Used car buying guide: How to buy a used car

Buying a car can be an exciting but complicated experience, especially if you are buying a used car. You’ll have lots of questions that need to be answered, so it’s best to do some research before you head off to the dealers. You need to consider what make and model you prefer, if it suits your lifestyle and everyday needs, how you will pay for the car—for example will you need to finance it or can you pay cash, and most of all will it fit into your budget? You will also need to confirm that the car doesn’t have any existing problems that will become an issue in the future.

To make your life easier, we’ve created a handy checklist for you to consider when buying a used car.

Confirming the owner

Confirming that you are purchasing the vehicle from the true owner may be the most important step in buying a used car. If you purchase a stolen vehicle it can not only be repossessed by the police but the thief will likely be long gone with your money leaving you with quite a problem.

  • Identify the buyer. Find out as much as you can about the individual you’re making the purchase from to see if anything seems amiss. Check for the full name, fixed address, employer, and phone number. With that information you can double check the rego and ownership to make sure they match up properly.
  • Confirm the VIN. The vehicle identification number (VIN) should match the ownership and rego. Examine the VIN plate to see if it has been tampered with, scratched or altered in any way. You may also check the VIN with the police to assure the vehicle doesn’t have a dirty past.
  • Review the Price. Any deal that seems “too good to be true” most likely is. If the vehicle seems very under-priced you should automatically assume something isn’t right. That doesn’t necessarily mean the vehicle is stolen but it is very likely that the seller is hiding something. Do your research to find out the average asking price of the kind of vehicle you’re after so you know whether you’re getting a real steal or just getting ripped off. If you have any doubts about the situation it’s best to just move on and avoid the risk.

Vehicle condition

Let’s face it – no one wants to buy a lemon. A couple of ways to discover if the car will have future problems is by finding out if a vehicle has sustained damage through an accident, neglect, or by the forces of mother nature. An honest seller will provide this information but in the event they don’t, there are a few things you can look for before making the decision to buy.

  • Obtain a Vehicle history report. There are many sources for obtaining a vehicle history report and they are easy to obtain. While a report isn’t guaranteed to give you all the information about a vehicle, it’s a great place to start and can make the evaluation process much easier and quicker.
  • Check the Certificate. Make sure the car has a roadworthy certificate. This can go a long way to increase your confidence in a vehicle, however it does little to show the vehicle’s overall wear or future lifespan. To find out how the car will fare in the long run, you will need to do a little more examining.

Under the bonnet

Any build-up of dirt and road grime that appears caked on is a sign of fluid leaks. There are many sources of leaks which include leakage from power steering pump, radiator, hoses, transmission, oil pan, engine seals, and oil cooler lines.

While you don’t need to know what all of these do specifically, evidence of leaks is a likely indication of poor maintenance, and possible secondary damage and wear to other components within the same system. Used car buyers should expect reasonable signs of wear and tear that will vary in magnitude depending on vehicle age. Signs of excessive wear and tear may warrant a price decrease. Either way, make sure to keep the car buying excitement in check; it may be best to walk away from a potential lemon. Here a few indicators to help inform your buying decision.

  • Coolant leaks. If there is any sticky, liquid residue in the engine or underneath the car, it may have a coolant leak. Coolant has a sweet smell to it which can make it easy to identify if the vehicle is leaving spots on the ground. More severe however, would be the presence of white smoke in the car exhaust. This can be an indicator that coolant is draining into the combustion chamber which is a serious problem.
  • Oil leaks. Although small oil puddles underneath a car may be a result of oil spilled during refilling, they might also indicate an oil leak. Fresh puddles or active dripping can be an indication of a potential problem.
  • Power steering fluid leaks. Most cars use automatic transmission fluid for power steering fluid. This fluid has a reddish colour, so any red-tinted puddles under the car could indicate a power steering fluid leak. Checking the power steering fluid basin is easy and can assist you in identifying a leak.

