A handy checklist for buying used cars

Many people, especially students, will someday need to buy a car so they can be mobile and get from point A to B. Sometimes families need a second car as a backup vehicle. Unfortunately new cars can be too pricey or you might not qualify for credit, so the only alternative is to buy a second hand car. You can save a whole lot of money this way but there are also many pitfalls to look out for otherwise your purchased vehicle can turn into a nightmare. You can end up spending loads more on repairs and maintenance than you expected, so I decided to make a checklist which you can use when purchasing a second hand car and minimize your risk. Remember that there are also many “gems” out there if you take your time to find them! You can get a great deal on a great car if you take the time to really search for one, example, the old lady living in the next road, selling her immaculate older car for a bargain price because she no longer needs it or your friend’s neighbor who bought a new car and the old one is just standing there etc.

So let’s get into it! Here's what you need to look out for…

Some general tips first:

Before you buy the used car / second hand car, find out what the “going rate” is for the vehicle that you are trying to buy. You can phone a reputable car dealer or inquire with used car websites who can look the rate up in the car dealership instead of going for a private deal. Buying a car at a second hand / used car dealer gives you at least a month's guarantee and if you're lucky- sometimes even up to several months. Remember to check the mileage on the car you want to buy- make sure it is not too high. A good average mileage for a year is between 20000 to 25000km (around 15 000 miles). If the vehicle has a service history log book it’s an added bonus! This shows all previous services the car had with a reputable dealer or mechanic who stamped and signed the log book. Ideally you would want to check out the car properly. Here is what I suggest you should do: Test-drive the car yourself. If it’s from a dealer, make sure the dealer has insurance for you to drive it. If possible, take it on a drive that takes you onto a highway, into inner-city driving and winding roads. Also test the car in reverse and do some really tight circles to test for CV joint damage as you will then hear a knocking noise when doing a tight turn. Consider all the costs that you might be faced with if you had to do repairs etc. The license and registration fee, the roadworthy, your monthly insurance, and your maximum excess in case of an accident.

Then check the rest:

1. Purchase advice/receipt - Make sure you receive a receipt for the transaction and check that the amounts are correct.

2. Registration and Documentation - Make sure the seller gives you all the registration papers and licenses. Usually a vehicle has a 17 digit Vehicle Identification Number (VIN for short). The VIN can be found either directly on the chassis or on a little plate fastened to the chassis. Check that these numbers match the car's ID number on the registration document and make sure that it also matches the license on the car (the little round disk affixed to the windscreen of the car). If the seller's name does not match the person’s name on the registration document, then a written letter from the registered owner together with his or her ID or passport number, stating that the seller is authorized to sell the vehicle on his/her behalf should be given to you, signed by that person.

3. The outside appearance - Beware of a very clean engine compartment- the engine compartment could have been washed to hide certain defects like an oil or water leak. I suggest you also look underneath the engine to see that the sump (oil bin), the gearbox and the engine are dry and free from oil. Check if there is damage or visible structural damage. Make sure that the oil is clean. Has the car recently been serviced, are all fluid levels at maximum and is battery corrosion free. Can you spot any recent new parts that will reveal that major repair work has taken place?

4. Start up the engine (listen for noises)- Having the chance to give the car a cold start-up can tell you a lot. The car should start up easily and purr like a kitten. When starting, check the water light and especially the oil-light, make sure it only stays on for a few seconds assuring you that the engine is good. There might be some noises at start-up but then after that it should run more quietly. The noises must not be excessive. If possible, the car should be driven at various speeds and for at least 10km. Check the idling, watch the temperature gauge and warning light which may show overheating. Watch the oil light and if it flickers this could signal a tired oil pump or even a worn crankshaft. These indications could indicate that it is not the original engine or that the engine has been rebuilt. Even when the car's engine is rebuilt this is not noted on the registration documentation. Only if a car has been scrapped and completely overhauled and rebuilt, then the papers will show that the car has been rebuilt.

