According to Money Supermarket, three times more of us buy used cars than new.

Consulting three motor trade experts, here we aim to determine the factors that should be at the forefront of buyers’ minds, if any particular rules of thumb can help guide us to a bargain, and to inform motor trade dealers as to the most attractive stock for their forecourts.

Wheels of change

It wasn’t long ago that motorists looking to make a responsible choice, particularly in terms of say, a family car, wouldn’t entertain anything other than a brand new vehicle, direct from a main or franchised dealership.

Citing the all-important manufacturer’s warranty as the motoring equivalent of a ‘get out of jail free’ card, they found it of little consequence that up to twenty per cent of their new car’s value could evaporate, simply by driving it off the forecourt.

For some, this acute and immediate financial hit remains worthy of the peace of mind that, if something goes wrong, they’re covered. And, of course, it’s very unlikely that you’d ever find a used car with the exact specification and options you’d have chosen if ordering it new.

The good news, though, according to Richard Ingram of carbuyer.co.uk and Auto Express magazine, is that “very few cars are genuinely unreliable these days. Most get five star Euro NCAP safety ratings, and it prompts the question: is there such a thing as a truly awful car anymore? I can only think of a handful!”

Window of opportunity

As modern cars redress the reputations of their less reliable predecessors, more and more of us are prepared to take the perceived risk of buying a second hand car. But how ‘used’ does a car need to be to represent the ideal meeting of value for money and reliability?

“Most depreciation happens in the first 6 to 12 months”, says Rebecca Jackson, professional racing driver, presenter of ITV4’s ‘I Want That Car’, motoring journalist and businesswoman.

“You can buy a virtually new car for a much lower price than brand new but beware; there is still more depreciation to come. Benefits can include still being in the manufacturer’s warranty and, in some cases, cars can look as impressive as new- especially if they are the same shape or pre-facelift. New models or imminent facelifts exacerbate their predecessors’ depreciation”.

The majority of car manufacturers offer three year warranties on new cars; an accepted industry standard that, over the years, drivers have come to expect. But, with increased reliability, other makers have taken the opportunity to meet the competitive marketplace head on, offering anything from five years to, in the case of Vauxhall, ‘lifetime’ warranties. Their particular offer covers new cars for up to 100k miles, should they remain with the original owner. Temptingly, though, their Network Q used cars, under 12 months old with less than 30k miles on the clock, still qualify for 3 years cover; an attractive and unprecedented prospect for the savvy used car buyer.

Vauxhall offer a 3 year warranty on some of their Network Q used cars.© Copyright Stacey Harris and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Philip Nothard, Black Book Editor and Retail & Consumer Specialist for the UK’s leading independent valuation, technical and motoring cost information providers, CAP Automotive, agrees that a used car buyer’s window of opportunity has certainly widened:
“Any car up to a year-old with a low mileage is still classed as new by most people, thereby representing a good buy in relation to the OCN (Original Cost New). Many believe that 3-years is the time to purchase; however, as manufacturers develop both vehicle quality and extended warranties, the buyer can be a lot more frugal in deciding when and what they purchase”.

Have the years been kind?

Let’s say you’ve decided on the make and model of car that suits you best. You’ve fixed your budget. You even know what colour you’d prefer. It’s finally time to wade into the labyrinth of used car dealers, online car sites and classified ads.

Motorway miles can be kinder to cars than stop-start school runs and short journeys to the shops. © Copyright Brian Snelson and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Having recently been through this exciting yet daunting process myself, I was struck by the way that near-identical cars, albeit with disparate age and mileage figures, cohabited the same, fairly narrow budget bracket. I was therefore particularly intrigued to hear our experts’ opinions on whether a low mileage should be valued over a used car’s age or vice versa.

Overwhelmingly, their advice seems to be to take each car on its virtues:

Richard Ingram:
“I’m of the opinion that mileage is becoming less of an issue. Cars are significantly more reliable than they used to be and, as a result, higher mileages pose less of a problem – provided the car has been well looked after”.

Rebecca Jackson:
“Service history is key here! Services are due at critical ages or mileages, whichever comes first –demonstrating how important both these factors are. Both time and use cause mechanical items to wear or degrade. Take two similar cars, both with full service history; my decision would depend on how different the mileage and ages are:

One year newer but 40k miles extra, I’d go for the older car with the lower mileage. However, if it was one year newer and only 5k miles more I’d rather have the newer car with the higher mileage.

Number of keepers, condition and use are other factors to take into account. High mileage cars with full history, used mainly for motorway driving, will probably still have healthy engines but suffered a lot of stone chips. Low mileage cars with little history, used for short journey town driving, may suggest a less healthy engine, with more clutch and, potentially, starter motor use”.

Philip Nothard:
“This is a very individual choice. In reality, a car that has had little use could be more trouble than one with an average mileage or above. A car with a high mileage can be a great buy as, if it is an ex-lease car, any worn components will have been replaced, servicing will have been done and any additional repairs taken care of. So, if this car is £2,000 less than a counterpart with an average mileage, it could represent a good buy to many people”.

What’s in a name?

Drivers of a certain age will recall a time when the name, Skoda, was most often heard as the butt of a joke. At a time one of the world’s more prestigious car manufacturers, Skoda’s fortunes changed during the communist regime in Czechoslovakia, being forced to produce a basic, functional product as opposed to one that appealed to consumers’ needs and aspirations, thus opening the name up to ridicule in more liberated markets.

