer yet more peace of mind; you'll pay a bit more for the privilege, but the customer experience isn't that far removed from buying brand new.
  • You can choose whether to pay a little more at a dealer and enjoy some back-up if things go wrong, or pay less on a private purchase where the car is sold as seen (you can, however, arrange for an independent AA inspector to make checks before you buy). You'll pay even less at auction but genuine bargains are rare and buyers have little comeback on sellers.

Cons

  • The knowledge that the car has already been used by someone else.
  • The car won't have all of its original warranty
  • If you buy a car without a full service history, you can't be sure about its past. For instance, the mileage may have been reduced (a practice known as 'clocking') to increase the car's value. You can, however, order a car's history check online – it's one of the services offered by whatcar.com: go to whatcarhistorycheck.com.

 The alternative: demonstration models and ‘pre-reg' cars

Besides new or used, there's a third way into car ownership – buying a nearly new car from a dealer's demonstration fleet, or one from their ‘pre-registered' stock (cars that have been notionally bought by the dealer in order to meet sales targets). As before, however, there are pros and cons:

Pros

  • You get a virtually new car but avoid a good chunk of its initial depreciation.
  • Any glitches on a demonstrator will have been ironed out by the dealer.   

Cons

  • Yours won't be the first name on the registration document, which will lower the car's resale value.
  • Restricted choice: the cars on offer will be whatever the dealership considered best as demonstrators and easy to re-sell (however, they're good judges of what the market wants, so this isn't necessarily a bad thing).
  • Demonstrators will have covered a few thousand miles, which will take away that 'new car' feeling.
  • You'll need to double-check the build date of a pre-registered car with the dealer before you commit to buy. You might think you're buying a 2012 car, but it could actually be a 2011 model, and the older it is the less you should pay for it – and the less you'll be able to sell it for later.

The key thing to remember when buying any car, new or used, is to set a budget and stick to it. It's a buyer's market. If you can't find a car you want that's properly priced, keep looking – it'll be out there somewhere.