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What to look for and what to do when buying a car

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Updated 11 Oct 2019

Chris Notte

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So, you’re thinking about buying a car. It’s a big decision. So, where do you start?

There are so many things to consider when buying a new or replacement car. For example, what make/model is right? Is it a first car? Is it going to be used for long distance driving?

Will it have to carry heavy loads? What is the age of the buyer? What are the service and insurance costs? . . . The list goes on and on.

It can be a bit daunting. However, there are some basic rules you can follow.

Build A Shortlist

A car is often the second most expensive thing anyone will buy, so it makes sense to do some research.

First, build a shortlist of vehicles that look like they cover your needs. Considerations might be how much they can carry, the ease of getting in and out of the vehicle, the number of seats, and so on.

Now take this information to your mechanic who may be able to advise you of other vehicles that suit your needs and which you haven’t included on your list.

Additionally, they may be able to draw a red line through some of the listed vehicles and prevent you from buying a lemon.

Here’s a list of models we would recommend across different categories:

Small cars:
Hyundai i20 and i30; Toyota Corolla, Nissan Pulsar, Mazda 3

Mid-size cars:

Mitsubishi Lancer

Toyota RAV 4; Mitsubishi Outlander

Medium cars:
Toyota Camry; Ford Falcon

Ford Ranger; Toyota Hilux; Mitsubishi Triton

Toyota Prado; Mitsubishi Pajero; Toyota Landcruiser

Next comes the test drive.

This is important because, regardless of how a car looks, if you don’t like how you get in and out, don’t like the seating position, don’t like the blind spots or the fact you can’t see over the bonnet, then the car is not for you!

The test drive will also let you see all the vehicle’s features, such as adaptive cruise control and blind spot monitoring.

You should also try and park and reverse the vehicle to see how well the controls work for you.

After all this, you should have a good shortlist and it’s time to look at putting pen to paper and talking to your mechanic again about getting a pre-purchase inspection.

What Can You Look At Before The Pre-Purchase Inspection?

Something you can do prior to a pre-purchase inspection is to check the vehicle’s service history.

What you are looking for here is a well-filled logbook.

I stress here that the logbook does not have to be stamped by a dealer. What you are looking for is that it has been serviced.

If you see all the same stamp, same pen and same handwriting, you could be forgiven for being a little suspicious.

Whilst it’s not uncommon for customers to have awesome service records, if it looks like it’s not right, it probably isn’t.

The absolute best way to tell the authenticity of the logbook is to call the service provider on the stamp or see if there are receipts. These are gold.

Never go on ‘word’ as to what has been replaced on a vehicle. If something of significance has been done, look to see if there is proof in the form of a receipt.

If there isn’t one, perhaps because a ‘mate’ did it, then err on the side of caution.

There are hundreds of examples of things that cannot be picked up in a pre-purchase inspection and that subsequently need to be done after apparently being done in the past.

Ask lots of questions. How long have you had the car? Who owned it before? Any problems you can show me?

Who serviced the car for you and when was it serviced last? Can I see the last report?

If you’re thinking of buying through a dealer, you can follow the same suggestions as above and even ask some extra questions such as was it a ‘mine’ car (look for the red dirt, it can be hard to find).

If you have done all the above and are happy, you’re ready to have a pre-purchase inspection.

Getting A Pre-Purchase Inspection

If you are purchasing from a dealer and you have to sign the contract to take the car for its pre-purchase inspection, include as a condition that you will only purchase subject to a satisfactory pre-purchase inspection as deemed by you.

(please consult your own legal advice when choosing to sign a contract and be sure to read all the t&c’s - we take no responsibility for the general advice offered here)

On saying this, I would prefer to go to someone who is confident enough to let me get the car inspected without forcing me to sign anything.

If they show this goodwill, you are more likely to buy a vehicle from them, even if the first one does not work out, as they look to find you one that does fit your requirements.

If you’re considering buying from a private seller, you can invite them to go to your preferred workshop and have it inspected.

Again, if they have nothing to hide, they should have no problem doing this.

Your pre-purchase inspection should be comprehensive, to ensure you have the best chance of getting a good buy.

It should include pictures and details of any work that may be required, including what would be classed as warranty.

No mechanic has a crystal ball, of course, but there are always tell-tale signs to look for

I'm Buying A Car, Should I Buy A Warranty?

So, you are in the market for a car, have read about what you should do when buying a car, and had a pre-purchase inspection.

However, the car is not brand new and you’re wondering if you should purchase a warranty for peace of mind.

The warranties on offer vary greatly - from extended manufacturer warranties, to packages that cover just the basics, to those that seemingly look like covering everything!

What should you do? Here are some things for you to consider that may help you in making your decision.

  • By purchasing the warranty, does it tie me into servicing my vehicle at one place only?

  • What are the service requirements to maintain the warranty? Some stipulate having to service the car anywhere from every 3 months/5000kms to every 12 months/10,000kms to maintain the warranty.

  • Do you have to send in slips and invoices to prove the service has been done to maintain the warranty?

  • What are the minimum and maximum costs covered for a failure? For example, if the engine fails and the warranty only covers $2000 of the $8000 repair bill.

  • Read carefully all the items the warranty covers. You may find it doesn’t include items that are more likely to fail and need attention.

  • Do you know anyone who has used, or has experience making a claim with the warranty company?

  • Would you be better off putting some money aside for a rainy day to cover repair costs?

Once you have asked all the relevant questions regarding the warranty and checked to see if it fits your circumstances, then you can make a decision.

If you have picked a well-known and reliable model vehicle, had a pre-purchase inspection, and either purchased a warranty or put some dollars aside, you will be in good shape for some happy, reliable motoring.


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Written By

Chris Notte

Chris Notte has had a curiosity and passion for fixing things since his childhood.

Learning to drive around the age of six, he recalls dropping the clutch so hard he put the cooling fan through the radiator.

From that point on, his passion for fixing things was focused on cars.

A trained technician, Chris has now worked in the automotive industry for more than 20 years and is the Managing Director of AutoplusWA, a family-owned business that offers a comprehensive range of mechanical, auto electrical and 4x4-specific services.

He is also chairman of AASDN WA, a not-for-profit group of automotive workshops committed to helping each other and the automotive industry.

He lives in WA with wife Sarah and their two children.