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Half of used vehicles ‘have a hidden history’

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New research suggests that more than half (52%) of second-hand vehicles checked have a hidden history that could lead to problems for new owners.

A sample of RAC Vehicle History Checks covering more than 32,000 separate used cars for sale in the UK flagged up a multitude of possible issues that should make prospective buyers wary before handing over their cash.

The most common problem was a change of number plate, with more than one in four (27.5%) vehicles analysed having recorded such a change. While this may simply be a switch to or from a personalised number plate, it could also be a sign that an unscrupulous former owner has tried to hide the vehicle’s true identity.

Next was the remarkable finding that nearly one in five (17.6%) vehicles were still in the process of being ‘paid off’ by previous owners despite being advertised for sale. This is something that should be a huge red flag for any buyer – it is likely to mean the car is still being leased or is legally still owned by a finance company under a hire purchase (HP) or personal contract purchase (PCP) arrangement, and cannot be sold on.

A surprising 14.2% of vehicles checked were deemed insurance write-offs – not the sort of vehicle most buyers would want to be parting with their money for – while 1.9% were either imports or exports, vehicles that warrant closer inspection as they must always be sold with particular documentation.

A slightly smaller proportion (1.4%) of vehicles had had their colour changed at some point in their histories.

But perhaps most worryingly of all, a very small number for sale were either listed as stolen (0.2%) or technically scrapped (0.1%).

Buyer beware

With used car values buoyant, the RAC is reminding drivers they need to be on their guard more than ever to ensure the money they are putting towards a car is cash well spent.

“Forewarned is forearmed, and drivers that do their homework on vehicles put themselves in a much stronger position to negotiate on price, or simply walk away from the sale if they feel they are taking too great a risk,” said RAC Motoring Services spokesperson Francesca Mann.

“This is particularly relevant this time of year, as the arrival of 19-plate vehicles sees a rise in drivers seeking a good deal on used cars.

“We recommend every buyer insists on a comprehensive history check for any car they are looking to buy – they should ask to see one if buying through a dealer, or get their own if trawling used car advertisements. Any concerns should be raised directly with the seller before parting with any money.”

RAC advice to a buyer whose vehicle history check flags issues:

  • Number plate change – talk to the owner and check the documentation to ensure a plate change is legitimate, for instance with a previous owner swapping the plate for a cherished, personalised one. The car’s number plate must always match the one on the V5C
  • Outstanding finance – be fully confident the seller has paid off finance on their vehicle in full, and ask them to re-run an RAC Vehicle History Check to prove it. Cars still being paid offer under Hire Purchase (HP) or Personal Contract Purchase (PCP) agreements cannot be sold on
  • Insurance write-off – while most drivers might want to walk away from a car that has been written-off, unless they are specialists seeking parts, the write-off category will determine whether or not the car can be sold on legally. In some cases, a Category N write-off might be roadworthy but just have some cosmetic damage. In any case, it’s best to get a professional inspection if you are considering buying a write-off
  • Imports – imported cars must be approved and be accompanied by specific government-required documentation
  • Colour change – this might suggest a re-spray after an accident, although owners can change the colour of their vehicle if they tell the DVLA. Get a professional inspection before you buy to be sure

About Gareth Herincx

Gareth is a versatile journalist, copywriter and digital editor who's worked across the media in newspapers, magazines, TV, teletext, radio and online. After long stints at the BBC, GMTV and ITV, he now specialises in motoring.

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