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What Do I Look For When Buying A Secondhand Car?

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Do you have either no idea where to start or what to look for when buying a car? It doesn’t matter if you are starting out or have had a few cars already, there’s a method to reduce the risk of buying a ‘lemon’ – a car that has so many problems, it’s only good for the wreckers.

Let’s begin with an online search. Go to the large secondhand car search engines that have lots of options you can select from. There are many categories to select from such as ‘year’, ‘ZIP Code’, ‘Body Type/Style’, ‘Fuel Type’, ‘Model’, and ‘Color’. You can always add the other features once you know what body type you like the most (SUV, sedan, coupe, etc), the model (Ford or Audi for example), or listing only those in your locality. However, I will show you the basic order in which I search for a fantastic find to start you off.

Car Search Requirements

1. Tick ‘Only show cars with photos’ or on some sites ‘hide vehicles with no photos’. It seems an obvious start, but ads without photos are a waste of time. For a start it could be a scam, or the seller could be trying to hide something like rust or damage thinking that when they get someone to look it over, they will somehow ignore the faults.

2. Enter values into the ‘Mileage’ option. Depending on your budget, you may only get a few cars in your price range with low mileage, but stick to your guns as something will come along. The best values I usually put in are divided into two: firstly a maximum of 62,000 miles (as this is a good point to find out what if any problems have been fixed or what needs to be done in a major service has been done), and secondly a value of 93,000 miles. I wouldn’t go any higher than the second mileage as cars over this tend to have a whole lot more problems.

3. Choose what ‘Transmission’ you would like to drive. These days it’s mostly automatic as there aren’t many manual drivers’ licenses being issued any more. There’s nothing more deflating than seeing an awesome car with super-low mileage, reading all about how great it is, and drooling over the photos only to find there’s a manual gearstick where the automatic handle should be.

4. Now for the ‘Price’. Put in a figure slightly above your budget (perhaps an extra $500) as your max, because you never know what is just outside your range that you may just get on budget.

5. Hit ‘Search’.

Once you have a list of cars to look at, you can usually select to either list them by ‘mileage’, ‘price’, or ‘newly listed’ to name a few. Or you can just view them as they come up. I find it easier to either choose ‘mileage – low to high’ or ‘price – low to high’ as ‘newly listed’ cars usually aren’t going to budge on price if you like the car.

‘Wow’ that looks like an awesome car! So you’ve spotted a car you like the look of. Open up the advert and let’s see what it has to say. Private sellers not only usually have more to say than dealers, but they are often open to accepting a reduced price (as long as it’s a fair and decent one). If there’s hardly any information about the car I usually skip and move on, but there may be a good deal to be had if you engage in a conversation with the seller to not only find out more, but also get more photos if they are lacking or aren’t very clear. I also find lots of adverts have the same pre-selected text which is a real put-off for me as the person hasn’t taken the time to properly explain the car’s assets and the car’s history. This is crucial when looking for a car, because the more information the seller gives you, the better the picture in your mind of how well the car has been looked after, and how honest the seller is as well.

The following are three examples – one is a great description someone wrote on their advert (and note the car sold within two weeks because of it), one where the seller has made minimal effort (usually an indication that the car has had minimal effort in being looked after), and one which you just avoid at all costs.


“This car is in very good condition with under 65,000 miles. Any minor blemishes are consistent with the age, but the car has been cared and looked after since new. I am the second owner and need to sell due to personal circumstances .You are free to take your time having a drive and inspection and if you wish your free to arrange a pre-purchase inspection locally at your expense as I know my car is in great condition. Complete outstanding service history, log book stamped on time every time and workshop reports all kept for you to continue with as the third owner. Top-Slider Sun Roof which looks amazing in multiple positions, professionally installed and of high quality. Kubond 9H Total Surface Protection has been professionally applied to the whole of the car. Original factory Alloy’s professionally changed to black. Cougar badges applied. Personalized ’99CUGA’ Number Plates are included with protectors on them. I will assist interstate buyers completely with transport (at the expense of the buyer). Professionally installed Twin-Exhaust pipes which make the back end look great and sound very nice (not loud at all but a nice note). Fantastic top of the range Sony head unit with hands free , GPS (local maps) and reverse camera ready, touch screen pops up to insert CD/DVD, great sound and quality touch screen, total multi-media unit. Quality new Floor Mats. Tinted Windows (comes with a lifetime warranty). New Boot Struts for hatch installed 19/Sep/2018. New Battery only a couple of months ago. New Alternator 60,110 miles New Tires 59,957 miles (basically brand new) 2 Original Keys Safety Inspection was obtained on the 19/10/2020 and I have driven the car less than 60 miles since so I will be able to obtain a safety inspection for the buyer without issue after we agree on a sale. I will sell with a full tank of gas. Registration is until July. All standard features of the cougar included full quality leather, climate control, electric heated seats, power windows, traction control, 4 airbags and more. All questions welcome and if you’re serious you will not be disappointed in this excellent Cougar, it is a comfortable/safe/nice handling and head turning car in every way.”

            – This is the type of information that attracts buyers


Car Advert

            – Literally this is all that was said


“Car broke down on the high way got it towed to local town
Live on the coast and it’s gonna cost me more to tow it up and fix is as I don’t have a mechanic further down the coast
My partner accidentally put the wrong oil in so currently not working
Got quoted $3700 to fix it and don’t have the time to fix it”

            – No surprise this ad had no photos and is just sitting online waiting for a buyer.

Other things to point out:-

Ten to twenty percent of cars listed have the wrong amount of miles entered. There are three reasons for this. Firstly, the seller has forgotten to add an extra zero at the end (so a car that has 31,500 miles listed is 315,000 miles in actuality). Secondly, the car may have had a newly reconditioned engine put in to replace the old one, and this lower mileage is all that is stated (which doesn’t take into account the original mileage and wear and tear on the original car itself). Thirdly, because they have adjusted the speedometer (avoid). This is why you need to ask questions such as ‘is the mileage shown in the advert correct?’, ‘is the engine the original one?’ and ‘do you have all service records for the car?’. This last one is vitally important as every service recorded has a date and speedometer reading to let you gauge whether the engine has indeed done what the advert says.  

If you need to finance your car, you can usually research online for the best deal on an ‘auto loan’ from a bank for a private sale. For finance agreements on a dealer-bought car, compare credit rates and payment options between banks and the dealer-preferred finance on offer.

Safety. There are a number of cars online that have been in some kind of accident. It’s essential to get all (if any) information about what type of damage was done (if repaired) and ask to see all receipts for work. If it’s minor damage like a dent in the door or a scrape on the bumper, it’s not too bad. However, if the car has been in a head on collision with another car, tree, or other object, it will most definitely have compromised the overall safety of the vehicle in question. Once a car has been in a serious accident, there is a much reduced chance of the same car and/or the driver surviving another smash. Some sites allow you to select the option ‘hide repairable vehicles’, but this may only hide the ones that haven’t been repaired.

This should give you an overview of what I look for when starting a search. Don’t get too caught up in the ‘Color’ or ‘Body Kit’ options, as these can be altered. Just look for the essential non-negotiable options like price, safety, and condition.  

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