08/07/2009 01:20 | By By James Ruppert, contributor

Used car buying - legal advice

Arthur Dayley, played by George Cole (© image © PA Photos)

The legal side

You only get what you pay for. An annoying but accurate saying. It also follows that if you buy a heap, then it was your look out and your mistake. But if someone has misled or tricked you in some way, why shouldn't there be a comeback? This brief legal guide assumes that the seller has not disappeared into thin air, but does not allow for the fact that the legal process can move no faster than the average snail.

Let's assume that you have come to an embarrassing halt within minutes, or weeks, of purchasing your car. Perhaps Banger of the Bailey, our legal expert, can clarify the situation.

Buying from a dealer

You now have six months to complain. In the last year or so the legal position has changed significantly as a result of a European Directive; there is now a new Sale and Supply of Goods to Consumers Regulations. This means that car dealers and garages have to prove if they receive a complaint within six months about a car or part they supplied that it was OK when they sold it. Yes, the obligation is on them to prove it was in good condition.

Legally a car sold by a dealer must be of satisfactory quality, or of a standard that a reasonable person would regard as acceptable, bearing in mind the way it was described, how much it cost and any other relevant circumstances. This covers, for example, the appearance and finish of the car, its safety and its durability.

Free from defects, except when they were pointed out to you by the dealer, or that should have been revealed by an inspection. The cars must also be as described, so a one owner car must be just that.

Fit for any normal purpose - so it must be a reasonably reliable car and capable of any tasks you specify, like seating seven passengers, or towing a caravan.

So dealers must describe the car accurately and must not say that the car is a good runner if it isn't. Under the Trade Descriptions Act the car must be accurately described to you, whether it is in conversation, or anewspaper advertisement, otherwise the Office of Fair Trading can take out a criminal prosecution. Once you rely on a dealer's description it becomes a term of the contract, such as, 'It's definitely a 1998 model', whereas 'I think it's a 1998 model' would not be a term. If you allow the dealer to put right the fault, however small, you have lost your right to reject the car.

Alternatively you could allow the repairs but put it in writing that you are accepting them 'without prejudice' to your existing legal rights. There may also be a civil action for breach of contract, if some term of the original agreement has not been met, e.g. a radio fitted, or delivery at a certain time. What you could get is a small amount of compensation.

Alternatively, if the dealer is a member of the Motor Agents Association, they may agree to abide by their conciliation and arbitration procedures. Should you be unhappy about the decision, then a further appeal lies with the Office of Fair Trading. A dealer will aiso have obligations under the Road Traffic Act, which means that the car must be roadworthy, unless the car is sold specifically for parts, or breaking.


In addition to your legal rights, car dealers will be able to include a warranty. In some cases it could mean a comprehensive manufacturer backed warranty such as that operated by Ford and their Direct scheme, or Vauxhall's Network Q. All dealers offer some form of mechanical breakdown insurance ranging from three to 12 months although the terms and conditions have to be read very carefully, because there can be lots of exclusions.

Buying privately

It can go either way. You could come across a decent, honest and helpful private seller with a perfect specimen to sell, or you could meet a rogue with a rough old car. You never can tell. The majority are honest, but may have bought an awful car without realising it. Maybe they have lost all the service history or possibly their advertisement misdescribes the car. Worst of all they think their car is worth a fortune. So if you thought buying from the motor trade is fraught with danger buying privately can often be much worse.

Legally you have fewer rights if you buy privately. They must be legally entitled to sell the car, so obviously it must not be on finance, or stolen, and only a data check will tell you this. The car must be as described by the seller. If a private seller lies about the condition of the car, you can sue for your losses, providing you can find the seller and want to go to the trouble of pursuing a claim through the civil courts. However under the Road Traffic Acts a private seller can be prosecuted for selling a car that is not roadworthy. It is vital to have the car inspected professionally.

Private or trader

There is a huge amount of difference between a private seller against whom a buyer has virtually no redress and full time dealer who has all sorts of legal obligations to verify mileage and describe the car accurately.

Discovering if you have found a closet trader is common sense and giveaways will be a slick manner, unconvincing reasons for selling, more than one car for sale when you call and mobile telephone contact numbers. Maybe the seller wants to meet somewhere other than at their home. Maybe you can only phone them at a specific time, because they are using a public phone.

Tell your local Trading Standards Office. The officers would be very interested to hear from you as they have grounds for prosecution in such cases. And just in case you didn't realise, classified advertisements placed by a dealer, or car trader, must have a T at the end of them.

Legal action

In some cases, where only small amounts of money are concerned it certainly won't be worth your time and effort. Wherever you can, try and negotiate a settlement. In the case of a dealer, most are reasonable and have a reputation to think of, so a letter to the owner, setting out your problems, politely and concisely, can produce the required results. However, if you think that the matter is serious, see a solicitor. In the first instance the Citizens Advice Bureau can give you the best indication as to your rights and remedies.

Generally there is still an obligation on you to examine the car as far as it is reasonably possible, to ensure that it is fit to be used, hence the phrase caveat emptor which means 'buyer beware'. Although you won't be expected to dismantle the gearbox, a visual inspection and test drive would be the minimal requirements. If any defects are drawn to your attention, then the merchantable quality proviso is overridden and you are stuck with any faults.

Banged to rights - coursework


You don't really want to be involved in any legal dispute. It costs money and drags on longer than you would ever imagine. It is hassle to the power of several million, but it pays to be aware of what your rights are.


This is your big decision. If you do you want some protection then buy from the trade. If you are more confident then buy private, it is as simple as that.

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