5. The bodywork - You must keep an eye out for dents and rust on the second hand car. Some places to look at include: The corners in the engine compartment The outside of the car at the rubber moldings Around hatchbacks windows Some cars rust on the front corners of the windscreen and on the end of the posts along the windscreen. Surface rust caused by stone chips should have been touched up as soon as the chip was caused to prevent rusting. Check around the wheel arches, door bottoms, door hinges and sills. A quick look under the carpets may also reveal any rust or damage. If you note dust and rust, and the seller does not want to repair this for you, negotiate for a lower selling price. With obvious dents that have started to rust, you must negotiate the price downwards and have these sorted out before buying this car. Take a look at the vehicle's service book to see if regular body checks have been carried out- if not ask questions! A sure sign of water leaking into the car can be recognized by a strong odor or smell that's accompanied by staining of the carpets near windows and in the boot. Rain or a water test will quickly tell you where it's leaking in. Always speak up about general dents and bad scratches. If you can't negotiate the price down, make sure the seller fixes it!

6. Look for accident damage - Check the car all over and see if you spot differences in the paint color- this is usually a sign of accident damage. Ask the owner if he has any knowledge if the car has been damaged in an accident. Ways to spot accident damage: If some panels aren't smooth but slightly rippled Bad putty filler work will show cracks in the paint Look for a badly done spray job Skew or loose bumpers Tires with an uneven wear can indicate worn bushes or some kind of chassis damage Look at doors that doesn't close properly Take a look inside the engine compartment and have a look at the chassis- any extra bends, or a crumpled end means the car was in a serious accident Lift the carpets and look for any evidence of welding joints- this will mean that pieces of the car have been welded together.

7. Check the upholstery and interior of the car - Check the boot first as this will give you a glimpse into the history of the car- it’s more accurate than a shining interior. If the boot has a musty damp smell then you know water has leaked in at some point, check for torn or badly worn seat upholstery or seat covers that are maybe not protecting the seat but covering up some major tears in the fabric etc. The steering wheel and gear knob wear as well as the pedal rubbers give you an indication of what the car has gone through. Check all window winders and see that all windows are working. Open and close all doors of the vehicle check door handles and locks carefully as this could cost you quite a bit if you need to replace them right away.

8. Performance and the engine - After initial warm-up the engine should purr and pull without hesitation. If the contrary is true and it feels like it has a flat spot, especially with fuel injected cars, or the computer gives trouble have this seen to if you are uneasy about it. Take care to listen for any strange noises. A rumbling noise at the bottom of the car could signal crankshaft bearing wear, a roughness could be signaling to a shot tie rod end. Noise coming from under the bonnet such as piston slab or loose tappets is less serious but will still cost you to repair. After driving for a while give the gas pedal some stick and look into the rear mirror to see if there is any smoke, indicating a worn cylinder head sleeve or bent valve guides- these are both expensive items to repair. What does the engine look like? Is it very dirty, has it missed some services? Open up the oil filler cap and see if the cap reveals a milky substance this would indicate water leaking into the engine through the head. Check if the head gasket is leaking. Take out the dipstick and if the oil is very thick and black then it has seen a service a long time ago and not at regular intervals.

9. Brakes and suspension - If you stop the car and there is a shudder, the discs need to be skimmed or replaced. You can check the brake pad wear through most of the wheels but if not, have them take a wheel off and inspect the disk. The disk should be without ridges and the brake shoe should have sufficient pad to be safe for braking. When braking and applying pressure to the pedal it should offer resistance and not be able to be pushed all the way to the floor. Check for leaking brake cylinders if the pedal goes down too far.

10. General, steering and tires - When you drive the car, you must take note of certain things. Are there noises coming from the suspension when traveling over bumps? Is the steering-wheel too loose or does it make noises when turned too sharply? Does the car veer to one side? This means that the alignment may be out or it could point to chassis or suspension damage. Do check the sidewalls of every tire including the spare as well as the tread that is left on the tires. The sidewalls should never have bulges or cracks and the tread should be at least 2mm or 1mm from the inspection point found in-between the tread of every tire. Uneven wear on tires reveal steering or suspension problems. Uneven wear on a tire with flat spots should be replaced so factor these costs in when buying the car.

So that is my checklist for buying a used car! If you’re not comfortable doing all theses checks yourself then do what I do, ask your trusted mechanic to accompany you and he will be able to give you excellent advice before making the purchase.

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