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Tips for buy­ing a used car

Inspec­tion tips

  • Take your time and care­fully exam­ine everything you want to look at – not just what the seller shows you.
  • Inspect the car on a dry sunny day if pos­sible – it’s easi­er to see the visu­al clues to the car’s real con­di­tion.
  • The older and cheap­er the car, the more likely there will be some­thing wrong, par­tic­u­larly once it’s done more than 100,000km. Be espe­cially wary of engine wear and rust.
  • Know what you can fix and the cost of hav­ing the work done.
  • Take these inspec­tion aids:
    • a mag­net to check for hid­den rust repairs
    • a torch to look under the bon­net
    • a friend – prefer­ably someone with a bit of car know­ledge.

Check the paper­work

Check that the car has a cur­rent war­rant of fit­ness – vehicles for sale must have a war­rant of fit­ness less than one month old.

How­ever, you may buy the car ‘as is where is’. Under this option you’ll need to give the seller a writ­ten prom­ise that you’ll only drive the car to get a war­rant. You may have to pay for repairs to bring the car up to war­rant stand­ard.

Ask the seller for any ser­vice or repair his­tory.

If you’re buy­ing privately, make sure you let us know straight away.

More inform­a­tion about buy­ing a vehicle

Get a pro­fes­sion­al inspec­tion

Always insist on hav­ing a full pro­fes­sion­al inspec­tion before buy­ing any used car. Most gar­ages will per­form these inspec­tions. There are also spe­cial­ist pre-pur­chase inspec­tion ser­vices. After the inspec­tion both you and the seller will receive a report detail­ing any repairs needed.

The safety check­list

Check the exter­i­or

Rust

Most older vehicles have some rust. Wheth­er it’s a prob­lem depends on how much and where it is.

Look for signs of rust on the main struc­tur­al sup­ports (struc­tur­al cor­ro­sion). This is dan­ger­ous. A vehicle with rust in the areas shown in the dia­gram will likely fail a war­rant of fit­ness inspec­tion and repairs will be costly.

Examples of structural corrosion points

Examples of struc­tur­al cor­ro­sion points

Rust on the car body can also be a prob­lem. Look for bub­bling paint­work. It’s pos­sible that the use of a filler may be mask­ing the prob­lem. In some cases you can tell if this is the case by run­ning a mag­net over the car — it won’t stick to the filler. How­ever, the mag­net test won’t work if the filler con­tains iron dust.

Also look for rust:

  • on weight-bear­ing parts and steer­ing wheel mount­ings
  • under car­pets, the boot­liner and in the spare tyre area
  • inside the pet­rol cap door.

Paint

A recent paint job could be an attempt to mask a prob­lem. First, try the mag­net test (see rust above). Also look closely for:

  • a rippled fin­ish – this could indic­ate body work under­neath
  • dif­fer­ent shades of col­our in dif­fer­ent parts – check for over­spray or dif­fer­ent shades under the wheel arches and on the rub­ber strips around the win­dows.

Shock absorbers

To test for worn shock absorbers:

  • Stand at a corner of the car, push it up and down to get a rhythmic motion. Then stop. If the car does­n’t stop imme­di­ately, the shocks are worn. Can­’t get any move­ment at all? The shocks def­in­itely need repla­cing.
  • Repeat this test on all four corners.
  • Next, stand back to view the entire car. Does it sag to either side? To the front or back? Any sag­ging may res­ult from defect­ive springs or shock absorbers.

Tyres

Check all the tyres, includ­ing the spare. Leg­ally, treads must be at least 1.5mm deep across 34 of the tread pat­tern around the entire tyre. How­ever, if there are tread depth indic­at­ors the tread depth must be at least 1.5 mm in these areas.

Look for:

  • indic­a­tions of tread wear on the tread wear indic­at­or (on most tyres) in the tyre’s centre groove – this shows up at 1.6mm. If you can see it, the tyre most likely needs repla­cing
  • uneven tyre wear – this may indic­ate a steer­ing, sus­pen­sion or align­ment prob­lem. Turn the steer­ing wheel to full lock one way then the oth­er and check the inside of each front tyre.

Pan­els

Open and shut all the doors, the bon­net and the boot, mak­ing sure they are aligned prop­erly and move smoothly. Also check that the win­dows open and shut eas­ily, and that they will stay open halfway.

Exhaust

An exhaust leak is dan­ger­ous – exhaust fumes get­ting inside your car could cause you to pass out from car­bon monox­ide pois­on­ing.

To check for leaks in the muffler and exhaust sys­tem:

  • look for soft areas, brittle areas or areas where putty is used
  • pro­tect­ing your hand with a rag, tem­por­ar­ily block the end of the exhaust pipe while the engine is run­ning. The build-up of pres­sure should blow your hand away from the pipe. No real pres­sure? The sys­tem has a leak that needs repair.

Check the inside

Dash­board

Things to check:

  • Push, pull or twist all dash­board switches and knobs to check they work.
  • Have someone out­side the car check that all lights and indic­at­ors work, includ­ing the brake lights.
  • Try the wipers, the radio, the levers for open­ing the boot and bon­net.
  • Can you adjust the mir­rors?

Also check for old or loose wir­ing under the dash­board.

Seats and safety belts

Things to check:

  • The driver­’s seat is com­fort­able and you can adjust it to fit you. Look for pos­sible dam­age under seat cov­ers, if fit­ted.
  • All seats are prop­erly secured to the floor.
  • All seats have safety belts.
  • The safety belts’ buckle and retract­or mech­an­isms work.
  • All belts lock up tightly when sud­denly pulled.
  • The webbing is not frayed or faded — this can indic­ate UV dam­age which weak­ens the belt. The belt may need repla­cing.

