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Best way to buy a cheap car

Buying a cheap car doesn't mean it will be an unreliable lemon, so long as you put in the hard yards and do your homework before

Social distancing is here for a long, long time. Even after COVID-19 has been controlled and – hopefully – beaten, many of us will still be leery about gathering in large groups, or even in small groups, in any sort of confined space. Welcome to the new normal.

As part of that, many people will be unwilling to subject themselves to public transport in any of its forms (Qantas has already claimed social distancing in the context of a commercial flight is not viable). So it’s conceivable that personal transport will suddenly be a part of life for many who have so far done without it. In turn, that means there’s going to be a lot of people looking for their first car; people who have never taken an interest in cars before, but who are suddenly in the market for their own set of wheels to replace a train, bus, tram, taxi or aeroplane.

And unless that group of buyers gets schooled, they’re sitting ducks for a second-hand car industry that has been doing it tough for the last few months. So what’s the best advice for anybody about to take the plunge for the first time? Well, actually, there’s lots to know.

Where

A car yard must, by law, guarantee clear title on a car it sells. A car yard must, by law, guarantee clear title on a car it sells.

You have three main options when it comes to a cheap second-hand car. There are car yards, private sellers or auctions. Let’s get straight into it: If you fit the buyer profile we’re talking about here, give auctions (including online auctions) a big miss. They’re great for those who know exactly what they’re looking for/at, but for everybody else they’re a minefield.

Meanwhile, don’t presume that second-hand car yards are all run by Arthur Daley-types who flog lemons to unsuspecting muppets; private sellers can be at least as devious and dishonest. You’ll pay a little less by going with a private seller, but a dealer will (in some cases) offer you a small warranty. A car yard (licensed dealer) also has to offer you a roadworthy certificate on cars above a certain value (it varies from state to state).

Perhaps most crucially, a car yard must, by law, guarantee clear title on a car it sells. That means you won’t have an insurance company, finance company or the Stolen Car Squad knocking on the door to repossess a car that is actually owned by somebody else. A private seller? Not so much.

What

You have three main options when it comes to a cheap second-hand car. You have three main options when it comes to a cheap second-hand car.

Tempting though it might be to opt for something a bit exotic or a car with a lush leather interior and all sort of 1960s style, know this: There’s no such thing as a cheap old prestige or sports car. European second-hand cars are regarded by the trade as only for the brave, and that's why they often seem so cheap.

It might sound a bit mainstream, but the rule of thumb for a used car is to buy something that has a good reputation, will do the job you will ask of it and then to buy the best example of that car you can afford. Sounds simple, and it really is.

In the case of small- and medium-sized cars, conventional wisdom says stick with Japanese and South Korean makes and models. It’s equally true that from the 1990s and onwards, Australian full-sized sedans and station-wagons represent good value for family wheels. Don’t be lured into a four-wheel-drive or an SUV layout that you just don’t need and won’t use. Okay, so these are very broad guidelines, but once you’ve done your homework, you’ll see what we mean.

How

Before handing over any cash to a private seller, make sure you check out the car’s legal status. Before handing over any cash to a private seller, make sure you check out the car’s legal status.

Rule one: Don’t ever agree to buy a car over the phone or simply by looking at the photos on a website or online auction site. Always go and look at the car in person and, if used cars aren’t your special subject, take a mate who knows what’s what. Similarly, never buy any second-hand car that you haven’t driven for at least a few kilometres to get a feel for how it works and whether it has any problems.

But a word of warning; make sure you check with the seller that the car is indeed registered and insured before you take it out on the road. The highway patrol officer isn’t going to care who owns the unregistered car they’ve just pulled over, only who’s driving it.

Don’t be afraid to get online and learn about the make and model in question, too; there’s oodles of great consumer information on literally hundreds of cars on sites like CarsGuide, so take this free information and use it wisely.

Before handing over any cash to a private seller, make sure you check out the car’s legal status. That includes whether it has any claims over it (from, say, a finance company that is still owed money on the car) or whether it’s a badly damaged (written-off) car that has been repaired and re-registered. There are websites and hotlines for these check-the-status services in every state and territory. And, if you do decide to buy it, make sure you contact your insurance company and get at least a cover note before driving the car away. Legally, once money has changed hands, the car is yours and the seller’s insurance won’t cover it.

Don’t forget the paperwork, either. A car yard will take care of this, but a private seller has to sign the car over to you on the appropriate government form. Don’t forget to get a receipt from the seller including the date, car’s details, seller’s details and the full purchase price, too, as this will be required to register the car in your name. Again, that’s your responsibility in the case of a private sale (and there’s a time limit to get it done) while a car yard should do this for you and lodge the paperwork.

Peace of mind

Don’t ever agree to buy a car over the phone or simply by looking at the photos on a website or online auction site. Don’t ever agree to buy a car over the phone or simply by looking at the photos on a website or online auction site.

The various state motoring clubs offer a pre-purchase inspection service, some with various levels of forensic intensity. While these can cost a few hundred dollars, they’re a great way to sort the wheat from the chaff and ensure you don’t get lumbered with a lemon. The alternative to that is an inspection from an independent workshop (not the workshop that does the roadworthies for the car yard you’re buying from or a mate of the private seller). Again, there’ll be a charge, but compared with driving off in a ticking time-bomb, it’s money very well spent.