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Tips for buying a car

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Be prepared when you buy a car

Use this car buyer's checklist to make sure you're getting a good deal:

the owner

  • How long have they owned the car? If it's not very long, ask them why they are selling (they may be passing on a lemon)
  • You'll need the owner's details so you can cross-check them (for free) on our website
  • How many New Zealand owners has the car had?

the history

  • Check that the service history shows regular scheduled maintenance and repairs
  • If receipts exist, call the workshops that did the work and see whether there was anything they noticed
  • If the car is restored ask to see receipts. All reputable car restorers (private or professional) will document the progress of the car through the restoration process, and this will give you a good idea of the work carried out

the car

  • Do a static inspection before you drive it – the engine should be cold so you can have a good look in the engine bay.
  • Familiarise yourself with the controls (and idiosyncrasies) before setting off, particularly if there's a satellite navigation system, or in older cars some strange way of changing gear!
  • If it doesn't live up to your expectations, don't drive it - the psychological part of taking it for a road test means you're more likely to buy it (or be pressured into buying it), even if it has major cosmetic faults.

the exterior

  • Check everywhere for rust, even underneath using a torch. Door sills and where panels meet are danger areas
  • Check for signs of repairs (mismatched paint, misaligned body panels, undercoat still visible)
  • Open and close all doors, boot and bonnet and make sure they lock/unlock easily
  • Check for filler by using a magnet
  • Look carefully for dents and scratches – good light is essential for this
  • Check all chrome parts are in good condition
  • Check all plastic and rubber trim, grille, mouldings and bumpers are held on securely and in good condition
  • Inspect the windscreen and all windows for cracks, chips, abrasions, wiper marks and other damage
  • Do the mirrors operate correctly – move them in and out manually or electrically?
  • Test all external lights:
    • Indicators
    • Fog lights
    • Headlight – high and low beam
    • Taillights
    • Brake lights
    • Hazard warning lights
    • Reversing light
    • Parking light
    • License plate lights
    • Lights embedded in doors or wing mirrors
    • Look for cracked or cloudy lenses
  • Are the windscreen wiper rubbers ok?
  • Check the tread for all tyres and that they're the correct size. Look for uneven wear, and whether they all match
  • Check the spare tyre – is it still inflated?
  • Pay attention to valve stems, and older wheels, especially on veteran and vintage cars
  • Check condition of hood and rear window on convertibles. Is it easy to put up? If not check action of hood bows

the interior

  • Test the door locks and handles
  • Check the stereo and speakers
  • Check any multimedia functions such as navigation systems
  • Test the alarm (if fitted)
  • Does the clock work?
  • Check the horn
  • Check carpets, door panels, headliner, sun visors, armrests, upholstery and dashboard for wear, cracks, water damage, spills and stains
  • Does the rear view mirror stay where it is placed, and does any auto-dimming work?
  • Does the fuel cap release easily
  • Steering lock and wheel adjustment – is there too much play in the steering wheel? Can you adjust the steering wheel?
  • Test the glove box door and light, including any lock on the glovebox door
  • Heater, air conditioning, window defroster - test all vents, especially if it's all electronic
  • Seat belts must click into place, retract easily, and work in the case of an accident
  • Cigarette lighter, power outlets (many new cars have them in the boot and dashboard as well)
  • All lights in the dashboard and all internal lights
  • Look for the jack and the right tool kit in the boot

the engine

  • Check for oil leaks
  • Check the oil for its clarity
  • Check all other fluids – power steering, water, etc
  • If the car is fitted with an aluminium engine or cylinder head, check for presence of anti-freeze in coolant
  • Inspect timing belt/chain
  • Inspect belts for signs of wear
  • Inspect engine mounts
  • Inspect wiring
  • Check integrity of hoses
  • Look for fuel or water leaks
  • Pressure test radiator cap
  • Check fuel filter

the brakes and tyres

  • Check brake fluid reservoir – is it topped up to the correct level. Black, dirty fluid could mean a neglected braking system
  • Check wheel cylinders on brake drums for signs of fluid leakage. While it's difficult checking the condition of drum brakes without disassembly, disc brakes can easily be checked for condition of rotors and pads
  • Check tyres – do they have legal depth of tread? Be wary of mismatched tyres, especially a mix of radial and crossplies
  • Check wheels – alloy wheels can be severely damaged after being ‘kerbed' and even basic steel wheels can be put out of round. Wire wheels are more difficult to check, but be wary of any obvious signs of loose spokes

by starting the car

  • Does it start easily?
  • Check for smoke, particularly even after it's warm
  • Rev the engine. Are there any unusual squeaks, rattles, harsh sounds?
  • Is there a spare key?

road worthiness - the road test

  • Whether you take the owner along or not is your prerogative, but if you do, be careful they don't try to mask any of the car's deficiencies by talking over unusual noises
  • Note engine performance in different gears, and acceleration
  • Check the integrity of the clutch – how well does the car pull away, is there any chatter or slipping?
  • Listen for engine noise at high and low revs, and high and low speed
  • Listen for gearbox/transmission noise
  • Does the auto transmission shift smoothly?
  • Does the manual transmission feel solid – check it doesn't jump out of gear, grind in certain gears, or have a difficult gate into one of the gears?
  • Does the steering respond smoothly and not have too much play in it?
  • Keep an eye on battery gauges, oil temperature and other gauges when both hot and cold
  • Check the handling and suspension on a rougher road, keep your ears alert for suspicious clunks and knocks which could indicate worn bushes, wheel bearings or universal joints
  • Test the brakes for effectiveness. Do they pull evenly? Do the ABS, ESP, VDC and any other electronic aids work (if relevant)? Do the brakes squeak?
  • Check for noises specific to turning – knocking or grinding noises are not good
  • Check all gauges work (speedometer, tachometer and fluid gauges)

lastly...

  • If the seller is evasive or tries to make light of something (or direct your attention elsewhere), be cautious.
  • If the price is too good to be true, it more than likely is
  • Make notes so you can get any repair quotes from a mechanic
  • Check on the internet, with clubs and on forums for insider knowledge. What's likely to go wrong with these cars? Are parts readily available?
  • If you're not confident in your lemon-spotting skills, get a professional to look over the car for you – either a proper vehicle inspection company, or a friendly mechanic.
  • Get a Checka vehicle report to make sure it's not wanted by the police, clocked or has money owing on it
  • Finally, can you afford it? Be sure you're negotiating a fair price. Have you budgeted for repairs, maintenance, registration, insurance, etc.