Leaks

Leaks can indic­ate wear (espe­cially from rust) and poor care. They can be dif­fi­cult and expens­ive to fix.

Look for damp­ness or water stains on seats and car­pets. If pos­sible, lift up the car­pets and check under­neath, includ­ing in the boot area.

Check under the bon­net

Engine

A dirty engine can point to vehicle neg­lect. But a spark­ling clean engine may be the res­ult of a recent steam clean under­taken to mask defects.

Look for:

  • frayed or burnt wir­ing, oil streaks and poorly attached or dam­aged hoses
  • pet­rol leaks around the car­bur­et­tor and fuel lines (check care­fully)
  • black soupy oil – can indic­ate a worn-out engine
  • oil leaks or oth­er drips under the car.

With the engine going:

  • take off the oil filler cap – if large amounts of gas come out (espe­cially with a blue smoky tinge) the engine is badly worn (don’t for­get to replace the cap)
  • let the engine idle for a few minutes and have a friend watch the exhaust for blue smoke when you push the accel­er­at­or. While a single puff is okay, con­tinu­ous blue smoke means a badly worn engine. (This test only works on pet­rol-fuelled cars.)

Radi­at­or

Look for:

  • leaks, rust or water stains
  • leaks in the radi­at­or hose and where the cyl­in­der head meets the engine block.

When the engine is cool, remove the cap to check the water:

  • A little rust col­our is okay.
  • A green or blue tint – from coolant or engine con­di­tion­er – is okay too.
  • Any oil in the water indic­ates a major prob­lem.
  • Per­fectly clear water won’t tell you much – it’s prob­ably just been changed.

Don’t for­get to replace the cap.

Take a test drive

Before you get in the car

Check that the car is insured. You may be liable for dam­ages if you drive an unin­sured vehicle.

Pre-drive checks

Once you’re in the car, switch on the igni­tion, but don’t start the engine.

Check that:

  • warn­ing lights go on. If they don’t, there may be a fault
  • the oil and coolant level lights go off after a few seconds
  • the hand­brake light goes off when the brake is released.

Any anti-lock brak­ing sys­tem (ABS) or airbags lights (SRS) will have their own test­ing sequence. Check the vehicle’s manu­al to see what this should be. Watch for any lights that stay on – espe­cially those for brakes or coolant level.

Start the engine, with the engine cold if pos­sible.

Check that:

  • the starter motor turns over quickly and the motor ‘catches’ quickly
  • there are no odd noises like back­fires or a rat­tling exhaust
  • the oil pres­sure light goes off after the car has been run­ning for a few seconds
  • there’s no blue smoke com­ing from the exhaust. (See note under engine.)

Driv­ing tests

While you drive:

  • listen for any odd noises that could indic­ate prob­lems:
    • clanging or clunk­ing noises when start­ing and stop­ping could mean prob­lems with engine mount­ings, exhaust, sus­pen­sion, trans­mis­sion or the drive shaft
    • tap­ping or knock­ing noises could be from a fail­ing rod bear­ing, pis­ton or pis­ton pin
    • grind­ing or whin­ing can mean worn gears or bear­ings – these are expens­ive repairs
    • squeal­ing noises when you brake may mean new brake pads or lin­ings are needed.

Car­park tests

Using an empty car­park, drive at low speed on full steer­ing lock in each dir­ec­tion. Rhythmic clunks from the front of the vehicle may indic­ate the drive shaft joints are badly worn and need repla­cing.

Be aware of any smells:

  • A burn­ing oil smell may indic­ate that the engine is worn.
  • Pet­rol fumes may sig­nal an exhaust leak. Leaks can lead to car­bon monox­ide get­ting inside the car and you could poten­tially pass out behind the wheel.

Test out the vehicle’s accel­er­a­tion:

  • When you put your foot down, does the engine pull smoothly, without any stalls or power loss?
  • When you take your foot off does the engine power down smoothly?

Hill tests

Find a hilly road that is safe for a test drive. How does the car drive up hill? This is a good time to check for blue exhaust smoke (from burn­ing oil). Go down the hill, foot off the accel­er­at­or. At the bot­tom push the accel­er­at­or. If the engine is old it may take a while to accel­er­ate and you may see a big puff of smoke from the exhaust.

Test out the vehicle’s brakes. Do they:

  • respond quickly to a touch of the ped­al?
  • stop the vehicle in a straight line, without pulling to either side?

Brake and gear tests

Find a quiet stretch of road and try an emer­gency stop, from about 30km/​h. Put on the brakes firmly, but don’t slam them. The car should slow down quickly and in a straight line (if the car starts to veer to one side, release the brakes and cor­rect the steer­ing).

Test out the vehicle’s gears:

  • Can you change the gears eas­ily and smoothly?
  • Try chan­ging down quickly a few times — is there a crunch­ing noise? The gear­box may need work.
  • If the car’s an auto­mat­ic, do the gears change smoothly? Unex­pec­ted changes or bump­ing noises aren’t good.
  • Is the trans­mis­sion oil clear red? A burnt smell indic­ates prob­lems.

Final tests

Stop the car, and leave the engine run­ning.

Check under the bon­net for:

  • smoke
  • oil or water leaks
  • prob­lems with the cool­ing or elec­tric­al sys­tems.

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