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What to check when buying a used car

Chasing Cars Team

Scoring a bargain on a quality used vehicle is a great feeling – but how can you be sure you’re not buying a lemon?

Knowing exactly what to look for when buying a used car can save you money and headaches. To reduce the chance of unpleasant surprises, do your research, take your time and carefully consider all aspects of the purchase before committing yourself.

Buying from a private seller through Carsales or similar sites will often result in a lower price but you’ll miss out on the warranty and trade-in option that a licensed car dealer provides. A dealer inspects the vehicle, handles the registration transfer and all the other paperwork for you and ensures a guaranteed title, free of encumbrances.

With a private sale, it’s easier to get things wrong if you don’t know a lot about cars. There’s less legal protection, no warranty or cooling-off period and you’ll have to check on encumbrances and sort out required documentation yourself. Some amazing deals can be had through private sales if you know what you’re doing, however.

Buying through an auction is yet another possibility, but because you’re typically making your decision based purely on visual checks, there’s a greater risk of ending up with a dud. Thorough inspections and test drives are a rarity with auction sales.  

Before you reach for your wallet

There’s plenty to consider when pondering a used car purchase, including:

Type of car

What kind of driving will you mostly be doing? That powerful SUV or dual cab ute may be overkill if you’re just zipping to and from work in the city.


Kilometres driven versus age: which is more important? It’s an old debate but in truth, what probably matters more is how well the car has been looked after by its previous owner(s) and where it has mainly been driven. City kilometers put less strain on a vehicle than highway or rural kilometres. Age and odometer readings definitely make a difference but the maintenance record can often provide a more accurate picture of how hard a life the car has had.

On average, Aussie cars travel a little more than 13,000kms a year[i], so if the used car you want to buy has done 20,000kms or more per year during its lifetime, you may be able to do better. Cars with more than 200,000kms on the odometer increase your risk of having to shell out in the future for repairs – at that point, wear and tear starts to become far more obvious and harder to ignore.

Vehicle condition

The number one rule before paying any money for a second-hand car is to get a professional mechanic to conduct an in-depth pre-purchase inspection. This will include brakes, suspension and steering, engine, transmission and drive train, electrics, wheels and tyres and a close look at the interior and exterior to check for rust areas, overall condition and any evidence of previous collisions. [ii] Mechanical inspections aren’t just a must for private sales; you’d be wise to get one when buying from a dealer too.

Every car driven on Australian roads also needs a roadworthy certificate. This can only be obtained from a licensed vehicle tester, who inspects the car to ensure it’s safe to drive. This is different to a full mechanical check: it’s more about faulty lights, bald tyres, leaking fluids, illegal modifications, brake performance and other potential safety issues. Make sure the seller provides a roadworthy certificate.[iii]

Your budget

Always keep a firm maximum price in mind – and stick to it. The best used car is the one you can afford.

Safety and security features

The older the car, the less likely it will have all the advanced safety features we’ve come to take for granted with brand new vehicles. How many airbags are there? Does the car feature a reversing camera, anti-lock brakes, a stability control system and similar technology? In Australia, you can check the safety rating of a pre-loved vehicle at UCSR.

State/territory regulations

Each part of Australia has its own specific regulations about what’s required when buying or selling a used car, so check with your state/territory transport authority for the latest information.

It’s vital to find out whether the car you want to buy has any money owing on it or has been previously stolen or written off. This can be done by getting a PPSR check. PPSR (Personal Property Securities Register) is an online Australian Government register designed to protect Aussie consumers purchasing certain types of personal property.

Some providers will charge up to $35 for a PPSR check but you can get one here for free.

Fuel economy

With fuel prices creeping up, your weekly petrol bill is an important factor in deciding which car is right for you. The government’s Green Vehicle Guide is a handy online resource for checking a vehicle’s typical fuel consumption, carbon emissions and more.


Insuring your second-hand car is as simple as getting a few quotes and selecting the policy that best meets your needs. These days, the whole process can be completed in less than an hour.

Securities check

Before signing on the dotted line, it’s important to make sure there are no debts or other registered security interests behind held over the car you are about to buy. A PPSR check is available at low cost from the federal government, though Budget Direct – who power Chasing Cars – offer this service at no cost.

Service history

It’s essential to obtain as much information as you can about how well the vehicle has been maintained. If the seller has a logbook outlining the service history, you’re in luck: you can flip through the entries to get a full picture of past repairs, parts replacements and regular maintenance schedules. If not, beware: there could be a reason why the seller has ‘conveniently lost’ the service history.

In some countries (such as the UK), you can check the service history of a vehicle for free online. Unfortunately, Australia currently has no such service and any websites offering a service history check will charge for the privilege. If the seller can remember where the car was previously serviced, however, it’s always worth checking with the mechanic there for any details on past maintenance[iv].

[i] https://www.budgetdirect.com.au/car-insurance/research/average-kilometers-driven.html#:~:text=The%20average%20vehicle%20in%20Australia,492%2C495%20kilometres%20travelled%20each%20day.

[ii] https://www.strattonfinance.com.au/newsroom/what-is-a-professional-vehicle-inspection-and-why-you-need-one

[iii] https://www.dailybulletin.com.au/news/38483-understanding-roadworthy-certificates-in-australia

[iv] https://practicalmotoring.com.au/car-advice/how-to-find-a-cars-service-history/#:~:text=There%20is%20no%20such%20service,ve%20performed%20on%20the%20vehicle.

Disclaimer: This information is general in nature only and does not constitute personal advice. While Chasing Cars has endeavoured to ensure the information we’ve relied on is accurate and current, we do not guarantee it and accept no liability for this information. Chasing Cars recommends you obtain specialist advice specific to your individual circumstances before purchasing any motor vehicle

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