Used car buyers guide

Stage 1: The Basics

So first up, what car to buy, we see people buying the wrong type of car all the time, if you have 5 kids and need a people mover, maybe a Mazda MX-5 isn’t the right car

But the classic example we see is families buying four-wheel-drive dual-cab utes as family cars when they have no intention of ever venturing off-road, maybe you’d be better off with an SUV or even a car. four-wheel-drive dual-cab utes are cool at the moment but there are plenty of better options out there.

Next up, budget. If you have a strict $10,000 to spend, you actually have $8000 to buy the car because you’ll need extra money to pay for swapping the rego, insurance and potentially new tyres.

Plus it’s always a good idea to get any used car serviced after you buy it.

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Stage 2: Look at the car

So you’ve found a car that ticks your boxes and you’re going to look at it. First up, don’t dress rich. If you look like you’re short of a dollar, when it comes to haggling the price you might have some more sway. If you look wealthy the seller is hardly going to discount the car are they.

Also, take a torch with you, we’ll get to why in a sec.

Also, you know how only the most perfectly beautiful people look good under fluorescent lights like at a 7 Eleven? It’s the same with cars. To find the problems, look at the car in as much light as possible,
Don’t inspect a car at dawn, dusk, night or if it has been raining because these situations can all hide problems.

Next, to make what to look for easy, we’ve come up with a simple easy to remember acronym, it’s P.P.O.D.S.W.T; paint, panel gaps, overspray, dents, scratches, wheels and tyres.


Go around the entire car and check that the paint matches in colour and in texture. If for some reason you can’t check the car out in the middle of the day or under bright lights, use the torch, and feel all the paint. If it doesn’t match over the whole car, why? has it had an accident? Has it been repaired? If you can spot that the paint doesn’t match, why hasn’t it been painted properly?

Panel Gaps:

All the panel gaps should match. Check around the front of the car especially, if the gaps are thin in one spot but there’s a huge gap on the other side, that’s a bad sign. Also, open and close everything that opens and closes, they should open and close easily.

Over Spray:

Ok, get your torch and check in the wheel arches, in any intakes or vents, pop the bonnet and look around the engine bay and if you see spray paint overspray, the car has been repainted, why?
Also, if the bolts that hold the body panels on look new and the rest of the engine bay doesn’t, why? Have the panels been replaced?

Dents and Scratches:

Most used cars will have a few minor dents and scratches and how many you’re willing to deal with are up to you and can sometimes give you some bargaining power. But, if the scratches are back to the metal or you can see the black of the plastic through a scratch, this may require more major and expensive repairs and if not repaired, at least with metal scratches, can eventually corrode and rust, this is bad.

Plus, are the bumpers, grill and plastic bits attached properly? They should be.

Wheels: Some light gutter rash can be ok and most wheels can be repaired but if you see any big dents, or chunks or even cracks on the wheels, that’s a very bad sign.

Tyres: Are the tyres from brands you’ve heard of or are they cheap dodgy ones. Do all the tyres match in terms of brand and model of tyre. If not, it’s a pretty good sign the seller has cut corners financially, if they’re cutting corners with the one part of the car that touches the road, where else have they cut corners.

Then look at the wear patterns, the wear should look even across the whole tyre and it should be consistent on all four tyres. If the wear pattern is all over the place, the best case scenario is that the car may just need a wheel alignment but the worst case scenario is that the car may have suspension damage.

If the tyres are nearly slick, this means you’ll be paying for new tyres soon, use that when it comes time to negotiate the price. A set of bald tyres should get you at least $1000 off the price. If this all checks out, it’s time to look at the engine.

For the engine bay, we’ve come up with another easy to remember acronym; C.O.C. Which is coolant, oil and condition of engine.


Check the coolant. Firstly, is there any? It will generally be red or green. Have a look in the coolant overflow bottle, or even in the radiator itself, but be careful, it could be hot.


Pull out the dipstick and check to see if the oil is at an acceptable level, it should be in between the two indicator marks. Also, what colour is the oil? It shouldn’t be watery or milky, it should be a browny, syrupy colour. If it’s jet black, that’s a bad sign.

