Depending on past experience, buying a car could conjure an image of a glossy showroom, pristine cars and the patter of a helpful but focused salesperson – or you might imagine a scruffy forecourt staffed by an Arthur Daley lookalike looking to pull a fast one.
The former is, of course, a far more realistic view of most car dealerships, and visiting one remains a perfectly legitimate way to purchase your next vehicle. But it may not be the best – the range may be quite limited, perhaps to a single manufacturer (in the case of franchised ‘main’ dealers), and you’ll have to haggle to avoid paying over the odds.
Instead, you could visit a large car ‘supermarket’ to view a broad range of makes and models in one place, often sold at low prices. Or you could use a broker to avoid the haggling, letting them do the legwork to find you the right new or used car at a good price. Or you could use an online car-buying service that lets dealers ‘bid’ for your business by sending you their best prices – let’s have a closer look at the options.
Not sure which car to buy? Check out our pick of thebest cars for 2023.
Buying a car from a franchised dealer
- Face-to-face service
- Order the exact specification you want if buying new
- High quality new and used cars to look at and test-drive
- Easy to part exchange your old car
- Expensive – but haggle hard and you can usually get a fair discount
- Choice may be limited to models from a single brand
- Selling your old car privately usually beats part-exchange values
- Dealers may push unnecessary insurance or finance add-ons
Customer service counts for a lot, which is where the large, well-funded franchised ‘main’ dealers often excel – and they know if they deliver a good service customers are likely to return to have their new car serviced there, or when they’re in the market for another one.
We’ve found that dealers tend not to push optional extras such as cruise control or parking sensors. Instead, they’re likely to focus on keeping the cost of the car itself as high as possible, doing their best to avoid giving too generous a discount.
Furthermore, a Which? investigation in 2019 found many dealers we spoke to pushed questionable finance options on our undercover shoppers, such as pricey insurance add-ons and GAP (guaranteed asset protection) insurance that cost hundreds of pounds more than you can find and buy for yourself online.
So if signing the dotted line at a dealership, make sure you know exactly what you want from your car, be wary of dodgy insurance extras and be prepared to do some serious haggling.
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Verdict:If you’re going to buy from a franchised dealer, make sure you know what you want in advance. Be prepared to haggle.
Buying a car from a broker
- You can save thousands of pounds on main dealer prices
- Most source cars from other UK dealers, so it’s easy to compare prices and specs
- You can usually order the specification you want
- One-stop shop for many different makes and models
- No test drives available and limited personal contact
- Delivery times and fees can vary – check up front
- Not many offer a part-exchange service
- Sometimes unclear if a car is truly ‘new’ or a pre-registered example – check where the car is being sourced from before buying
Tell a broker what car you want, and they’ll go off and buy it for you. That means avoiding the dealership and, therefore, no haggling. A good broker will get you the car you want and save you thousands off the list price. Some brokers only operate online, but many allow you to call up and speak to an adviser.
For peace of mind, you may also want to do a check on the broker you intend to use. Search for the company online and check customer experiences on forums such as Money Saving Expert to find details of previous customers’ experiences. Big brokers include Carwow, Carfile and Drive The Deal.
Verdict:A good option to outsource any haggling if you don’t potentially mind waiting a bit for the car to arrive. Ensure you know exactly what you want before ordering.
Buying from an online car-buying service
- Usually no haggling required
- Choose from almost any make and model
- Order the exact specification you want
- Cars sourced from reputable dealers or direct from the manufacturer
- You can order from your sofa
- Generally only offer new or nearly-new cars
- Contact or progress information may be limited
- Don’t usually offer a part-exchange service
- You may still end up dealing with the dealer, either to iron out the options you want, or to arrange delivery
As with most other products, you can now buy a car entirely online. Services such as BuyaCar and Autoebid allow you to choose and order the exact car you want, and they’ll help you get a good price. The process does vary, though. BuyaCar operates similar to a large broker – it sources the car for you at a good price, and you pay it rather than the dealer. Autoebid presents the best prices from up and down the country, but it’s up to you to close the deal.
Some car manufacturers offer the ability to buy a car directly from their site, but it’s unlikely you’ll get an opportunity to negotiate the price so can be an expensive way to buy a car.
Verdict:Increasingly popular and certainly convenient, but check exactly what the process is and test-drive cars before you commit.
Buying from a car supermarket
- Very competitive prices – especially compared with main dealers
- Lots of makes and models on one site
- Test drives often available
- Most offer finance packages
- Drive the car away the same day
- Choice depends on what’s in stock
- New cars may be imports, so check for full UK specification
- Clock will already be running on pre-registered cars’ warranties
Car supermarkets are a growing threat to established car dealers. Their stock is mainly used, though many also sell factory-fresh and pre-registered cars with very low mileage. Examples include Motorpoint (branches nationwide) and Cargiant (London based). They're a good place to see and test-drive a wide variety of cars, but warranties (beyond any remaining manufacturer warranty) are typically an added extra.
Verdict: Convenient and fast, but mainly cover used or nearly new cars, and you can’t usually order a new car to your precise specifications.
Buying from 'selective' classified websites
Some websites show classified adverts for cars for sale from selected sources only, to offer buyers peace of mind. Most cars are used, nearly new or pre-registered, rather than brand new, and you can’t order a car from the factory. Bear in mind these websites are simply places for dealers to advertise their stock – they aren’t selling the cars themselves.
Two of the biggest are AA Cars and RAC Cars. These allow only dealers that meet set criteria to sell cars via their sites, and usually have more than 150,000 cars advertised for sale at any one time.
AA Cars and RAC Cars offer cars from both franchised and independent dealers.
They also offer some added benefits, including a vehicle history check and free breakdown cover. The AA will have inspected selected cars (128-point check) and provide a detailed report. If the car hasn’t been inspected, you can pay extra for a 154 basic or 206 comprehensive point safety check.
The RAC, meanwhile, has a list of RAC Approved Dealers. Cars from these dealers have had an 82-point check and come with at least three months' RAC warranty and breakdown cover. However, note that non-approved dealers - and even private sellers - also advertise on the RAC Cars website, so look for those listed on the site as RAC Approved.
Buying from traditional classified websites
The biggest of these is Auto Trader, which regularly has listings for over 400,000 used cars. The sheer volume of cars on offer means you’ll have plenty to compare, and even buyers after rare models should be catered for.
As with selective classified websites, traditional classified websites are a place for dealers (and private sellers) to advertise the cars – and they are essentially a free-for-all so you could find dodgy back-street dealer cars alongside ones for sale through franchised main dealers. However, they're also the best place to pick up a bargain.
With classified sites, it’s important to remember that if a car’s price looks too good to be true, then it probably is. And if you buy from a private seller, you’ll have little legal comeback if it turns out to be a banger – so proceed with caution.