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Buying Basics - Used Cars

Getting more and paying less.

By Kyle Busch, Pix by Georgina Cobbin and Michael Knowling

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The purchase of a dependable, reasonably priced used vehicle is not a matter of chance or luck, but rather, it is a matter of knowledge and understanding. Becoming informed is one of the most important factors in successfully purchasing a dependable used vehicle at the best price.

Gathering Information

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Variety is the spice of life. Certainly, the number of vehicles that are available today can add spice to one's daily travels. Literally hundreds of different vehicles are available, but which one is the best for you? To better determine the vehicle that satisfies your transportation needs, first take the time to carefully identify your current and future driving needs, then become aware of the many available vehicles that meet these criteria, then finally zero in on the vehicles that best meet your needs.

A very dangerous frame of mind to be in is to "fall in love" with a particular make or model of vehicle. Although some emotion is always part of life, it is wise to put excessive emotions aside and focus on day-in and day-out transportation needs.

Some questions to consider include:

  • How many people will need to be transported in the vehicle?
  • What type of objects and cargo will be transported in the vehicle (space considerations)?
  • Will driving be conducted in poor weather conditions or off-road (rear-wheel drive, front-wheel drive, all-wheel drive)?
  • Is an automatic, a semi-automatic, or a standard transmission preferred?
  • Is there a preference for a domestic or a foreign vehicle?
  • In a sport-utility vehicle, is a more rugged full box type frame needed for off-road driving, or will a unit-body (monocoque) type frame be suitable for intended general highway driving? Additionally, what towing capacity should the sport-utility vehicle have?
  • In a minivan, are sliding doors needed on both sides, the left-side or the right side of the vehicle for easier entry and exit?
  • How much will insurance cost to protect the driver and the vehicle (consider obtaining an insurance quote before buying a vehicle)?
  • What is the approximate amount of money to be spent on a vehicle?
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If you are not familiar with which vehicles may meet your desires, consider visiting a local public library to consult the back issues of motoring magazines. Many major libraries have collections of road tests - really great information in making informed choices. Web discussion groups are a good source of information about on-going problems and other reliability issues, but not a good place to find the original specifications on older cars.

It is a good idea to identify at least two or three used vehicles that meet needs. Then, instead of being in a position to consider only vehicle A, you will have the flexibility to consider vehicle A, B, or C. This increases your ability to purchase a used vehicle that is in excellent condition at the best price.

In addition to becoming informed about particular vehicles, it is worthwhile learning the approximate prices for vehicles of interest. To obtain a general idea of vehicle prices, consult the classified ads available at services such as or the other Australian used car search engines. You can both look up listed values and also perform searches on the cars that you are interested in, so you can see what they're typically selling for in today's market.

Used Vehicle Sources

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There are a number of possible used vehicle sources from which to choose. Rather than becoming overwhelmed with all the possible sources, keep in mind that each source is actually competing with the others. Therefore, when shopping for a vehicle, be certain to let each source know that you are also considering the other sources!

Some of the sources to consider when buying a used vehicle include:

  • The web
  • Used car lots
  • Rental car companies
  • Company vehicles eg being disposed of through auctions
  • New car dealerships trade-ins (often out the back of the lot, waiting to be sold off to wholesalers)
  • Private owners
  • Contacting a used vehicle source by telephone and obtaining specific information can help to reduce unnecessary legwork. The telephone inquiry will enable you to determine if a vehicle is worth your time to investigate.

Some questions to ask include:

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  • How many kays has the vehicle been driven (the average is about 18,000 - 21,000km per year)?
  • Is the transmission an automatic or a manual? If the transmission is not what you want, there is no need to ask further questions!
  • What is the condition of the vehicle's body? Is there any rust?
  • Has the vehicle been repainted and if so, why? Avoid repainted vehicles. It is better to see the original paint even if a few small stone chips need to be touched-up.
  • Has the vehicle been involved in any accidents? Avoid vehicles that have been involved in accidents.
  • How often were the engine oil and the oil filter changed, and who performed the service? Look for full service records to indicate what the maintenance has been like. Factory dealership servicing is preferable.
  • Is the vendor the original owner of the vehicle? Original owners tend to take better care of vehicles.
  • What is the reason that the vehicle is being sold? It is encouraging if the individual is the original owner and if he or she is planning to again buy the same make of vehicle.
  • Are parts and service readily available for the vehicle? Where can parts and services be obtained? Avoid buying a vehicle if parts and service are not readily available - check grey market imports very carefully in this regard.
  • Has the vehicle had any recent repairs (new brakes, tyres, exhaust, battery) or service and if so, what garage performed the repairs or service? If all work has been done at the one garage, they may well remember the car (or have records on it) and be able to comment on it to you.
  • What price is being asked for the vehicle?

The Exterior Inspection

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  • Before conducting a vehicle exterior inspection, make certain that good weather conditions exist. The ground should be dry and there should be plenty of sunlight. If the car has raindrops on it, finding paint imperfections and even dents will be nearly impossible.
  • Keep in mind that it is important that the vendor has insurance cover for you during your inspection and possible test drive.

Some aspects of the exterior inspection include:

  • Consider the environment that surrounds the used vehicle. Are the dealership surroundings clean and orderly? Does the retail car company provide courteous and efficient customer service? Is the private owner's property well maintained? Was the vehicle kept in a garage? Rather than just a minor point, the surroundings can in fact provide an indication of how well the owner maintained the vehicle.
  • Look to see that the registration is current and if it is, when it is due.
  • Observe how the vehicle sits. The vehicle should sit near horizontally - if it doesn't, springs may be broken or the vehicle may have suffered accident damage.
  • Check all four of the tyres for evenness of tread wear and for the same make and model of tyre. Be suspicious if the front tyres are a different brand to the rear tyres. Sometimes, an owner will install a new set of front tyres on a vehicle to hide the uneven tyre wear caused by a steering and/or a suspension problem.
  • Look underneath the car for oil leaks from the engine, transmission, diff (if separate) and shock absorbers.
  • Inspect the colour of the coolant (should be green or red and not have any scum or oil in it), the oil (no water and no grit) and check that the brake fluid and power-steering fluid levels are normal. In a car with an automatic transmission, make sure that the fluid level is correct and that the fluid does not smell burnt.
  • When the engine is started, check for exhaust smoke, rattling and/or other noises, and that the car in fact starts easily.

The Interior Inspection

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  • Work your way around the cabin, methodically operating every system in turn. For example, make sure that each speed on the heater fan works, that all the cabin lights work, that the sound system's functions are all operative.
  • Check the seat trim for wear and that the driver's seat hasn't collapsed. If there is substantial wear but the car has low kays, perhaps it has been used commercially or the odometer has been wound back. (There are tools available to wind back nearly every electronic odometer out there!)
  • Make sure that all of the gauges work.

Prices & Warranties

  • Cars bought privately and at auctions usually do not have a warranty, while company vendors are usually legally obliged to provide a warranty of some sort. Be wary of warranties that require you to buy them - think of them as an insurance system, rather than a warranty. Many of this type have maximum payout figures, too...
  • Prices of cars obtained from any source are always negotiable - 10-15 per cent is the minimum flexibility you should expect.

This article is adapted from: Drive the Best for the Price: How to Buy a Used Automobile, Sport-Utility Vehicle, or Minivan and Save Money. The book is available in print and e-book editions. For more information about the author and the book visit:

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