Second-hand cars face souped-up checks

New databases should lower the risk of buying a 'dodgy motor', writes Paul Gosling
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The Independent Online
HELP is at hand for people thinking of buying a second-hand car. The Association of British Insurers (ABI) has announced steps aimed at making it more difficult to sell stolen or written-off cars, while car buyers will soon have access to a choice of computer databases to check if a vehicle has been stolen or badly damaged.

Motor insurers have agreed to a new code of practice for the disposal of write-offs. This code includes a new set of categories for damage which, importantly, will differentiate between write-offs that are not financially viable to repair but which could be repaired, and those that cannot be safely repaired. These different written-off categories will be recorded separately on a computer database.

The idea is to help identify instances where stolen vehicles take on the identity of cars destroyed in accidents - typically by using their number plates - and to help ensure that cars that cannot be safely repaired do not reappear on the roads.

The public can check whether a car that has been sold is beyond safe repair through HPI Equifax, which runs a computer database on vehicles, costing pounds 28.50 to access. Car buyers need the vehicle registration number and the vehicle identification number, often referred to as the chassis number, and, if paying by credit card, will be given an immediate history of the car. Since November, HPI has included a guarantee of financial compensation if information is inaccurate or incomplete.

A similar service is offered to the trade by credit information suppliers CCN, and this will be made available to the public shortly. The charging structure has not yet been decided, but it is expected to vary between pounds 20 and pounds 50 according to the level of information required. To find out if a car has been stolen, destroyed or exported is likely to mean paying the full pounds 50.

The RAC's pre-purchase vehicle inspection tests include use of the HPI database within its own fees which start at pounds 115 for members, or pounds 135 for non-members, but which can go up to pounds 300 or even higher for a high- performance or luxury car.

The computer database is checked before the vehicle is examined, and only the pounds 28.50 HPI charge will be made if a problem shows up on the database.

The AA does not include the HPI fees in its charges which start from pounds 95 for members, or pounds 120 for non-members, but it will arrange a check on the HPI database if requested. Buyers are advised by the AA to ask dealers if they have already carried out an HPI check to save this being duplicated, pointing out that any dealer who lies can be sued.

Trading standards officers say that it often makes sense to use AA or RAC vehicle examination services, but warn that on a cheap car the costs can outweigh the benefits. The AA and RAC claim that garages will usually rectify without charge problems found from the vehicle tests, but motorists are advised by trading standards officers to obtain a written agreement from the seller to this effect before the test.

Alan Street, chief executive of the Institute of Trading Standards Administration, says that it is remarkable how many car buyers do not take elementary precautions. "What you don't do is what many consumers still do - part with large amounts of cash to people they don't know in places where there is no evidence of trade, when there is no proof of ownership."

Mr Street advises that if buyers are not using vehicle tests, they should still ensure that the car is checked by an expert. Many car thieves put advertisements in the paper as private sellers, using just a mobile phone number as a contact point. In this case, buyers could end up losing both their cash and the car.

o HPI-Equifax 0172 242 2422; CCN 0115 941 0888; AA 01256 20123; RAC 0800 333 660.