Ten tips for viewing a second-hand car

Promotion sign at the dealership lot.

Is it time to treat yourself to something special from the used car classifieds? Well here are ten tips to help save you time, money and aggravation when buying a second-hand car. Let these tips be your guide and you’ll be on the right track to track down a quality used car to park on your drive with pride.

At the seller’s home or on the forecourt?

View the car at the seller’s home. People’s homes tell you a lot about them and if their home looks uncared for, perhaps their car was, too.

Business sellers will most likely have permanent premises from which they trade, and twenty years in the business can be a good sign. Good dealers try not to buy cars that won’t sell.

It must be clean

You cannot check paintwork and panels through a layer of muck. If a seller can’t be bothered to clean their car before you see it, what else couldn’t they be bothered to do? Put oil in the engine?

An enthusiast will generally clean their car themselves, and while shiny and consistent paintwork is good to see, an owner that keeps the engine bay clean and interior fresh will likely lavish all the servicing love on their car as well. These are the best people to buy from.

View the car on a clear day, checking the weather forecast ahead of time and planning for the best day of the week to view. Do not view in the rain or fading light.

Good vibes?

It’s a little difficult to exactly quantify what good vibes are, but we’ve all got a sense for good and bad situations. Is the seller knowledgeable about their car, do they rattle off the last big service details without pause, and are they giving off body language signs of lying, like nose scratching?

Twenty questions

Have a long list of questions written and prepared – based on your own research about the car – to ask the seller. You’ll come across as considered and serious if you question them concisely.

Take your time

Are they in a rush to sell you the car? Or are they happy to chat about a car they’ll sorely miss? The more knowledgeable the seller, the better.

Check the paperwork

It can be tempting to skip through the paperwork, especially if the owner has kept every single sparkplug receipt, but this is a bad idea. Make a note of the essential service work the car should’ve had and then check through the bills to see if it has. A responsible seller won’t mind that it takes time.

Run the registration

There are a number of vehicle history checking services you can use that vary in price and depth of checks. If you’re spending a lot on a car - or spreading the cost with used car credit - then spend the extra on the checks. If your buying budget is small and the car passes the basic third party checks – like an SM registration check – you’ve probably spent enough.

Speak to previous owners

The vehicle log book lists previous owners, and if you like the look of the car and have the time, try to track them down for a chat on the phone. These calls can be very revealing.

Check the price of service parts

Some exotic cars – though cheaper to buy used – can still be steep to service. If all you’re after is a run around then it’s best to go for a Ford not a Ferrari, no matter how much you like bright red paint.

Drive it as much as you can

Again, a responsible seller won’t mind an extended road test, especially if you’ve expressed interest and enthusiasm for their car. Drive it with as much feel as you can, sensing trouble through your hands, feet, ears and nose. However, if there is a strong smell of smoke, it’s best to bail out quickly!

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