Used Car Buying Guide

August, 2018

As with any financial investment, buying a used car can feel like a never ending task. You want to buy quality without the worry of ending up with a lemon. If you’re wondering whether or not it is even possible to buy something quality without buying something new, don’t worry, this guide will take the frustration out of shopping by helping you to buy a safe and reliable car that you’ll be delighted with for many years to come.

Let’s jump in.

Before you buy a used car

Buying any car is an important decision, but with a used car there are many more factors to consider. With a new car, it is fresh off the lot with nothing to do but collect the keys, but with the purchase of a used car, there is history to consider.

So, before we even look at how to buy a car, let’s first consider the most valuable pre-purchase considerations.


This not a decision to be rushed, so take your time and put in the hours beforehand to understand the different makes and models available and how well each of these suits your lifestyle, not just now, but in the future as well.


When you have a clearer picture of what makes, years and models of different cars will best suit your needs, take some time to figure out how much you can afford to spend. How will you finance the car? Savings? Proceeds from the sale of your previous car? Or perhaps you are considering a car loan from your bank or finance from a dealership?

Before buying be sure to know your budget and have your funds clear or pre-approved and ready for purchase. This will help you avoid the stress of organising lending or access to your savings later.

Your Needs

What do you use the car for most often. Are you an expanding family? Maybe a 7-seater is your go to car to avoid arguments in the back seat. If you’re a city driver, a compact will give you the comfort of a new car without the stress of trying to maneuver a four wheel drive.


How safe is your car on the road? Are there any online real-life test scenarios you can watch on Youtube? What is your preferred model’s ANCAP rating? Does the car come with inbuilt safety features such as passenger and door airbags, as standard?

Fuel costs

How fuel efficient is your preferred car? What are its emissions like? The Green Car Guide allows you to compare up to three cars against each other so you will know before you buy, which of your choices is both better on your fuel costs and for your environment.


Insurance premiums will vary depending on your age, license and the car you choose. When you have a clear idea of the car you will purchase, shop around and get some quotes. You’ll want to have your car insured before you even drive it off the lot, so having a quote in mind will make it easier to put it in place when you are handed the keys.

Where you’ll buy

Where and how do you plan to buy the car? From a local dealership, private sale through a listing site such as Gumtree? Or by auction? We’ll look at these options in detail later in the article.

Laws and regulations

Take a look at your state or territory's regulations regarding the buying and selling of used cars. Particularly, learn more about on a car you plan to buy.

Now that you’ve done your homework, it’s time to buy. Here are the most important factors to consider when it’s time to shop.

It’s time to buy your new (used) car

Excellent! You’re ready to buy. You have a pretty clear idea of the make, model and year of car you want to buy. Now you need to know how to inspect an actual car before you buy it.

How to inspect a used car

You’ve found a car that you’re only about 80% convinced you want to buy. But, how to be sure? This checklist will give you a much clearer picture of what you’re buying when you decide to make your investment:

Pro-tip: Don’t shop alone. Just like when buying a house, in all of the excitement and potential impatience of just wanting to buy something already, you might rush to a decision that isn’t the best one.

Bonus tip: Always inspect a car in the full daylight, out in the open where chips, dents, scratches and other irregularities will be most visible.


Inspecting for a sale is about more than just the physical car itself. You want to be sure that when you take on a car from someone you’re not also taking on their debt or criminal activity.

  1. If you buy via private sale, be sure that the person selling the car actually owns it. Don’t be a afraid to ask to see their driver’s license and compare it with what is detailed in the car’s registration papers.
  2. Next, make sure you check for the compliance plate which is located in the engine bay, often between the inside wall of the car (under the bonnet) and the engine. Here you will find the car’s date of manufacture, engine number and the VIN number. It will look something like this:
  3. Make sure the engine number on the plate matches the number inscribed directly on the engine itself (if you can see it). Then match all of these details with those on the registration papers.
  4. If for any reason these do not match, ask for an explanation and evidence such as a mechanics service records. If no explanation can be provided, it could mean the car has been stolen and the engine changed without the registration department being notified.
  5. Some states require a certificate of roadworthiness. Check to see if the seller is required to provide this to you.

