What to look out for when buying a second hand car


When you’re thinking about buying a second hand car, deciding what to look for can be an overwhelming process. How do you know what you're buying isn't a lemon that's going to cost you more in the long run?


To give you a helping hand, we’ve put together these simple tips to help you make the right decision and not get ripped off:


  1. Stick to your budget religiously. Before you even start your search, it’s vital you set a budget for your purchase and stick to it. Don’t forget about ongoing costs, including running costs, insurance and registration plus any interest you’ll pay for finance.
  2. Do your research. Hop online and research the cars you’re interested in thoroughly. Look for user reviews and word-of-mouth threads on any potential problems the models you like might have down the track. There are also plenty of sites that will guide you on what you can expect to pay or the best second hand cars available for your budget.
  3. Run through this checklist. You’ve winnowed down your list to a few cars that meet your needs and budget – now it’s time to do your own inspection. Make sure you do so during daylight when you can see everything. Here are some key things you should be on the lookout for (it’s not an exhaustive list):
    1. Paint job: Are any rust spots, dents or scratches? If you look end-on at the car's panels is the paint job wavy? If so, it's probably had a repaint. Run your finger along the panel joints – you'll feel roughness if masking paint has been used during touch-up.
    2. Boot: Does it have any rust or water damage? Any excessive wear suggests the car’s been used heavily.
    3. Tires: Are they evenly worn? Do they match? Is there feathering on the surface? This could be bad alignment due to worn steering, suspension or damage to the frame.
    4. Under the hood: Check for rust or collision damage. Hoses and belts shouldn’t have any cracks; radiator hoses should be rigid, not soft. Look for engine leaks or corrosion. Check the oil level – is it low? This could mean the owner hasn’t looked after the car well. Look around the oil filler cap for something that looks like mayonnaise – this could indicate a costly-to-fix leaking head gasket. Jot down the VIN (Vehicle Identification Number - more on this later).
    5. Inside the car: Make sure all the seatbelts work properly, the front seats move well, and all the switches work.
  4. Test drive. Check for any play or random noises in the steering by turning the wheel to lock and back. Make sure the radio isn’t on before you begin – it masks any strange engine noises. Start the engine cold to check for smoke that could indicate engine wear (Note: if the owner’s already warmed up the engine they might have something to hide). If you drive up a hill test the handbrake – does it stick well? If you can drive down a highway, a back road, cobblestones – anything to give you an idea about how the car handles on different surfaces. Make sure the gears and transmission shift smoothly, and the clutch (if applicable) doesn't slip.
  5. If in doubt... It’s worth getting a professional to look over the car for you. At the very least, insist on a roadworthy certificate.


If you’ve decided to go ahead. Regardless of whether the seller seems genuine, the final step is to check the vehicle isn't stolen, has an outstanding loan still active or been written off by an insurance company. Use the VIN to check against your state's databases to stave off any potential issues before you fork out your hard-earned cash.