Take your time and carefully examine everything you want to look at – not just what the seller shows you.
Inspect the car on a dry sunny day if possible – it's easier to see the visual clues to the car's real condition. See our safety checklist.
The older and cheaper the car, the more likely there will be something wrong, particularly once it's done more than 100,000km. Be especially wary of engine wear and rust.
Know what you can fix and the cost of having the work done.
Take these inspection aids:
Check that the car has a current warrant of fitness – vehicles for sale must have a warrant of fitness less than one month old.
However, you may buy the car 'as is where is'. Under this option you'll need to give the seller a written promise that you'll only drive the car to get a warrant. You may have to pay for repairs to bring the car up to warrant standard.
Ask the seller for any service or repair history.
If you’re buying privately, make sure you let us know straight away.
Always insist on having a full professional inspection before buying any used car. Most garages will perform these inspections. There are also specialist pre-purchase inspection services. After the inspection both you and the seller will receive a report detailing any repairs needed.
Check whether your vehicle is subject to a safety related recall or a Takata Alpha airbag recall.
Most older vehicles have some rust. Whether it's a problem depends on how much and where it is.
Look for signs of rust on the main structural supports (structural corrosion). This is dangerous. A vehicle with rust in the areas shown in the diagram will likely fail a warrant of fitness inspection and repairs will be costly.
Rust on the car body can also be a problem. Look for bubbling paintwork. It's possible that the use of a filler may be masking the problem. In some cases you can tell if this is the case by running a magnet over the car - it won't stick to the filler. However, the magnet test won't work if the filler contains iron dust.
Also look for rust:
A recent paint job could be an attempt to mask a problem. First, try the magnet test (see rust above). Also look closely for:
To test for worn shock absorbers:
Check all the tyres, including the spare. Legally, treads must be at least 1.5mm deep across 3/4 of the tread pattern around the entire tyre. However, if there are tread depth indicators the tread depth must be at least 1.5 mm in these areas.
Open and shut all the doors, the bonnet and the boot, making sure they are aligned properly and move smoothly. Also check that the windows open and shut easily, and that they will stay open halfway.
An exhaust leak is dangerous – exhaust fumes getting inside your car could cause you to pass out from carbon monoxide poisoning.
To check for leaks in the muffler and exhaust system:
Things to check:
Also check for old or loose wiring under the dashboard.
Things to check:
Leaks can indicate wear (especially from rust) and poor care. They can be difficult and expensive to fix.
Look for dampness or water stains on seats and carpets. If possible, lift up the carpets and check underneath, including in the boot area.
A dirty engine can point to vehicle neglect. But a sparkling clean engine may be the result of a recent steam clean undertaken to mask defects.
With the engine going:
When the engine is cool, remove the cap to check the water:
Don't forget to replace the cap.
Check that the car is insured. You may be liable for damages if you drive an uninsured vehicle.
Once you're in the car, switch on the ignition, but don't start the engine.
Any anti-lock braking system (ABS) or airbags lights (SRS) will have their own testing sequence. Check the vehicle's manual to see what this should be. Watch for any lights that stay on – especially those for brakes or coolant level.
Start the engine, with the engine cold if possible.
While you drive, listen for any odd noises that could indicate problems:
Using an empty carpark, drive at low speed on full steering lock in each direction. Rhythmic clunks from the front of the vehicle may indicate the drive shaft joints are badly worn and need replacing.
Be aware of any smells:
Test out the vehicle's acceleration:
Find a hilly road that is safe for a test drive. How does the car drive up hill? This is a good time to check for blue exhaust smoke (from burning oil). Go down the hill, foot off the accelerator. At the bottom push the accelerator. If the engine is old it may take a while to accelerate and you may see a big puff of smoke from the exhaust.
Test out the vehicle's brakes. Do they:
Find a quiet stretch of road and try an emergency stop, from about 30km/h. Put on the brakes firmly, but don't slam them. The car should slow down quickly and in a straight line (if the car starts to veer to one side, release the brakes and correct the steering).
Test out the vehicle's gears:
Can you change the gears easily and smoothly?
Try changing down quickly a few times - is there a crunching noise? The gearbox may need work.
If the car's an automatic, do the gears change smoothly? Unexpected changes or bumping noises aren't good.
Is the transmission oil clear red? A burnt smell indicates problems.
Stop the car, and leave the engine running.
Check under the bonnet for: