Buying a car can be a nerve-wracking business, not least because it usually involves a large amount of money. And cars can be problematic, judging by the number of questions we get about faulty used cars.
But in the UK we do have the protection of the 2015 Consumer Rights Act. In this guide, we look at what that means whether it’s a new or used car. We also look at the difference between buying it online or in person. And what exactly are your consumer rights buying a used car privately and from a dealer?
If you don’t want to read the whole guide, use the links below to jump to the section that’s relevant to you.
The timeframes for consumer rights
There are three basic timeframes during which the law changes. It goes from being essentially in favour of the consumer to the side of the trader/dealer. These are:
- Up to 30 days
- 30 days to six months
- Six months to six years (five in Scotland).
Basic consumer rights when buying from a dealer?
There are three basic principles that should apply to any car you’ve bought from a dealer.
- It must be fit for purpose. This means if you want a car that will tow a caravan, the dealer should sell you one.
- It must be of satisfactory quality. This means it should be in full working order for a car of its age and type.
- It must be as described. If an advert says the car has air conditioning, it should have that feature. Ads for used cars should reflect their condition accurately.
Your consumer rights buying a used car privately?
When you buy a car privately, your consumer rights are different. The car must:
- Be as described.
- Be able to be sold by the person whose selling it. Eg. if the person has bought the car on finance, they can’t sell it if the finance hasn’t been paid off. It is, after all, still owned by the finance company.
- Roadworthy. It is illegal to sell a car that is unroadworthy – unless the seller makes the buyer fully aware of this.
When aren’t you covered?
There are some instances when the Consumer Rights Act doesn’t cover you. These are if:
You were told about a fault when you bought the car and what it meant was fully and clearly explained to you. If this is the case, make sure you have it in writing.
You inspected the car and had plenty of chance to spot a visible problem eg. a dent in a panel of a used car.
You caused the fault eg. by putting the wrong fuel in the car.
The fault is down to regular wear. On a used car, this might mean brake pads or another item that suffers wear through use need replacing (often called wear and tear).
What if you discover a problem within 30 days of owning a car?
If a car you’ve bought from a dealer suffers a fault, you should be covered by the Consumer Rights Act. Under this, you have the right to reject it for a full refund in the first 30 days of ownership. The dealer can’t discount any money for mileage, depreciation or collection.
As long as it’s within the first 30 days of owning it, you don’t have to accept a repair. Of course you may want to if you really like the car apart from the fault. If that’s the case, your consumer rights aren’t affected.
You can reject a car because it has a fault. Legal brains can debate what a fault is endlessly but it’s essentially something that prevents the car behaving as it should.
It’s worth noting this won’t be a scratch on the paintwork or a very minor electrical fault.
On a new car, you have every right to expect it to be perfect. On a used car, you should take the age and mileage into account. For example, a worn driver’s seat is acceptable on a used car, not on a new car.
Choosing between a repair or rejection
When deciding whether you want a repair or refund for a car with a problem, you should consider whether the fault will lead to bigger problems later on. If you don’t want to fix the problem but it is a problem that the car shouldn’t have (eg. the electric windows aren’t working), you can ask the trader for a discount.
If the trader’s repair doesn’t fix the problem, or another problem develops when you get the car back, you’re still entitled to a refund. But the rules after 30 days (below) will apply regarding the size of the refund.
If the fault means you can’t drive the car safely, the trader is obliged by law to collect it from you free of charge.
What if you reject a car after part exchanging yours?
You are entitled to ask for your car back. If the dealer has sold your car, you can ask them to refund you the amount they paid you for it (or took off the price of your car).
What about rejecting a car bought on finance?
You are still covered by the Consumer Rights Act but you as the keeper and the finance company as the owner should work together to get any problems fixed or over rejecting the car.
If the rejection is successful, the dealer will refund the finance company. The latter will then terminate your agreement and should refund you any deposit you’ve put down and any monthly payments you’ve made.
If the dealer deducts money for mileage and depreciation (if you’ve owned the car for more than 30 days), the money will come out of what the finance company pays you back.
Working with finance companies can be problematic because you want to act quickly, it’s your car and your mobility that’s at stake. Unfortunately, you’ll be dealing with someone who isn’t as heavily invested. Be patient but make sure they’re aware of the situation.
Having a problem after 30 days of owning a car?
The Consumer Rights Act still covers you if you discover a fault after 30 days of ownership but before six months is up. The law assumes that the fault WAS present when you bought the car. If the seller thinks they shouldn’t be liable for repairing or taking the car back, it’s up to them to prove that the fault WAS NOT present when they sold you the car.
Before you reject the car, you must give the seller at least one chance to repair the fault or replace the car. They will probably choose the former.
Before you accept a repair, you should be totally happy that it has done what it’s supposed to do before you take the car back. Once you’ve accepted the repair, rejecting the vehicle becomes more difficult, unless of course the same fault rears its head again.
If the garage fixes a problem with your car, then you have no grounds for rejecting it going forwards. You can’t just reject a car because you think it might suffer more faults. Again, that’s assuming the same fault has been properly fixed.
But you can reject the car if the repair doesn’t address the fault or another fault develops afterwards that could have been there when you bought the car.
Rather than a full refund, as when you reject a car before 30 days, the dealer is entitled to a ‘reasonable reduction’ in the refund to account for any wear and tear and depreciation the car might have suffered.
What if the car has a problem after you’ve owned it for six months or more?
The Consumer Rights Act still covers you up to a point. In theory you have up to six years (five in Scotland) to reject a faulty car. But the onus shifts from the dealer having to prove the car wasn’t faulty when you purchased it to you having to prove the car was faulty when you bought it.
You will only have legal rights if the car isn’t of satisfactory quality, fit for purpose or as described.
You then need to get a second opinion. Best not to use a garage recommended by the trader for this; you want someone truly independent.
Tell the garage you bought the car from what you’re doing and ask the independent garage to provide a written report. Assuming the report supports your claim, go back to the dealer you bought the car from and discuss how you would like to proceed.
As with having a car repaired after up to six months, you can still reject the car if the repair doesn’t resolve the problem or another fault develops.
Get things in writing
It’s easy for a junior salesman to promise the world just to get you off the phone or out of the door. But they – or their manager ‑ can go back on their promises later.
Whenever, anyone at a dealership makes a promise to rectify a fault or accept your rejection of the car, make sure you get it in writing. If the case ends up going to arbitration, having things in writing could make the difference between you getting a successful resolution or not.
If you have concerns about a car’s condition or perhaps repairs that have been carried out, document those worries in writing by sending the dealer an email. That way if a fault materialises, you have documentary proof that you were apprehensive about it.
You and the dealer can’t agree?
The problem with used cars is parts wear out. And that means there are plenty of grey areas when it comes to buying one and faults occurring.
We get a lot of queries about clutches failing on used cars. Buy a used car and the clutch will obviously be worn. In some instances, if the clutch fails within days of getting the car home, it will probably have been failing when you left the dealership.
But if it fails after you’ve owned the car for three months and done 3,000 miles, chances are it was normally worn when you took over the car. Nonetheless, it’s understandable that you might feel aggrieved at the dealership.
Should you need an independent arbitrator to decide who’s in the wrong (or right), go to The Motor Ombudsman. It specialises in resolving disputes between dealerships and consumers. It’s independent so looks at things impartially and its experts know consumer law inside out.
The small claims court should be the last resort. And to have any chance of success with this, you must be confident that the dealer has breached trading standards laws. It’ll be time consuming and could be expensive.
Your rights buying a car at auction?
Cars bought at motor auctions are generally ‘sold as seen’. This means you accept that they might have hidden faults when you buy them. And if they go wrong, you’re not covered by consumer law.
Having a problem with a privately bought car?
If you buy a car privately and then discover that it isn’t as described or it is unroadworthy, contact the seller ASAP. They can:
- Refund you the full amount.
- Agree to refund you the difference between what you paid and what the car is really worth (if, for example, they said it has air con and it doesn’t).
- Agree to carry out repairs to ensure the car meets standards (if, for example, it is unroadworthy). They don’t have to make changes to the car if that will increase its value beyond what you paid for it.
What if a private seller doesn’t accept your rights?
If you want the car changed so that it matches the description, get three quotes for doing the work. You can then get the seller to agree to one of these.
If they won’t agree to any of the above, you can take them to a small claims court. This will be time-consuming and it’ll come down to whose argument was more persuasive and believable, based on the balance of probabilities.
When you buy a used car privately, it’s best to check it over thoroughly. Try to get a professional to inspect it. If you can’t find one, at least check that all the switches, buttons and other functions are working.
Should a car have a fault but it isn’t isn’t mentioned in the ad, that’s your problem. If the seller says the car has four new tyres and they’re all bald, that’s the seller’s problem.
You should also make sure that the car is the ‘owner’s’ to sell. And that you meet them at an address which matches the address on the car’s paperwork. Also ensure that they are who they say they are and the car’s identification number (VIN) matches the one on the paperwork.
If you have grounds for rejecting a car (ie. it wasn’t properly described), you can do so providing you haven’t customised the car in any way, told the seller you were happy with the car or waited for months before telling them anything.
Beware of unscrupulous dealers selling dodgy cars that they can’t sell legally as a trader.
When you are buying a used car privately, it makes sense to keep a copy of the advertisement so you have the evidence if the car was misdescribed.
What if you bought a car online?
Buying online gives you the same rights as buying in person. You also have 14 days from buying the car to cancel the contract (according to Consumer Contracts Regulations 2013) and return the car. You must return the car within 14 days of cancelling the contract and can expect a full refund.
When can’t you reject a car?
The Consumer Rights Act describes a fault with a car as when that car isn’t as described, doesn’t do what you expected that car to do, or isn’t roadworthy. You can’t reject a car for a relatively minor problem such as a scratch or broken electric window. But you can expect the dealer to repair it.
Problems with rejecting a car
It’s easy to say but actually rejecting a car can be a tricky business. What if the dealer won’t accept your rejection? In their eyes, they’ve already sold that car and moved on. They won’t want it cluttering up their forecourt again, particularly if it’s got problems. They’ll probably demand an inspection and can make life as difficult as they can for you by refusing to accept the rejection.
And that’s without taking into account any finance. Unwinding a car purchase can be a complicated and time-consuming business.
Negotiation is always best
Although much of this guide is about rejecting a car, it’s always best to discuss things with dealers before acting. If you’re worried the car is going to fail again, perhaps in some other way, discuss it with them.
Keep a document of the discussion too. That way if the failure does actually happen, the dealer knows you had prior concerns.
How to behave
Try to keep the dealer onside as much as you can. Be friendly but remain professionally detached with them. You want them to be cooperative and you will have to work together during the repair/rejection process. Don’t be a pushover but equally, don’t be awkward. Remember they are in a position where they can make life difficult for you. Good luck!
I’ve been writing about cars and motoring for more than 25 years. My career started on a long-departed classic car weekly magazine called AutoClassic. I’ve since pitched up at Autosport, Auto Express, the News of the World, Sunday Times and most recently the Daily Telegraph. When I’m not writing about cars and motoring, I’m probably doing some kind of sport or working in my garden.