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How to buy a reliable used car

Every year our Consumer Advice Line deals with more than 300 complaints from members who've bought cars that have subsequently gone wrong. We see a few common themes: cars freshly imported from Japan; at least 8 years old; at least 70,000km; with no repair or maintenance history. Here's how you can avoid buying a lemon, plus our handy used car checklist when making an inspection.

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A used car should be durable, safe, fit for purpose and free from major defects. What’s reasonable depends on the vehicle’s age and distance travelled, the price paid, and any representations made.

We think dealers should thoroughly check and service cars before sale. They should have confidence in them and be prepared to make things right if they go wrong. Under the Consumer Guarantees Act (CGA), it’s their responsibility to fix acceptable quality failings. However, hundreds of calls to our advice line show many sellers aren’t so thorough.

So what can you do to protect yourself?

1. Download our used car checklist

Use this list to assess any used car you view. It covers the basics, including test-driving the car if at all possible.

2. Research the make and model

Don’t go in blind, Google is your friend. Search for MAKE, MODEL, YEAR and “problems”. Every car will have someone crying foul about it on internet forums and it’s easy to disappear down a rabbit hole of worry. But be realistic and you may turn up some known problems that’ll steer you away from a car, or at least warn you what to look for.

3. Choose your dealer carefully

Ask yourself: “Do I trust this dealer to sell a good car and stand behind it if it fails?”

Look at how the car is presented — is it clean and tidy? Ask if the car has been serviced before sale and if there are any problems — get copies of any inspection or service reports. Tell the dealer you expect the car to be trouble-free for at least a year and 10,000km, and watch their response.

Don’t be afraid to walk away.

4. Get it serviced

It’s unlikely a fresh import will have any documented history, so assume the worst.

A pre-purchase inspection costs about $100 and will show immediate problems, but won’t tell you about future failures. If the car hasn’t been recently serviced, you could negotiate an immediate service as part of the deal. Otherwise, set aside some of your budget to get your new car serviced after purchasing. You might find something that can be fixed before it becomes a problem, and you can use the mechanic’s report as evidence to take to the dealer to highlight any faults covered by the CGA.

5. Don’t fear private sales

Buying a car privately can be daunting, but don’t be put off. You might just turn up a great car without the dealer price premium. A private seller may have records showing servicing and repair going back a few years, or even from new. However, in a private sale you have no CGA protection if the car goes wrong. So arm yourself with our checklist and advice. Pay attention to asking about finance owing. Watch out for dealers masquerading as private sellers to avoid their responsibilities.

Are mechanical warranties worth it?

Yes, and no. Dealers like them: it’s extra profit on a car sale and an attempt to offload their CGA responsibilities (even though they can’t contract out of the act).

But like any extended warranty, you’ll pay to get cover you likely already have. In some cases, the warranty may cover you for longer than you’d reasonably expect from the CGA. If you are tempted, beware of the terms and conditions:

  • check pre-existing faults are covered
  • watch the excess and claim limit, and
  • be aware you’ll need to keep the car serviced regularly to keep the warranty valid.

When it goes wrong

  • Know your rights. You have protection through the Fair Trading Act and CGA.
  • Act quickly. Don’t wait months after noticing the problem or you may lose your rights. Get an independent mechanic to confirm the fault.
  • Contact the dealer. Present your case and tell them what solution you expect.
  • Go to a tribunal. The Motor Vehicle Disputes Tribunal (MVDT) provides independent dispute resolution. It’s a last resort, but costs just $50. Mentioning the MVDT can be enough to convince a dealer to act.
  • Consumer members can contact our Advice Line for help at any stage.




By Paul Smith
Head of Testing



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