This advice is designed to provide basic guidance to consumers. It is not a complete or authoritative statement of the law.
When you buy a car you enter into a legally binding agreement governed by the Sale of Goods Act 1979 (as amended by the Sale and Supply of Goods Act 1994 and the Sale and Supply of Goods to Consumers Regulations 2002). This gives the buyer and seller rights and responsibilities.
Buying from a trader
You can expect the car to be:
Of satisfactory quality
This means of a standard that a reasonable person would consider to be satisfactory considering:
- the price you have paid
- the age of the car
- the mileage
This does not necessarily mean it will be free from all faults. The law recognises that a second-hand car will not be perfect. However, the car must be fit to be used on the road, in a condition which reflects its age and price, reasonably reliable and safe.
Fit for its purpose
This means that as well as being fit for all common purposes the car must be fit for any specific or particular purpose made known at the time of sale.
This means that the car must match any written or verbal description given. The mileage must also be correct unless it has been disclaimed (that is, the seller refuses to vouch for it). A private seller only has to describe the car correctly. He is not responsible for faults.
What if the car is faulty?
It is important to remember these rights exist automatically, between you and the trader. The trader should accept liability for any problems under the contract. Any guarantee given by the trader will be in addition to these rights. Check the terms and conditions of any warranty carefully.
Buying from a private seller
You do not have as many legal rights when you buy from a private individual. A private seller only has to describe the car correctly. He is not responsible for faults.
What if the car is faulty?
You have 2 options to choose from. Both of these options give you 6 years to start a legal claim under the Sale of Goods Act.
1. If you have only had the car a short time (usually only a week or so), you may be entitled to reject the car and claim a refund.
- Make it clear to the seller that you wish to reject the car.
- Confirm your complaint in writing. Keep a copy and get a certificate of posting from the post office.
- You are entitled to have your traded-in car returned to you if it is still available, or to have the full value allowed on it, if it has been disposed of.
If you tell the trader too late to get your money back you can still insist on compensation for 'loss of value'. This will normally be the cost of repairing the car. In practice this may mean that the trader will carry out the repair.
- The repair should be carried out within a reasonable length of time.
- If they are not able to do this, you may be entitled to compensation such as the hire of a car.
- If you are not happy with the repair, inform the trader, in writing, that you will be asking them to pay for the work to be done elsewhere.
- If the repair adds to the value of the car, the trader may be able to ask you to make a contribution to the cost.
It is for you to prove the car is defective with this option.
2. Since 31 March 2003 the law gives you another option if you purchase a car after this date. You can request a repair or replacement. If the car cannot be repaired or replaced or this is considered too costly, taking into account the type of fault, you have the right to some or all of your money back. Within the first six months, it is for the trader to show the car was not faulty when purchased.
The car only becomes yours when it is delivered and not before.
You can rely on public statements made by the trader or the manufacturer that influence your purchase, e.g. information in adverts, leaflets or on the internet.
Action to take
You should inform the trader immediately of the problems with the car, in writing. Keep a copy of this letter and if possible send it by recorded delivery. Let the trader know what you will expect them to do about the problems. Also set a date by which you will expect the matter to be resolved, allowing a reasonable time period. Ultimately if you do not have a satisfactory response from the trader then you will have to take court action to enforce your rights.
- You will need to prove your case in court, so consider getting an expert opinion. You will need to agree with the trader the name of the expert. If you do not, you might not be able to recover the cost of the report if you win your case.
- Take photos of the defects, if appropriate.
- Make sure you are taking the right people to court - if you have bought on a hire purchase or conditional sale agreement you will only have a contract with the finance company and not the supplier of the goods.
Some other problem areas
Free Warranties / Guarantees
There is no legal difference between a warranty or guarantee and often cars are supplied with them. This is an additional promise if things should go wrong but does not replace your rights under the Sale of Goods Act.
To benefit from a warranty you may be expected to meet certain conditions. The retailer or manufacturer is also expected to supply you with certain information. Sometimes it can be easier to sort out a problem with a warranty and you are entitled to enforce these rights separately to the main contract.
If you have been told something factual about the car that made you decide to buy it, but this later turns out to be untrue, the car may have been misrepresented to you. In most cases you can end the contract and have your money back if you act quickly. However, this is a complex area of law. If in doubt get further advice.
Whether you buy privately or from a trader you are entitled to expect the car to be roadworthy unless you and the seller clearly agree it is to be sold for spares or for work to be done on it.
- An MOT certificate simply confirms that the car passed the test on the day it was submitted.
- It only covers the specific tests required and does not provide any guarantee of the general quality of the car.
- The Department of Transport enforces the law relating to these tests.
There is no law requiring sellers to inform buyers that cars have been involved in accidents or have been 'written off' by insurance companies. However, you could have a claim against the trader for misrepresentation if he does not answer your questions truthfully.
If you buy a stolen car you have no legal right to keep it. The legal owner will have the right to take the car back and you will have to try and get your money back from the seller.
Cars which are already on finance
You might buy a car that is already the subject of a finance agreement in which the seller only becomes the owner when they make the final payment. This means they do not own the car that they are selling. However, the law allows you to keep the car and become its legal owner if:-
- the finance agreement is a hire purchase or conditional sale agreement, and
- you did not know of the existing finance agreement when you bought the car, and
- you are a private buyer.
When you buy from a car auction you are not usually considered to be buying as a consumer, so your rights may be reduced.
You will be bound by the auction's written conditions which must be available to you before you buy. They may be posted on the wall or issued in a booklet or on other paperwork.
However if you are purchasing a new car at auction, or you are purchasing a second hand car and are unable to attend, then you will have the options outlined above if the car is faulty.
When you are not entitled to anything
- If you were told of any faults before you bought the car.
- If the fault was obvious and it would have been reasonable to have noticed it on examination before buying.
- If you have caused the damage yourself.
- If you have made a mistake e.g. changed your mind about the colour etc.
- Seen the car cheaper elsewhere.
- Bought the car more than 6 years ago.