Inside the world of deciding second-hand car values

In a smart office block in Leeds rest the hopes of millions of car buyers and sellers. It’s here that each day Cap HPI, the vehicle valuation company, processes thousands of buying and selling prices drawn from more than 50 suppliers, including auction groups and car sales websites. 

The 160,000 motor trade transactions and 700,000 daily retail adverts the company crunches generate 10 million used car values across 2300 model ranges and in excess of 70,000 model derivatives going back 20 years. It captures price data on two million of the eight million used cars sold each year in the UK. Cap HPI is, it claims, the country’s biggest supplier of used vehicle values. 

Is there something a bit Orwellian about Cap HPI and companies like it that claim to know what your car – a vehicle that’s unique in terms of its age, mileage, colour, condition, and service and keeper history – is worth? Are their valuations a self-fulfilling prophecy? And, given how crucial a car’s future value is in determining its monthly leasing cost, are they not under pressure to massage their figures to satisfy car makers and their banks, at your expense? 

It’s tempting to find them guilty on all three counts but with the proviso that used car prices are, ultimately, governed by the laws of supply and demand, in addition to other factors, such as how a model is perceived in relation to its peers, its fuel type and where in its life cycle it is. The clearest evidence of these things at work is the auction ring, where Cap HPI, for example, captures a lot of its price data and where, on any weekday, you’ll see thousands of cars sell at breakneck speed to seasoned traders. 

True, some of them will be staring hard at their phones consulting online guide values, but most of them already know how much each car will fetch on the forecourt and, crucially, what their competitors are asking for the same models at the same age, with the same options and in the same colours. Working back from that figure gives them an idea of the price they should pay. 

Conditional offers

When it comes to checking what your car is worth, that’s something you should bear in mind.

When you go online to find out what your car is worth, behind the scenes the figure is likely to be provided by a used car valuation company such as Cap HPI. It bases its valuations not only on specification, age and mileage but also on external factors such as changes in model supply and demand. To ensure the valuations are as accurate as possible, a team of expert editors checks the data. 

A key factor in determining a car’s value is its condition. When you seek an online valuation, you’ll be asked to confirm the condition of your car. For the motor trade, Cap HPI gives a value for each of three condition grades it calls Clean, Average and Below. As cars age, they deteriorate, so the criteria for each of Cap HPI’s grades changes to reflect this. For example, to be judged in Clean condition, a one-year-old car is permitted to have only one area or panel requiring a minor repair. Meanwhile, a three-year-old example is allowed three. 

Here are four online companies keen to value your car. To get the most accurate valuation, be honest about the condition of your car: Sister website to gives guide prices for cars registered since 1998. One of the few sites that gives you a price verging on the car’s trade value. Powered by Cap HPI, this provider can tell you the price of the car when it was new, plus its private sale price, forecourt price and trade-in value today. Shows private sale and part-exchange guide prices for your car.