Buying a new car - whether it is really new or just new to you - can be a potential minefield for the uninitiated. Cars are complex machines and the untrained eye can find it difficult to distinguish the dreamboats from the definite tanks.
First of all, weigh up what is your priority? Obviously if thrift is the biggest consideration then used and nearly new is the way to go - with average second hand prices now a fifth of the annual average wage, you can avoid taking on too much debt. That said there is a very strong case for saying that drivers have never had it so good in new car sales.
"The downturn in consumer spending has hit dealerships across the country. The good news for buyers is that a weak market means strong deals. Manufacturers and dealers will continue to fight hard for every sale," a motor industry spokesman told WhatCar?
After a year of lacklustre sales and sluggish activity in a market that is more stuffed with competition than ever before dealers are turning to drastic mark downs in an attempt to shift stock - with a bit of judicious bargaining, sale prices more than £5,000 below list price are not unheard of.
Also when weighing the options, consider what you are looking for in a car. Just being the first owner to turn the key in an ignition is a privilege that will cost you several thousand pounds in the instant it takes to turn a new car into a nearly new car - but it may be worth that money if it comes with the peace of mind of a fully comprehensive warranty and the knowledge that nothing is likely to go wrong for some time.
A third option to the traditional new/used choice is the nearly new vehicle - with the prestige of owning a latest model vehicle but the pleasure of letting someone else shoulder some of the sharpest costs of depreciation. Once again, sluggish sales on the forecourts is driving some dealers to reclassify "new" as "nearly new" stock to avoid manufacturer's pricing, so you may actually be able to snap up a brand new car.
Whichever route you take, do your homework. Thousands of car prices are listed online and in classified magazines every week - taking the time to check what the market price of any model you are considering is could save you thousands. Secondly, set yourself a reasonable budget, and stay within it. Setting out without any upward limit is a recipe for disaster.
If you are buying off the used market, remember one important phrase: caveat emptor, or let the buyer beware. A careless decision could cause you a nightmare in the long run. Most people will not be mechanically qualified to test the roadworthiness of a vehicle. But even the most mechanically inept can make a few basic checks.
Make sure that the engine plate of the car matches the number on the registration document and the service history. Thoroughly inspect the body work under good lighting for signs of rust, especially if the vehicle is five years old or more.
Check the feel of the front seat, and the brake pedal for sign of use. If either is worn down or obviously feels soft and unresponsive then this could be an indication that the vehicle may be older and have a higher mileage than the odometer indicates - recent research indicates that "clocking" a car's mileage is still a problem in the UK, despite anti-tamper devices.
Remember that a car with the proverbial one careful elderly lady owner may be as liable to engine problems associated with lack of the care and the attention of regular use as a raked-out boy racer-mobile is from overuse. For cars more than three years old, check back through the MOT records and ensure that the current certificate is valid - although be aware that an MOT is certainly not a clean bill of health.
Finally, wherever you're buying your motor, don't allow yourself to be pressured into a purchase by an over eager or aggressive salesman. Verbally expressing interest is one thing but don't sign anything until you have given the matter some thought. And if you are buying second hand remember the magic words: "sale is subject to a satisfactory inspection by an independent automobile association".