A Simple Used Car Buyers Guide – What you need to know

A Quick Guide on what you need to know for buying a car privately – Australia wide

Before setting out on your car buying journey, there are some important things to note about buying a car privately in Australia instead of buying it from a dealer.


The legal part

Firstly, there is no cooling-off period, meaning that once you hand over the cash, there is no turning back. This means you have to be 100% that you are making the right choice.

There is no statutory warranty on the car either, meaning that you aren’t covered if your car fails soon after you purchase it. Most statutory car warranties cover you for 3 months or 5000km after purchase (as you will see is the case in Victoria and Queensland). These can only be offered by licensed car dealers. However, if the car is over 10 years old or has travelled more than 160,000km, you probably don’t qualify for a statutory car warranty anyway.

It is your responsibility to check that the car hasn’t been stolen, has money owning or has been involved in any other criminal activity. A Personal Property Securities Register (PPSR) check can assist you to do this. There is a specific ‘Quick motor vehicle search’ section for you to enter in a vehicle’s VIN (or ‘chassis’ number if the car was made before 1989). You must create an account to use the PPSR and fees also apply

As a general rule, you should be wary if:

● The seller asks for payment all in cash

● The asking price is below market value and there is no obvious reason why

You should also make particular note of checking that the details on the registration match the:

● Number plate


● Engine number

● Owner’s name

Doing your research

Before you start looking at specific cars for sale, consider the potential hidden costs of each vehicle. Here’s a few things to look out for:

● Safety credentials

● Fuel consumption

● If the model holds its value

● Potential insurance costs

The next port of call is the online search engines. Here’s a few of Australia’s biggest:

Remember to exclude dealerships in your search if you are set on buying privately. Also, make note that whilst many of these websites list the same vehicles, it is worth searching all of them initially and then narrowing down to your favourites.


Contacting sellers

When you have found a few ads, get your long list of questions ready. Ask as much as you can over the phone before you physically inspect the car. Here’s a few key questions:

● Why are they selling the vehicle?

● Has it been in any major accidents?

● Does it come with a Roadworthy Certificate (RWC)?

● Is there any minor faults with the vehicle?

● Does the make, model, year, kilometres match the ad you are looking at?

You want to be listening for any hesitation or uncertainty in their answers. If you are happy with what you have heard, ask for a time to inspect the vehicle. Remember to:

● Organise to meet at the address that is on the car’s registration

● Meet with the person whose name is on the registration of the car

● Try to plan for a day when it isn’t raining as this can mask some faults of the car

● Similarly, don’t inspect the car at night as dents may be hidden in shadow

Inspecting the car

Once you get to the inspection, run over the same questions you asked over the phone again. Double-check the details listed on the ad (which you have printed out and brought along with you) match what is in front of you.

Here’s a few other checks to do so that you look like a pro:

● Look for rust. Key places to look are the bonnet, under the car (especially side panels and inside tire wheels) and throughout the interior under the carpet

● Pop the bonnet and check for any sign of liquid leaks. Be sure to check both on top and underneath the car.

● Check the dipstick. If the oil mark is low, you can assume it hasn’t been well maintained

● Check the tread of the tires to ensure you won’t be buying new ones anytime soon

● Check that the front and back wheels are aligned. If they aren’t it could mean the chassis is bent

● Check the car’s suspension by pushing down above each wheel. Repeat 3-4 times. Shocks should go down, up and then stop.

● Look for welding marks, which can give an indication that the car has had major repairs. Similarly, check the gaps between body panels for anything out of the ordinary

● Jiggle the steering wheel when the car is off. It should go an inch either way, with no funny noises. Problems could mean steering issues

● Check that all seatbelts work by testing each of them a couple of times whilst seated

● Start the car with a ‘cold’ engine to see if there are any obvious starter problems or smoke.

● Oddly low km’s? Check wear on the driver’s seat and pedals for signs of tampering

● Before you test drive, check the colour of the coolant. It should not be brown. If the coolant tank is empty and brown sludge is visible, it is a clear sign of a leak which may stem from a blown gasket or cracked head

● Check all the electrics:

○ Windows

○ Locks

○ Audio

○ Seats

○ Keyless entry

○ Alarm

○ Fans

● Test the heater at full blast even if it is warm. Does it take long to warm? Same goes for the air conditioning to feel cool.

Then, it is time for a test drive.

The test drive

Use a route chosen by you and bring someone along with you to sit in the passenger seat. It will give you a different perspective of how the car handles. Try to spend at least 30 minutes test driving and utilise a range of different road or traffic conditions.

There’s a number of things to look out for whilst driving:

● The brakes should not squeal, grind or shudder. A little bit of squeaking is normal for some disc brakes, but anything excessive raises concerns.

● If testing a manual transmission, it should be smooth to put into gear and the clutch should engage close to the floor

● Don’t forget to drive in reverse!

● While parked with the engine running, turn the wheel completely each way. If it squeals, it might mean a slipping power steering pump drive belt. If it growls, that could mean low power steering fluid. Low power steering fluid is normally due to a leak in the power steering system. An important one to note.

● Leave the handbrake on and try to slowly accelerate. The handbrake should hold the car back

● Turn the radio off – you want to be listening for any odd noises

● Check the transmission fluid whilst the car is running. It should look clean and smell sweet. Brown or burnt orange fluid means it has been a long time between changes. A burnt smell could mean the clutch band is slipping and that could mean a transmission rebuild

● Check the oil after the test drive with the car off. It should have no gritty residue. Also look under the oil cap. If you see a white foamy substance, this can mean coolant in the oil, which will be expensive to fix.

● Check the air filter and air intake (engine side of the filter) for oil. Oil can be a sign of a lot of miles or an abusive past driver


Making the purchase

When you’re back from the test drive, note down any faults you noticed and approximately how much it could cost you to fix. Subtract this from the asking price and you’ve got your maximum offer.

Some other points to remember:

● Make an offer much lower than the asking price. The worst thing that can happen is that they say no

● Make your way up slowly to your predetermined offer. No rush.

● If the seller won’t get within your budget range, don’t be afraid to end the conversation

● Don’t let on that this is your dream car. You’ll instantly put the seller at an advantage

● Buying a car isn’t the time for rash decisions


The final legal bit

Once the price has been agreed, get it in writing. You’ll then need to go about coordinating the paperwork. You’ll need:

● A roadworthy certificate (or similar) if it was agreed upon earlier

● A registration transfer

● Original versions of everything (not photocopies):

○ Registration papers

○ Service history

○ Logbook

● Receipt for your payment or deposit with the seller’s full details, especially if you are paying in cash

Each state has their own paperwork and requirements when it comes to buying or selling a vehicle, so it is best to look at details for the state you are purchasing in:

●      Queensland

●      New South Wales

●      Australian Capital Territory

●      Victoria

●      Tasmania

●      South Australia

●      Western Australia

●      Northern Territory


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