Body and paint

It’s a good sign if the body panels appear in good working order on first inspection, free of dents, dings, rust, chips, and oxidation. Sometimes though, signs of past accidents are less than obvious. Here are a few of the more subtle indicators of body damage.

  • Gaps between body panels. The space between body panels should appear equal. Pay special attention to the gaps between the bonnet and the front bumper. Thicker gaps, or gaps that are inconsistent, are indicators of past damage, and likely an accident.
  • Rust on inside of body panels. Most car manufacturers do not paint both sides of body panels, which means that rust can easily develop from the inside and then spread. When rust is spreading from the inside, paint will appear dimpled and blistered. While rust will eventually develop on any vehicle that is old enough, it is usually resulting from not washing a vehicle regularly. Even though washing a vehicle isn’t a standard maintenance procedure it can give you an idea of the owner’s attitude towards caring for the vehicle in general.
  • Sagging doors. Doors should not sag on their hinges. They should swing freely, close securely, and form a secure weather seal. This is also an indicator of past accidents which you should be aware of.

Wheels and tyres

Well performing tyres ensure optimal fuel efficiency, safety, and driver control of a vehicle. The law mandates tyres have a minimum tread depth of 1.5 mm across the face of the contact surface. Here are some things to look for when examining tyres.

  • Uneven wear on front tyres. Uneven wear may indicate misaligned wheels.
  • Tread crowning. Wear that is heavier around the edges of the tread surface, is caused by driving with under-inflated tyres.
  • Tread cupping. Wear that is consistently heavier toward the centre line of tyres is caused by driving with over-inflated tyres.
  • Excessive wear on rear tyres. This may be a result of bad driving practices, and could warrant a closer inspection of other vehicle components.
  • Uneven tread wear on rear tyres. This may indicate a bent or warped frame. Misaligned frames are, in most cases, not repairable.


A car’s transmission forms the mechanical interface between the engine and the wheels. The chemical energy released through fuel combustion in the engine is converted by the transmission into the mechanical energy that turns the drive wheels. In laypersons’ terms – If your transmission isn’t working, your car isn’t going anywhere. Needless to say it is an important component that must remain in good working order. Here are a few possible signs of transmission trouble.

  • Transmission fluid leaks. Use the car owner manual to locate the vehicle’s transmission. Inspect the ground beneath for fluid leaks.
  • Transmission fluid that is dark or filled with particles. Automatic transmission fluid is oily, reddish in colour, and translucent when new. Excessively dirty fluid may indicate poor maintenance, and can cause automatic vehicles to perform sluggishly.
  • Soft or spongy feeling clutch. When you put your foot on the clutch, the pedal should give consistent pressure against the operator’s foot throughout the full length of the pedal stroke. A pedal stroke that feels spongy or soft typically indicates damage or leaking fluid lines. A vehicle with a malfunctioning clutch is unsafe to operate.
  • Lapse between gears shifting. With the engine idling and without pressing the brake pedal, move the gear selector into the drive position. Take notice of any significant lapse between moving the gear selector and when you feel the transmission engage, as it may indicate a bad transmission. Also while driving, gear changes should be smooth, any jerking or lurching shifts are a sign of a weakening transmission.
  • Unusual sounds while pressing the clutch. For a manual transmission start the engine with the transmission in neutral and the parking brake engaged. Press the clutch and hold it down for one or two seconds then release. Repeat this process two or three times while listening for any changes in sounds, specifically anything that sounds like a squeal or a whine. This could indicate a need for closer inspection.
  • Overall drivability issues. If everything seems in good working order up to this point, drive the vehicle and make note of any conditional changes in clutch pedal pressure, shifting intervals (when driving an automatic transmission), or unusual noises.

As you can see there is an inevitable risk involved in purchasing a second-hand car however there is a lot that can be done to minimize it. Even without being an expert you can now identify some of the biggest potential problems with a vehicle and make the car buying experience much more successful.

This post was brought to you by Budget Direct Car Insurance

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