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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02.What to look for

There's a lot you can check yourself when inspecting a car (make sure light conditions are good so you don't miss anything). Motorists organisations (for example, the NRMA) recommend the following:


  • In a private sale, make sure the vendor is the owner. Ask to see their driver's licence and compare the details with those on the registration papers.
  • Also for private sales, check whether there's any money owing on the car by calling the vehicle title registry - see Rights and responsibilities for contact details.
  • Look at the car's compliance plate, which is usually found on the firewall between the engine area and the inside of the car.
  • Match the vehicle identification number (VIN) and date of manufacture with those on the registration papers. Also check the engine number (which is marked on the engine itself) and the number plates against the registration papers. If any of the information doesn't match, ask for an explanation. It could mean the car's been stolen or (in case of the engine number) that the engine's been replaced without notifying the registration authority.
  • In some states (see Rights and responsibilities), the seller must provide a certificate of roadworthiness.


  • Check the paintwork for bubbles and colour differences, which could indicate rust or an accident. Use a fridge magnet to check suspicious areas for body filler — the magnet won't stick to filler.
  • Panels that don't seem to fit properly, or doors, the boot lid and windows that don't open and close properly can indicate the car's been in an accident.
  • Check the tyres, including the spare, for sufficient tread (at least 3-4 mm) and uneven wear (which can show a problem with the steering or suspension).
  • Check under the car for oil leaks.

Under the bonnet

  • Look at the dipstick. Grey or milky oil may indicate serious engine problems.
  • Take off the radiator cap and check the coolant. It should be brightly coloured and clean. Oil in the coolant may indicate serious engine problems.
  • Check the radiator cooling fins and the battery and its mounting platform for corrosion and other damage.


  • Inspect the upholstery, trim and carpets for wear.
  • Make sure the seatbelts are in good condition.
  • Check whether the seats are still comfortable enough.
  • Make sure all lights, equipment and accessories (such as air conditioning, windscreen wipers, power windows, wing mirrors, spare tyre, central locking and car radio) are there and work properly.
  • Look for signs of rust under the carpet (if possible) and mats (don't forget the boot).
  • Check that the jack and toolkit are in place and in good condition.
  • Ask for the car radio's security PIN, if applicable.

Start the engine

  • With the bonnet open, start the engine and let it idle.
  • Watch for exhaust fumes when starting the engine and during idling. For example, blue smoke may be caused by oil being burnt, which could indicate a serious problem.
  • Excessive noise from the exhaust can indicate rust and the need for a new muffler.
  • Listen for any irregular running noises, rattling or knocking in the engine.
  • Look for any signs of leaks.
  • Open the oil filler cap: fumes may indicate engine problems.

On the road

  • Take the car for a test drive, preferably on quiet roads where you can concentrate on the car rather than on heavy traffic. Make sure the car's adequately insured before you do, and take your time: one spin around the block is hardly enough to get a good picture of the car.
  • Make sure the engine runs smoothly in all situations -- when cruising, accelerating and decelerating both on flat roads and uphill.
  • All gears should change smoothly up and down.
  • Watch the dashboard for any warning lights, and keep an eye on the temperature gauge.
  • Listen for rattling or any other body noises -- driving over speed humps is a good check for this.
  • Watch the exhaust for smoke -- accelerating uphill is a good check for this.
  • The steering wheel shouldn't have more than 5cm of play.
  • On a straight road, ease your grip on the steering wheel and see if the car pulls to one side, which can indicate worn suspension or misaligned steering.
  • Also on a straight road and after checking for traffic behind you, try the brakes several times. The car shouldn't pull to one side, and the brake pedal should feel firm.

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