Used car buying guide

Buying a secondhand car can be a minefield. Read our tips and learn how to avoid disaster.
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Car on country road

If you're in the market for a used car, there are some simple inspections and investigative work you can do yourself to ensure you don't end up with a lemon.

Before you go shopping for a used car, do some homework. Once you've decided what type and size you want, decide how much you can afford to spend. There's more than just the purchase price to think of — the pre-purchase inspection by your motoring organisation, stamp duty, insurance and the fee to transfer registration.

Do some research into makes and models, considering:

  • Safety Search our database with the used car safety rating based on real-life accidents.
  • Security How easy is it to steal (from) the car?
  • Insurance costs This varies from model to model. Once you've narrowed down your choice to two or three models, get some quotes for each.
  • Environment Check the car's fuel consumption and emissions rating.
  • Decide where and how you want to buy the car (see Dealer, auction or private sale?).
  • Check the legal situation in your state or territory, including how to make sure there's no money owing on the car (see Rights and responsibilities).  

Hitting the road

You know what you want and you're ready to look at some cars. Here's what to do:

  • Inspect the car using the checklist in What to look for, paying particular attention to the problem areas identified in CHOICE's car reliability survey.
  • If you're definitely interested in a car and don't have the expertise yourself, you can arrange for an independent expert inspection through your state's motoring organisation (see Rights and responsibilities for contact numbers). This isn't usually possible if you buy at an auction.
  • If you buy the car from a dealer, they're legally obliged to guarantee that the car's debt-free. For private sales, check whether there's any money owing on it by calling the vehicles title register or REVS of the state or territory it's registered in (see Rights and responsibilities for contact numbers). Have the registration number, vehicle identification number (VIN) and engine number ready (see What to look for on where to find these). This service is free, but doesn't give you a guarantee that the car can't be repossessed. For peace of mind (and a fee), you can ask for a certificate that offers legal protection.
  • Don't sign anything until you're completely happy with the car and the amount you have to pay. Don't let the vendor pressure you into buying if you're not ready.
  • Once you've bought the car, arrange insurance before you drive it anywhere.
  • Transfer the registration to your name. You usually have to do this within a few days of buying the car.


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