Condition of engine

Grab your torch again and get as far down in the engine bay as you can. Make sure there aren’t any signs of leaking fluids and just have a look for anything that appears broken or out of place. Then, if there are any mods, make sure they are a quality brand and have been fitted professionally. Lastly, start the car and listen for any dodgy sounds.

If the car is still ticking all the boxes, it’s time to get inside. Now, look at how kilometres are on the odometer, the cars interior condition should match how many kilometres it’s travelled.

If the odometer says 60,000kms but the pedals are heavily worn and the seat bolsters are falling apart, there’s a good chance the car has travelled far more than 60,000kms. But, if the car is showing in this case, 460,000kms and the interior is in good condition, that’s a good sign the owner has cared for that car. Also, make sure you get in the back seat and look in the boot, how’s the condition, is it all consistent?

Next up, go have a coffee…

That’s right, it’s generally at this point that the emotions and adrenaline start building and you can conveniently start ignoring some red flags if you like that car. It’s really important to just take an hour or so, calm down and have a think about what it is you’re doing.

Think about any of the concerns you have with the car and if it’s genuinely worthwhile taking the next step which is potentially test driving the thing.

If you’ve gone and chilled out and you still love what you’re seeing, let’s move to Stage 3.

Stage 3: Test drive

Now, it’s important that the car hasn’t been started and warmed up.

After you’ve done the starting checks, before you drive it, do all the buttons work? Does the air con work on every fan speed and is it cold and hot, does it stay cold and hot. This is important because a broken air conditioning system can potentially cost thousands to fix.

Adjust the seat and wheel into your perfect position, can you get comfy?

Now, test driving.

Turn the stereo off, it’s critical to listen for bad sounds. From the engine can you hear any weird mechanical sounds? And grinding, clunking, tapping?

How’s the gear change? It should be smooth and easy, is there any grinding between gears, is it finding the right gears or is it hunting for gears all the time like it’s confused?

How’s the steering? Does it feel smooth or does it clunk? Go to a car park and put the steering on full lock and go forwards and backwards both ways, can you hear or feel any shudder or mechanical sounds/

Find some bumps, and listen for any clunks, squeaking or weird sounds from the suspension.

Make sure you feed some power on, does the power come on with a linear fashion or is almost stopping and starting. The car should pull cleanly and smoothly.

Also, rev the car out and look for smoke coming from the back. Smoke is bad, especially if it’s blue. Also rev it out and come off the gas quickly and again, look for smoke.

When you’re braking, does the car pull to one side or the other and does it shudder, it shouldn’t.

If it has a button or function, try it, does it work? We’re talking cruise control, fog lights, the windows, all the stereo functions, everything, if there’s a button, push it.

As you’re doing all this, just get a feeling for the car too, are you enjoying it, are you comfy, does it feel right for you?

If the car is still ticking all the boxes, let’s move to Stage 4.

Stage 4: Tick the boxes

When you get back from the test, drive, check all the service books, get on and check the cheat sheet to see when the service schedules should be done, do the service records match what is recommended.

Also, does the seller have receipts for the work that has been done, any repairs, the tyres and especially any modifications.

This is critical, a car with no service history can be hugely risky, you need to know as much about the car’s history as possible.

If there are huge question marks about the history of the car, why? It should have a completely clean record.

If things are still looking good, it’s time for Stage 5 and this is the easiest stage of all, book the car in for a pre-purchase inspection.

Stage 5: The final and important bit

This is critical. Adam very nearly bought a car recently, it nailed all of these tests, it ticked every box, he booked in with Jim for the pre-purchase inspection and wasn’t until we got underneath that we could see it had had a huge accident and the repair work was incredibly dodgy. It was genuinely a very dangerous car. If he hadn’t had the pre-purchase inspection done, he probably would have bought the car and he would have bought a disaster.

Finally, make sure that there is no finance on the car, you don’t want to buy someone else’s debt and if this checks out, it’s time to start negotiating a price and buy that car. Don’t be a dickhead and low ball, have some respect but at the same time, don’t get ripped off.


Information correct as of June 22, 2022.

The advice provided on this website is general advice only. It has been prepared without taking into account your objectives, financial situation or needs. Before acting on this advice, you should consider the appropriateness of the advice, having regard to your own objectives, financial situation and needs.

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