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Tips on Buying a Second-Hand Car

Updated on December 20, 2018

Buying a brand new car is rather expensive, and for a lot of people who are feeling the pinch of the economic times we’re in at the moment, especially younger folks, buying used vehicles is probably going to be your only option other than walking or taking public transport.

It can be a risky business, and there are lots of horror stories out there. But it wouldn’t be fair or entirely true to say that it’s all bad. I intend to help prove this point, and give you some pointers I've learned through my experience, advice given to me, and a bit of research.


Where to look for used vehicles

So first off, where to look. There are several places you can try. One is in the classifieds section of your local newspaper. Pick one up at your newsagent or store, or in the mailbox if you subscribe and have one delivered, and get through to the section on cars. Years ago you could get used cars at very low prices, but you’d find it very hard to get a deal like this nowadays.

You might find a flyer on a billboard outside your local store or put through the letterbox. A person might make photocopies and distribute them in an area to garner interest.

If you have internet access, you can also look online at websites like Craigslist, OLX, or Gumtree. You might even see them listed on eBay. It’s easier to search for cars here than it is in the paper, because you can use filters. You can search for vehicles by price, type and location, if you don’t feel like walking halfway across the country to go and look at a car. And you stand more chance of getting photos of the car in question, as ads online can often be placed for free, compared to ads in the paper which will likely cost a person, and pictures would mean extra. And there's usually not that much space in the classifieds section of the paper in any case.

Other times a vehicle won’t be listed in the classifieds. But there are places where you can look for them. You’ll see them in the street, parked on or near the kerb or shoulder of the road outside someone’s home, or in a parking lot outside a shopping mall, or even at a social club of sorts. They'll often have a price and perhaps some basic information about the vehicle stuck to the windscreen.

These are all places to look for cars that are sold privately and personally by the owner. Other times you might try a second-hand car dealership, although the salespeople here often get a bad reputation, and for good reason. Pawn shops might deal in cars, too. They buy low, and sell high – because quite a bit of money would go in to fixing it up. It’s an investment. And they’ll more than likely loan high because this will result in more money for them even with fixed interest rates. This can backfire on them though if the customer doesn’t come back and pay them what they owe and collect their car. The store then has to sell it to make back the money it lost loaning money to the person who pawned it. For this reason, don’t be surprised if a lot of pawn shops don’t deal in cars, or they just don't have too many sitting around.

You can also get cars that have been used by rental companies. These you will pay quite a bit more for but they are guaranteed to not be that old – maybe a year or so seeing as car rental companies like to have the latest models available for their clients – and you might even be able to trade in your car if you have one, to get a discount. That and there’s less chance that anything is wrong with it. Avis is a well known, reputable car rental company.

You can also buy cars at auctions. People bid on a car and the highest bidder gets to have it once they’ve handed over the cash. But you likely won’t get to test drive it, and you won’t really know whether it works or not until you’ve bought it. So that’s a bit of a gamble. If you are able to get the car for a low price though, then it is worth considering. Just know when to stop; know when to walk away from a bid. A lot of people get sucked in to it because of their egos, and have to bid higher than the other person – and he or she might not want it in the first place, and is just trying to up your bid and then drop it on you, so you end up paying more than you would have otherwise. Some people are jerks.

"You can also get cars that have been used by rental companies. These you will pay quite a bit more for but they are guaranteed to not be that old, and there’s less chance that anything is wrong with it."


What to look for in a used vehicle

You’ll want to consider the brand. Is it rare in your country? Is it easy to find spare parts if you need them? Is the brand known for its reliability? Is the company still actively in existence? You might want to find this information out before you buy a car.

Because if the car is say an Alfa Romeo which is known for being terribly unreliable, then you’ll likely spend lots of money having it fixed. I don’t care what Jeremy Clarkson and the other two stooges on Top Gear say about them and that you "can’t be a true petrol head until you’ve owned one”. You may as well flush your money down the toilet if you’re going to waste it on that. Don’t buy Italian cars like Alfas or Lancias, unless you happen to be a rather rich collector type who can afford to waste money. They’re just too damn unreliable and parts will be hard to come by. At least two or three people I've known wasted money on second-hand Alfa Romeos years ago. Also beware of being enticed by sports cars for low prices. If it seems too good to be true, then it probably is. You get what you pay for. All you really need, especially early on in life, is transport that will get you from point A to B. That’s all anyone really needs.

Japanese cars are probably a better buy if you’re going for second-hand. For example, Toyota is consistently voted one of the most reliable makes of car out there. Seeing as it’s widely available you’ll also get plenty of parts if you need to fix the car up a bit at some point.

Then there’s the type of vehicle. Generally speaking, small, nippy hatchbacks will go cheaper than a big four door saloon. And they’re really unnecessary to be honest, those big petrol guzzling cars. Don’t even bother with SUVs, unless you really, really need them (most don't). Even if you did manage to buy one cheap, and I doubt you’d be able to, the fuel economy would more than likely be terrible! You’ll likely want something that doesn’t cost too much, is reliable and won’t cost you an arm and a leg to fix up if needed, and gets good mileage.

As for diesel vs. petrol engines, diesels might be worth looking at, because generally they do get better mileage than petrol-fuelled cars, although you will pay more to refuel. The price of the car if it's a diesel can also be expected to be higher. If you're not too worried about performance, then diesel could be considered.

