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What to avoid when buying a car under $5000

Cars for $5000 can be a bargain, but there are things to keep an eye out for when shopping in this price bracket.

It’s true that new cars in Australia have never been better value.

Lots and lots of brand-new hatchbacks can be had for comfortably less than $20,000, and while prices will inevitably creep, they don’t look like blowing out any time soon.

That’s incredible value for money considering the level of standard tech and safety equipment you get with a modern car, but it also means that second-hand cars are also, in real terms, incredibly good value.

Fact is, you can buy an awful lot of very useable car for just $5000.

But equally true, is that you could be buying at least that many dollars’ worth of pain and heartache if you get it wrong and wind up with a dud cheapie.

And with many people now looking for their first car in the face of COVID-19, and the desire to extend social distancing to transport, it seems timely to go over a basic things-to-avoid list.

Wrong make and model

Don’t buy the wrong make and model. Sounds simple, but if you stick with well known brands with a proven reliability track record, you’re a much better chance to stay smiling.

Do some research (this website is a great source of such information) and check whether a particular car has a list of common problems that will keep you in the poor-house.

A lot of owners trade-in their car just before a major service is due, so make sure you’re not buying a car that will need a new timing belt, tyres and a battery in the next few weeks.

Engine and transmission

Even though a $5000 budget isn’t much, if you buy smart, you can still get into a car that is relatively new (broadly speaking).

And since modern engines are much longer-lived than ever before, there’s not so much to worry about.

That said, we’d still want to hear the car start from dead cold (be wary of a seller who has warmed the engine before you arrive) and check for signs of wear such as blue smoke from the exhaust.

Any knocks, bangs or rattles from the engine bay should have you moving on to the next prospect.

Modern engines are much longer-lived than ever before, but you still want to hear the car start from dead cold. Modern engines are much longer-lived than ever before, but you still want to hear the car start from dead cold.

Make sure the transmission doesn’t have any nasty surprises, either.

A modern automatic gearbox should engage gears smoothly (no thumps or noises) and you shouldn’t have to count to three before it selects a gear from Park.

A continuously variable transmission (CVT) that feels weird and like the gearbox is slipping is actually working as it should.

Exterior

Make sure you inspect any car in strong, natural light.

Relying on a torch after dark is asking for trouble; you’ll inevitably miss important details.

Firstly, what you’re looking for is the overall image the car is projecting.

Make sure you inspect any car in strong, natural light or you might miss important details that could indicate any poorly done repairs. Make sure you inspect any car in strong, natural light or you might miss important details that could indicate any poorly done repairs.

Does the car look straight? Do the panels line up? Does it sit level? Is the car all one colour? Are the bumpers hanging off at funny angles?

All these elements will help you decide whether the car has been in a prang and poorly repaired.

The rule of thumb says that if repairs are visible, they haven’t been done properly.

Rust is the big killer of cars, of course, so beware a car with a bright coat of fresh paint.

It could be hiding all sorts of horrors including bad repairs and rust.

We’d much rather buy a car with a few chips and scratches in its original paint than the same car with a gleaming coat of new paint.

Let’s face it, chips and scratches are going to happen first time out at the supermarket anyway.

A neat trick is to run a magnet (the low-powered fridge-magnet type is the best) over likely rust spots.

If the magnet won’t stick to the car, there’s something other than metal under that paint.

Don’t forget, though, that some newer cars have plastic panels that won’t attract a magnet.

Interior

Some cheaper cars seem to rely heavily on the use of hard plastics in their interiors.

These hard surfaces can scratch and mark pretty easily and can look very second-hand fairly quickly.

Determined kids will turn a car’s interior into a no-fly zone pretty quickly too, and while you’re inspecting the car, have a sniff around. Literally. Has the car spent a large chunk of its time transporting dogs?

But the big check for an interior is that all the electrical bits and pieces work.

That means testing every switch, knob and lever, making sure that the air-con blows cold, that the stereo functions properly, that the cruise control works and that all of the gauges and instruments are doing their job.

And don’t forget to check the dashboard for a check-engine light, as this can be a roadworthy item.

Roadworthy

Speaking of roadworthiness, don’t be tempted to buy a second-hand car that doesn’t come with a roadworthy certificate.

Buying from a licensed used-car dealer means the car will come with this important document, but private sellers are in no way obliged to provide the same piece of paper.

Buying from a licensed used-car dealer means the car will come with a roadworthy certificate. Buying from a licensed used-car dealer means the car will come with a roadworthy certificate.

Think of it this way: If the seller isn’t selling the car with a roadworthy, what’s wrong with it?

Even a handful of small safety problems that will require fixing before a roadworthy certificate can be issued can cost more than you paid for the whole car.

And suddenly, that cheap car doesn’t look so cheap at all.