The Essential Check List for Buying a Used Car
While the prospect sounds exciting, yet daunting, there are a few basic checks you can do yourself before getting a mechanic in.
Firstly, decide the purpose of the vehicle. It’s easy to get carried away dreaming of a 2-door sports car or of conquering the earth in a big, gas-guzzling 4 wheel drive, and buying it on the spot! Realistically however, you need to decide what it would be for: traveling to work, carrying boxes or people around, a first car for your teenage son/daughter, environmentally-friendly, or a classic.
Manual or Automatic? More people are opting to get an ‘automatic’ license as it’s the easier option, and there are more vehicles out there to choose from. However, if you can drive and prefer a manual stick shift, then you’re in luck when it comes to the price. Manuals are generally cheaper (usually between one and two thousand dollars cheaper), and although you are more likely to pick up an older model, on the flip side there aren’t as many around.
Next, set a maximum budget of what you want to spend. There are sites that offer a recommended price guide for models and years (such as Kelley Blue Book, Canadian Black Book, or Redbook in Australia). Note their prices are a guide only and it’s best to search for available stock on the internet to get a better idea. You will also need to factor in extra costs involved such as motor vehicle duty, transfer fee, insurance, and if you choose, a professional vehicle inspection and a vehicle history check (recommended). If buying at an auction, there is also a buyer’s fee. If you purchase through a Licensed Motor Dealer, they sometimes include the motor duty and transfer fee in the ‘Drive away, no more to pay’ advertised price. They also offer a reduced price online if you find one there. Remember, Dealers will often ask more for a vehicle than a private seller.
Now comes the fun part, looking for the vehicle that suits your needs. It’s always a good idea to do an advanced search when scouring car websites to ensure basic requirements are met. Do your homework here and look at as many used vehicles on as many different websites that fill your brief (or model and year) so you get an idea of the average price. Fill in the areas that apply to you like the price range, maximum mileage, transmission, body type, engine size etc. Dealers who leave off the mileage of a vehicle are hiding the fact that the vehicle has done high mileage, so always ring or email first to confirm the actual distance the car has traveled. While you’re at it, check to see if the car has been written off (some sites have this option and it’s easy to miss if you’re not looking closely) as a car that seems really cheap for what it offers may have been written off. Whilst sites such as Cargurus, Autotrader, Bestcarfinder, Carsforsale, Cars, Smartmotorguide, Ebay, AutoTempest, and Drive help you refine your search, it’s a great idea to get out and check car yards and auctions (they change their available stock weekly, and you’re not pressured by a dealer). This is great for someone who has no idea what they want, as you get to experience a vehicle first hand and decide what works and what doesn’t in a car for your needs. It’s important at this point to realize your spatial awareness when sitting in the driver’s seat, and if taking a test drive just how good you are at reverse parking, estimating your distance from other vehicles, and how easily you can see everything around you. When buying through an auction, note that you can’t test drive a vehicle and the price you pay doesn’t include on-road costs. Plan to go a day or two before the auction to avoid the rush of people registering to bid, and to give you time to look vehicles over at your leisure. Also ask if any service books and related paperwork come with the vehicle, as they are usually kept behind reception.
You’re now ready to look over the vehicle. Take your time as this is your chance to assess the car for your safety and satisfaction. Check for mismatched paintwork or poorly fitting panels around the boot, door frames, and under the bonnet. This can indicate previous collision damage. See if you can spot rust or bubbled paint around windows, doors, and inside on the boot floor. Bring along a small torch and have a look under the vehicle for any visible damage or evidence of rust/holes in the muffler, and check for fluid leaks and fresh patches on the ground under the engine bay (this includes oil, coolant, or brake fluid).
Time to lift the bonnet. Again, check for any leaks or oil surrounding the hoses or caps. Inspect the levels and color of the oil and water/coolant reservoirs. Check for signs of rust or damage to the radiator. Look over the tires for good tread and firmness including the spare. Make sure you are happy with your choice of either a full size tire or a compact spare which usually only gets you to where you are going. You can check the age of your tires by looking at the Tire Identification Number (TIN). The last four digits on the tire indicate the week and year it was manufactured, e.g. a tire with ‘XXX3807’ was manufactured in the 38th week of 2007. Also make sure there is a car jack and tools for changing a tire. At this point ask if there is a wheel locking nut (should the tires require one). If not, they can be costly to replace. Check all exterior lights for cracks or damage.
Once inside the car, you can get an idea of how the car has been driven and treated. Cast an eye over the accelerator and brake pedals for wear, the seats for adjustments, smoke holes and stains, the sunshades, interior light, steering wheel adjustment, any loose screws or parts in the glove box, door, or center console, and the condition of carpet and ceiling lining. Check door handles, locks, wind-down windows, and side mirror adjustment.
When you get the keys, ask if there are spares (as purchasing a spare set can set you back hundreds of dollars depending on what the key has stored such as immobilizer, central locking, alarm). Confirm original kilometers as advertised when purchasing a low mileage vehicle. I have often found adverts online that sound too good to be true – where the seller has listed their car with only 15,960 miles (25,700km’s), but in-fact mistakenly or deliberately left off a zero, with the true reading being 159,600 miles (257,000 km’s) on it.. Frustrating and misleading sometimes by mistake, but sometimes also on purpose to get you interested.
Upon starting the vehicle, listen for any strange noises (such as loud grunting, misfiring, heavy knocking or clattering). A squealing sound while taking off can mean the cam belt needs changing which can set you back over $1,000 on some European vehicles. If the vehicle has mileage between 50,000 miles (80,00kms) and 75,000 miles (120,000kms), check for receipts to show the belt has been changed, or allow for this in the asking price. When test-driving, do extreme right and left hand U-turns to ensure there’s no knocking sounds or abnormal pulling of the steering wheel. Test the brakes harshly. Make sure the gears handle smoothly and the vehicle accelerates well. Confirm all the electrics work (windows, side mirrors, stereo, sunroof, wipers, clock, and lights including dash board). Test the air-con and heating, and find out how many airbags (if any) there are.
Ask if any modifications have been done (increased tire size, vehicle lowered, sunroof, spotlights, bull bar, sports kit, or engine alterations), as you will need to list these with your insurance company.
Also take clear photos of any damage that maybe cheap enough to fix if the vehicle is great value. You can show a panel beater these photos and get a rough quote of how much any repairs would cost. If you have a list of faults that need repairing or you notice registration is nearing expiry, use these as leverage to reduce the asking price.
With private sales especially, I recommend a vehicle inspection check either by a local, certified mechanic or a specialist company that specializes in just doing vehicle inspections. This provides you with an in depth report of how the vehicle handles, and an overall look at the engine and performance. Also get a vehicle history report to check the written off status and if the car is or has been stolen.
If you are buying from an interstate or overseas seller/dealer, it is essential to do professional mechanical and vehicle history checks, and find out how much transport will cost you (which could also be factored into the price you want to pay). If you are buying from a Dealer, ensure you get a separate mechanic to do the check as some (and I say some!) Dealers can do a dodgy check with their own mechanic to get the sale.
Finally, before picking up your ‘new’ used car, ensure you have insurance in place before getting behind the wheel. Make sure you do an online comparison to get the best deal, and double check exactly what you are covered for. If you are satisfied at this point, good luck and good motoring!
Check out more in-depth advice in related articles on this website.