Then there’s the choice of automatic versus manual transmission. If you have a licence to drive a manual, then you can drive both a manual and an automatic. If you have a licence to drive an automatic, then you can only drive an automatic. Something to consider. Automatics may seem easier to drive, but if things go wrong, then they are much more costly to repair. They also can’t be towed. A truck will have to come along and pick it up. In the long run, a manual will probably cost you less.

If a car has a lot of unnecessary extras, that can also drive up the price. I personally wouldn’t go near a car that has a lot of modifications like mags, bigger rims, big stereos, and so on. Because the owner will likely want a lot of money to cover the expenses – what he or she put in to it. And that’s not how it should work. Modifications or not, cars depreciate quicker than most other things. Some say that if the car has been modified in any way, you should avoid it. Because sometimes people try to "improve" a vehicle, only to mess up the handling or any number of things.

"Japanese cars are probably a better buy if you’re going for second-hand. They're consistently voted the most reliable makes of car out there. Seeing as they're widely available you’ll also get plenty of parts if you need to fix the car up a bit at some point."


Always insist on inspecting the car. Have a look around it, and inside and see if you can start it. You may even be able to test drive it – with the seller in the car with you, of course. Perhaps the seller should drive. Here you can test the brakes, the steering, the accelerator, the clutch (if it's a manual transmission), the suspension, the exhaust (if excessive fumes come out of it that can mean trouble), and even if the seat is fitted properly.

Take someone with you if you feel that you don’t know enough about cars. You should at least try and gain a basic knowledge, however, because you don't want someone taking you for a ride. If a car won’t start, or if there’s too many things wrong with it, you’d best consider walking away. Thank the seller for their time and then leave. You could try and knock the price down, particularly if they have told you they will accept a nearest cash offer (ONCO), and if they’re willing they might do it, but don’t be too surprised to learn that people will stick to their price. Because everybody’s an expert and thinks they know best. If the car doesn’t work, chances are it’s going to be one big money pit which is going to drain your cash resources.

I really do admire people who will at least be honest and tell you that it's been in an accident, or only so many gears work and the like, but I probably wouldn’t venture near the car if that were the case. I should be able to drive it without much hassle. Light, superficial damage might not be anything to fret about. If it has scratches or a few dings in it, that’s likely not the end of the world and with enough care and know-how you can buff them out or fix it up yourself for relatively nothing. Rust is a different story. If it’s very rusty and has holes in it, and not just on the chassis of the car, but underneath the car and in the engine bay, that might be enough to make you change your mind. And so you should. On the inside, check that all the lights work, all the dials and necessary knobs and electrics are functional. The car must be roadworthy. If the car wouldn’t pass the required vehicle inspection which is carried out during your driver’s licence exam, or wouldn’t pass a roadworthiness test, then it isn’t roadworthy, and therefore would be illegal to put on the road.

You can fix the car to the point that it is roadworthy (and you'll have to, no doubt about it), but that depends on whether you have the expertise and time to do it yourself, or the money to get it done by someone else. And if you think second-hand car salesmen have a bad reputation, then you haven’t met a mechanic.

Also check that the car comes with all the necessary papers, is registered and comes with the owner’s manual. Check that the engine and chassis number match the numbers on the papers.The last thing you want is to buy a stolen vehicle, so you might want to check that the person selling the car is indeed the person who owns it. They should produce a driver’s licence and/or ID and vehicle registration on command. If they don’t own the car themselves but it belongs to the person who owns it, they must be there and must be aware that the sale is taking place. You don’t want to buy a car from someone only to find out that the car didn’t belong to him, but his father, and now his father wants the car back.

Always ask the seller why they want to sell their car. They might be emigrating to another country; their spouse wants them to sell it; they can’t afford to keep it and have to sell it – these are all possible reasons. If they are trying to get rid of it because it doesn’t work or they can’t afford to fix it, then beware. Sellers are often known for doing this. But not all of them. My father didn’t have too many car accidents and sold his cars after having owned each of them for two or three years only. And they were in good shape.

"If the car wouldn’t pass the required vehicle inspection which is carried out during your driver’s licence exam, or wouldn’t pass a roadworthiness test, then it isn’t roadworthy, and therefore would be illegal to put on the road."


In the end, the best advice would be to steer clear of second-hand vehicles. Because 90 percent of the time they won’t be good cars, and people often sell them because there’s something wrong with them and they either can’t be bothered to fix it, or can’t afford to. And once they’ve sold you the car, you can’t take it back; they won’t give you your money back; you’ll be stuck with it, and you’ll then have two or three options: sell it; sell the parts of it if there’s anything worth salvaging; or just dump it at the scrapyard.

If you want to buy a second-hand vehicle, then you’re better off judging the person selling it rather than the actual car. The reason for this is because if you know them well enough, and know that they take care of their cars, have them serviced regularly, and that not much goes wrong with the cars they own, then they would make a good potential seller. Ask them to tell you when they’re going to sell their car and/or buy a new one, and make them an offer when they do. If you don’t know the person selling the car, you’re probably better off avoiding the whole deal, because you have no idea what their car history is like.

Have you ever bought a used vehicle? How was the experience?

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© 2012 Anti-Valentine


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