Skoda: a Volkswagen by any other name! © Copyright Brian Snelson and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Younger drivers, however, will only be aware of Skoda post-Volkswagen (VW) takeover; the same Skoda that claimed the top two positions in Auto Express’ Driver Power survey in 2013, with impressive 90% plus satisfaction scores.

VW also bought Spanish car maker, SEAT, during the late eighties / early nineties and now, along with Skoda, it benefits from releasing models built on VW platforms, the differences, in many cases, being negligible. The likelihood is, however, that were you to consider buying one of these cars used, that the German marque would retain its value best, regardless of whether it is actually any better made:

Richard Ingram:
In all honesty, prestige plays the biggest part in retaining a car’s value. Mercedes, BMW and Audi all do well and, generally, VWs perform better than Skoda and SEAT – even though the cars are essentially the same under the skin”.

Used car buyers therefore have a decision to make: invest more in a car that will hold its value better when they come to sell it, or get better value for money for an equivalent, albeit less prestigious vehicle, in the short term?

Philip Nothard:
A brand’s marketing and perception – ‘The Badge’ – is key. However, a car with a high customer perception does not always mean reliability. At CAP we provide a free tool that provides motorists with all of the information they need to understand the impact on their budget of choosing the right or wrong car for their circumstances. Our ‘ Total Cost of Motoring’ tool demonstrates that there are many factors to consider other than the initial purchase price of a car: how economical it is, its whole-life servicing and maintenance costs and, inevitably, how much money it will have lost when it comes to selling or replacing”.

Do your sums: the price on the forecourt may be tempting but do you know how much the car will cost to run?© Copyright Images_of_Money and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Other, more unexpected factors can also come into play:

  • The sleeker, sportier look of 3-door models can make them more desirable and, thus, retain value better than their 5-door counterparts.
  • This article from carwow.co.uk explores the raft of cost considerations that cars with automatic transmissions present in comparison to their manual siblings.
  • Here, in the Telegraph’s Motoring section, we learn that electric powered cars depreciate the most, followed by petrol, then diesel, with electric / petrol hybrids retaining value the best. Electric cars, in fact, represent the highest depreciating market sector, with supercars being the best investment according to the enlightening list at the bottom of the article.

Rebecca Jackson:
Certain models will hold their value better than others. A 1.6 litre petrol estate is one of the most difficult cars to sell regardless of marque.A diesel,however, though more expensive brand new,will holds its value better”.

Are friends electric?

It’s amazing to think that Toyota’s Prius, the world’s bestselling electric / petrol hybrid vehicle, has now been with us for the best part of two decades. Released in Japan in 1997 before an international rollout in 2000, it was initially met withscepticism from some quarters but, aidedpartly by a host of eco-conscious celebrity endorsees, its sales figures of other three million units (June 2013) cannot be trifled with.

Electric cars go some way in offsetting the environmental impact of car ownership but, thus far, fail to represent a practical option to many.© Copyright Mmovchin and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Figures like these demonstrate the convictions of a growing number of motorists to shoulder environmental responsibilities through their choice of vehicle, but the stark reality for vehicles powered exclusively by electricity is that, at this stage in their development, they remain impractical for most. As such,their gloomy depreciation figures are commensurate with niche appeal and the public’s reservations about the technology:

Rebecca Jackson
Electric vehicles seem very new technology to most and are only just starting to be considered by more buyers. New technology is always more expensive at first, historically speaking. At first people were afraid of the batteries in hybrid vehicles; however I saw one of the very first Toyota Prius hybrids the other day – 1999, still going strong!

Used car buyers with the lifestyle to suit an electric vehicle could find themselves quids in, with low second hand prices and fuel costs, car tax indemnity and, for Londoners, exemption from the congestion charge. Journey length and the vicinity of charge points remain crucial considerations though:

Philip Nothard:
Although many people would like to drive an electric car, it’s currently not a viable or convenient solution for the majority due to distance / charging issues. The infrastructure would need some serious thought and development, as consumers in many cases are ‘stuck in their ways’ and conscience doesn’t justify the expense. Their success or failure will very much depend on manufacturers’ desire to get them on consumers’ shopping lists and the network / infrastructure support offered – not forgetting the convenience of daily use”.

The lowdown

Hopefully this has given some food for thought to those entering the used car market this year.
We’d like to thank our panel for offering their time and expert opinions to the article.
Here’s a round-up of the main points to consider when buying to drive, or buying to sell in 2014:

  • Don’t be scared to buy a used car
  • Within reasonable bounds, modern cars are much more reliable than their predecessors and buying used could make you a significant saving on the list price for a virtually identical car.
  • Is it still under warranty?
  • Manufacturer’s warranties vary considerably in length. Find out if there’s any warranty left to run on the car you’re considering and, if not, how much it would cost to extend the warranty – either via the manufacturer or an independent provider.
  • Find out as much as you can about each car you’re considering
  • Make an informed decision. Does the car have a full service history? What kind of driving has it been used for and how is this likely to have affected it? How many previous owners has it had? These factors could influence whether you prioritise a low mileage over age or vice versa.
  • Don’t necessarily be swayed by ‘the badge’
  • Check statistics on sites like reliabilityindex.com as brand perception is not always as dependable as you might think. Try to strike the right balance between value retention and reliability figures.
  • Find the car that suits your lifestyle

Take all these factors into consideration:

  • How often will you need to travel, and how far?
  • What is the nature of the driving you intend to undertake, and which fuel and transmission type does it best suit?
  • Use tools like CAP’s Total Cost of Motoring to discern fuel, servicing, insurance, tyres and other maintenance costs.
  • How many people will you need to transport? Might this increase over the period in which you intend to own the car?