How to buy a car from eBay

Ford Capri
A fairly rude Ford Capri, bought off eBay motors
"Bidding on a car early may only push the price up."
  • | by Daniel Bevis

eBay Motors  offers a bewitching array of automotive treats and temptations, and it’s seldom the case these days that your friends will say "Goodness, you bought your car on eBay? That’s brave…"

It’s fundamentally just like buying a car from any other source; strip the process down to its bare bones and you’re simply one person giving some money to another person and driving off in their car – nothing necessarily to be afraid of, but something you should approach with a certain degree of caution all the same.

There are countless guides out there on buying cars from eBay, discussing ‘sniper software’ or suggesting you misspell your searches to find a “Citreon” or “Alpha Romeo” that will naturally have fewer bid. But what we’re doing here is looking at some basic, hard-and-fast rules – a set of touchpoints which could help you net a bargain.

Go and look at the car

This may seem obvious, but you’d be surprised how many people don’t. I myself scoff at such people ("What? You bought a car that you’d never driven?!"), but I’m guilty of doing it more than once.

It’s a crazy thing to do though, really. Treat it like any other car you’d find in Auto Trader or on a dealer website – give the seller a call and arrange to check it out. If they won’t let you, forget it – there’s almost certainly something dodgy if they won’t allow you to see it.

There are a lot of scams on eBay involving 'phantom cars', eBayers in other countries who have no intention of selling and so forth, so it’s always best to be sure. Reassure yourself that the car exists and is available to buy before you worry about whether it actually works – that comes next.

Pick through the listing details so you know what you’re expecting, do a bit of research (  is good for advice on newer cars, and there are countless specialist forums for older metal), and have a good poke around. If you’re not comfortable checking all the oily bits yourself, organisations like the AA and RAC offer vehicle inspection services for a reasonable fee, so you can bring them along too.

Take it for a test drive

Again, obvious. I wish I’d done this before I bought a 205 GTI unseen, which had big-end bearings made of paperclips and misery…

You’re buying a car to drive, so you have to drive it before you buy it, unless you know you’re taking on a full-on restoration project. All the usual bases can be covered – does it idle correctly, does it brake in a straight line, are the shocks as bouncy as a new mattress – your driving style is unique, so you can get to know the car here. You’ve driven a car before, you know roughly what’s what, right?

A vital consideration is this: are you insured to drive it? If you leap into someone else’s car, get caught out by the handling and send it backwards through a shop window, there are a number of people who’ll be unhappy.

You need to check beforehand that your car insurance  policy covers driving other people’s cars (DoC). Some insurers offer it and some don’t, so give ‘em a call and check – you may have to pay a little extra, but that’s all part of the process. (Don’t take DoC cover as a given even if you’re insured fully comp, it may not be the case. You don’t want your exciting new car purchase to end in a stern word from the boys in blue – or worse…)

Get it checked out

Vehicle checks will tell you if your car has outstanding finance or been subject to a ‘logbook loan’ (whereby a previous owner has used the car as security for a personal loan), has previously been stolen or written off… all things that will come back to haunt you. Try for peace of mind – you don’t want loan sharks at your door, or invalid insurance due to ringing, clocking or a patched-up write-off.

…and when you’re looking at the car, of course, make sure all the paperwork’s in order; the correct V5, matching VIN number, history, you know the drill.

Be realistic about price

The dangerous thing about eBay is that it’s easy to get carried away. Let’s say you’ve been to see the car, it ticks your boxes, and you’re all set. The seller is keen for the auction to run to the end, so you’re sitting by the computer watching the minutes tick by to the end of the listing. Suddenly somebody bids. ‘No way, José,’ you say, and throw in a bid yourself. It spirals out of control and you end up winning the car for £500 more than you wanted to spend. Suddenly it’s not such a bargain, particularly when you tot up eBay’s fees on top.

There’s one very simple strategy to buying a car on eBay: decide early on what your maximum bid will be, and don’t bid at all until there’s less than a minute left. Bidding early may only push the price up, and if you get outbid in the final seconds you’ll know you haven’t accidentally conned yourself!

Get it home

Is it roadworthy? If not, you might need to trailer it home. But if all’s well and solid, and the car has a current MOT and a tax disc, you’re good to go, right?

Well, you’ll need to be insured, of course. If you haven’t had time to shop around and find the best policy, there’s always the option of short term car insurance, which can cover you from 1-28 days. (This can also be used for the aforementioned test-drive scenario if you find that your policy doesn’t cover DoC.) That way you can enjoy that yay-I’ve-got-a-new-car feeling without the nagging voice in your head telling you that you should be in prison.

As you can see, it’s more a case of being sensible than anything else – eBay Motors can be a fabulous petrolhead playground stuffed with more whimsical and exotic machinery than you could ever dream of. And while there are horror stories, a little care and preparation can see you driving home in your dream car at a bargain-basement price. Trust me, I bought a pristine 2.8i Capri (pictured) and a 1974 BMW rally car for around £1,500 each, with no regrets.

As long as you remember the watchwords of logiclegalitysafety and budget, then there's every chance you could net a bargain. My current daily driver, a 2002 Seat Leon, came from eBay and it’s thus far failed to explode - I drive my baby around in it and everything. No bravery required…