Inspecting the exterior of the car

  • How does the paintwork look? Are there any visible bubbles? What about colour differences that seem unusual? These could indicate the the car is rusting under the paint or has been involved in an accident in the past. If you’re concerned that areas have been patched and painted over, put a fridge magnet on it. If a body filler has been used to conceal damage, a magnet won’t stick to it.
  • Are there any panels or exterior sections that that don't seem to fit properly? How about the doors, windows, bonnet and boot? If these don’t open or close properly, this is another indication that car has been involved in an accident.
  • What is the tread like on the tyres - don’t forget the spare! If there is not at least 3-4mm of tread and if you can see any uneven wear patches, not only will you be due for new tyres soon but there is also likely a suspension or wheel alignment job on your horizon as well.
  • Look underneath, can you see any oil leaks?
  • Open up the bonnet - don’t forget to secure it before putting your head under it.
  • Check the the dipstick. Any milky or grey oil could suggest a serious engine problems. No oil at all should raise a red flag. Either there is a leak somewhere internally or your seller friend has been running the car dry. If this is the case you can look forward to a future of engine issues.
  • When you remove the radiator cap and take a look at the coolant, it is murky and dirty or clean and brightly coloured? Any mixture of oil in the coolant is a bad sign and not worth your trouble as the new owner.
  • While you’re at the radiator, take a look the battery, the cooling fans and the platform it is all mounted on. Make sure there are no signs of corrosion or other damage.

Inspecting the interior of a used car

Let’s be honest, buying a car isn’t all about the mechanics. If you can’t stand driving it what’s the point. Here’s how to inspect the interior of the car.

  • Take a look at the carpets, roof and door trims and the seat upholstery. How’s the wear? If it’s in less than great condition, this can be a good bargaining tool to knock the price down a little.
  • Sit inside the car and take a big deep breath. How does it smell? Cigarette smoke, wet dog and other unmentionable smells can be impossible to get out of a car, even after years of regular cleaning.
  • Check all of the seatbelts and make sure they are all in good condition and, most importantly, work.
  • Sit in the seats. Are they comfortable enough?
  • Check all of the accessories. Do the lights, indicators, air con, wipers, radio, central locking and high beams all work? What about all the windows?
  • Ask how many keys you will get with the car. Electronic keys with remote locking can cost up to and above of $300 to have a new one made.
  • If possible look under the carpet if you can for any signs or rust. Don’t forget to check the boot too.
  • Are the jack and its toolkit there? Do they all work? By now you should also be aware of the spare tyre and have inspected it as part of your exterior tyre check.
  • If you need it, ask what the PIN is for the radio. There is nothing more frustrating than trying to get the PIN from the manufacturer after a flat battery resets the system.

Start the engine

  • Open the bonnet and leave the engine to idle - walk around the car.
  • Check the exhaust fumes. Are they visible? What colour?
  • If the exhaust is making a lot of noise, it may be time for a new muffler.
  • How does the engine sound? Any rattles? What about knocking sounds?
  • Are there any visible leaks happening under the bonnet?

On the road

Ok, you’ve made it this far and you’re still interested. It’s time to take the car for a test drive.

Pro-tip: Choose quiet roads where you can easily hear any noises coming from the car and concentrate on testing all of the car’s features without holding people up behind you.

  • Does the engine run smoothly when you’re cruising at low speed? How about when you accelerate and brake? Try it uphill if possible. Note any unusual rev spikes.
  • Make sure the gears change smoothly without transmission issues.
  • Keep an eye on the dash and make sure there are no warning lights and watch the temperature gauge.
  • Does the body rattle? Go over a speed bump and you’ll soon find out.
  • How moveable is the steering wheel? It should move more than 5cm either way.
  • On a straight road, let the steering wheel simply rest in your grip and see if the car pulls in any direction. Wheel alignment issues can be detected this way.
  • Check the brakes multiple times, obviously ensuring no one is behind you. The car should brake straight and apply firmly without the need to apply a lot of pressure.

Ask for help

It is perfectly fine if you're not comfortable doing these inspections yourself. You can organise an inspection through the RAC or many other organisation, however this is only possible with private sale and most yards, not at auction.

After you have bought your used car

Be sure to put your insurance policy in place before you drive the car and make sure the registration is transferred immediately after purchase.

Shop with confidence at John Hughes

If buying privately from sites like Gumtree seems daunting, why not buy direct from a trusted dealership? Buying from a dealership means your car comes with a 3 month statutory warranty. If your car does develop a problem in the first 3 months that isn’t something that can be considered normal wear and tear, the dealer is required to repair it. For this reason, you can be confident that buying from a dealer will get you a trouble free set of wheels

We'll Come To You

If you can’t find the time to search online for that type of car you want? Simply tell us what you are looking for and we’ll happily bring you the best option for a no pressure test drive.

Best of all, all pre-purchase inspections are completed and guaranteed by our professional team of licensed mechanics so you can drive away knowing you’ve made the safest choice.

Ready to get behind the wheel? Give us a call on (08) 9415 0227