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Tips on buying a car

After buying our house, a car — new or used — is the most significant spend of our lives.

So it is a purchase we need to approach with caution and as much information as possible.

Most people would prefer to park a new car in the driveway but, for many reasons, it is not always possible and so we have to, or choose to, buy secondhand.

Buying a used car requires a completely different approach to buying a new one because they are very different beasts, and a secondhand car could have covered many thousands of kilometres, possibly been involved in a fender-bender, possibly even been stolen and recovered, repossessed, never serviced or neglected by an uncaring owner.

There is an absolute raft of unknowns so it is vital to eliminate as many of those mysteries as possible to make the buying process, and the subsequent ownership experience, as painless as possible.

New-car buyers have none of these things to worry about. After choosing the car that satisfies their needs and desires and fits their budget, new car-buyers are mostly consumed with such trivial things as colour, trim choices and the power of the sound system.

They do not have to worry about its condition, its service history or treatment by previous owners, because none of that applies to the shiny car waiting for them in the pre-delivery room.



ONE thing common to buying new and used cars is the role emotion plays in our decision.

Carmakers feed our emotions in the way they promote and advertise new cars, wooing us with cool looks, rumbling exhausts, powerful sound systems and other things that appeal to our vanity.

It is important to understand that the emotion is mostly on the side of the buyer. A seller rarely has any emotion, so it is crucial to keep your feelings in check and try to make the decision-making as objective as possible.


THERE are many and varied reasons for buying a used car, but the most common is budget.

A young driver hitting the road for the first time rarely has the money to buy a new car.

People with growing families might have the cash for a new car, but need the space offered in a bigger secondhand vehicle.

Plenty of people dream about a new prestige, luxury or sports car but only have the budget for a regular family four-door.

So they go secondhand to get a car they could never afford when it was new.

Hard-nosed shoppers might just object to paying for the depreciation that occurs the moment a gleaming new car rolls out of the dealer's showroom.

Whatever the reason, anyone buying used must understand that the car they choose is not a new car and will not be in the same condition it was when it was driven out of the showroom by its original owner.

It will probably have done many thousands of kilometres, and those kilometres will have had an effect on every component, from the body to the engine, transmission, suspension, trim and tyres. In short, everything.

The aim should be to buy the best car for the money, which makes it important to make as accurate an assessment of the effect of those kilometres as possible.

In the process, it's important to understand all cars are slightly different. Unlike a new car, which for all intents and purposes is the same as the next one on the production line, a used one is different to every other car simply because of the kilometres it has done, how regularly it has been serviced, how often it has been washed and polished, how it was driven, and all the other things that affect its condition when it goes up for sale.


FIRST, decide how much to spend and stick to the budget regardless of any temptations.

Determine how you are going to pay for the car. Is it cash or finance?

Cash can be a powerful incentive to a seller, but few people can go shopping with a pocket full of notes.

If you need to finance your purchase then talk to the bank or finance company first to determine if they will lend you the money and how much it will cost. Have the finance sorted before shopping. You have greater power if the money is available after a successful negotiation.


WITH a budget and finances in place, the big step is to find and buy a car.

The budget will determine what you can afford, so study the market to identify cars that fit your needs and desires, and that match your budget. Spend time trawling through newspaper classifieds, check used-car websites, visit dealers' yards, look up respected trade publications and even attend auctions to get a good grasp of current values.

»Check car values


ONCE you have identified suitable used-car targets it is time to learn about them. Go back in time and read road test reports from when they were new to find out what the testers thought. Note the fuel consumption they reported, the performance, towing capacity, and anything else that's important to the way you will use the car.

Also take note of features that were standard, particularly safety features such as airbags, anti-skid brakes, traction control and electronic stability control.

Read any reports that have information about flaws and weaknesses, talk to owners to get first-hand experiences, contact motoring organisations such as the RACV, and speak to trusted mechanics.

Armed with this information you are in good shape to actually go and look at cars.

»Read road tests and car reviews


ONCE you are in a position to shop there is a choice of places to do the shopping. Buying from a dealer means a guarantee of a clear title, an assurance that the odometer reading is correct, and a warranty.

Victoria's used-car dealers are required by law to provide a three-month/5000km warranty on cars that are less than 10 years old or have travelled less than 160,000km.

Buying at auction can save a little money, but there is chance for only a very brief once-over and no chance to drive. Once the deal is done there is no comeback.

Buying privately means all the time in the world to view, drive and test a car, and a good negotiator can probably beat the seller down a few bucks for a better deal.

But, as at auction, there is no comeback.

»BUY A CAR: Search for dealer and private used cars


NEVER buy the first car, the first time. Shop around. Look at and drive as many cars as possible to get a good idea of the general condition of those for sale.

If you return to the first car you will at least know it is the best one available. Make an appointment with the seller to view and drive the car. But before getting behind the wheel check with the seller to make sure there is insurance cover if something nasty happens during the test.

If possible, time the drive so the car must be started and run from cold. It's a good way to highlight potential problems.

Sample as many driving conditions as possible: idling, slow speed, highway speed, roundabouts, speed humps, bumpy roads etc.

Do it with the seller's permission and do it safely. Don't be afraid to go back and drive a car again to get a proper assessment and don't be afraid to take an expert along to assess it.


BEFORE ownership of a car can be transferred there must be a roadworthy certificate from a licensed tester. RWCs were introduced to protect buyers, and it is best to have the seller supply it.

If the buyer takes responsibility for getting the RWC they also take responsibility for any repairs needed to bring it up to a roadworthy condition.

That may be acceptable and may save money on the purchase price if you are mechanically minded and handy with tools, but it is best for most people to have the RWC supplied by the seller.


ONCE you have decided on a car make a few checks before handing over the cash.

First, contact VicRoads and check the ownership and that the title is clear of any outstanding financial commitment.

Call in expert help, such as the RACV or VACC or maybe a trusted mechanic, and have the car thoroughly checked.

Once a car passes all these tests it should be right for you and right for the job.

Graham Smith
Contributing Journalist
With a passion for cars dating back to his childhood and having a qualification in mechanical engineering, Graham couldn’t believe his good fortune when he was offered a job in the Engineering Department at General Motors-Holden’s in the late-1960s when the Kingswood was king and Toyota was an upstart newcomer. It was a dream come true. Over the next 20 years Graham worked in a range of test and development roles within GMH’s Experimental Engineering Department, at the Lang Lang Proving Ground, and the Engine Development Group where he predominantly worked on the six-cylinder and V8 engines. If working for Holden wasn’t exciting enough he also spent two years studying General Motors Institute in America, with work stints with the Chassis Engineering section at Pontiac, and later took up the post of Holden’s liaison engineer at Opel in Germany. But the lure of working in the media saw him become a fulltime motorsport reporter and photographer in the late-1980s following the Grand Prix trail around the world and covering major world motor racing events from bases first in Germany and then London. After returning home to Australia in the late-1980s Graham worked on numerous motoring magazines and newspapers writing about new and used cars, and issues concerning car owners. These days, Graham is CarsGuide's longest standing contributor.
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