How to buy a reliable used car

Essential steps to avoid picking a lemon.

Row of cars.

Here are our tips to give yourself a good shot at finding a trouble-free and satisfying used car.

Research the make and model

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, like ongoing problems with 2010-2014 Ford Fiesta Powershift gearboxes, or the generally poor reliability of pre-2010 Mini Coopers.

Be realistic

We keep our cars going for longer than in most countries, our fleet averages over 14 years old and the average used import is 12 years old at the time of import. These are cars well into their twilight years.

With an older vehicle, you need to expect repair bills for wear and tear and accept minor failures and niggles. However, it isn’t reasonable to expect a major failure soon after purchase.

Find a good example

Look at how the car is presented – is it clean and tidy? Ask if it’s been serviced before sale and if there are any faults you should know about. Get copies of any inspection or service reports. If the car has had previous New Zealand owners, ask for service and maintenance records that show it’s been looked after.

Get it serviced

If the car is freshly imported, or has no documented service history, 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 wheels serviced immediately after purchase and tell the mechanic you want to know if there are signs of neglected maintenance or future trouble. You might find something that can be fixed before it becomes a problem, and you can use the report as evidence to take to the dealer to highlight any faults present when it was sold, which you can claim for under the CGA.

Don’t fear private sales

Buying a car privately can be daunting, but don’t be put off. A private seller has the advantage of knowing some of the car’s history. They may have records showing servicing and repair going back a few years, or even from new.

If you’re looking for a cheaper car, $10,000 or less, you’ll find more options from private sellers. The sale may be more straightforward too – sellers won’t be interested in upselling mechanical insurance or adding on other extras.

However, in a private sale you have no CGA protection if the car goes wrong, so arm yourself with our checklist and advice. Private sales are usually on an “as-is, where-is” basis, which means the buyer takes responsibility for any problems after purchase.

So, you don’t have as many protections but, with care, buying privately might just turn up a great car without the dealer price premium.

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.

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