Buying a Car 101

Buying a Car 101

Buying A car

Buying a car does not need to be as daunting as some make it out to be, by following some easy guidelines and common sense, your next car purchase will be done more confidently, here is how.

What is a Used Car?

Well, whether you have thought about it for a while or decided on a whim, you are about to purchase your next vehicle, will it be brand new, second hand with low mileage or a slightly older model with more than 80000 miles on the speedometer?  Will it be a:

  • Sedan?
  • German Luxury Vehicle?
  • Sports Car?
  • Hybrid?
  • Japanese fuel-saving Micro Vehicle?
  • Gas Guzzling American Muscle Car?
  • Elegant European Vehicle?
  • Luxury or Basic Comfort?
  • It really does not matter, this is all personal preference.
Oil Filters on display
Oil Filters on display 

#Learn All about Internal Combustion Engines

But ask yourself

  • Are the spare parts easily available locally at a reasonable price?.
  • Can you do basic maintenance yourself or at your local repair shop at a reasonable cost?.
  • Is the vehicle a good re seller?, or will it depreciate too quickly.
  • Is it the correct Vehicle for your needs?, buying a Sports Car when you have a growing family or a Minivan when you a Singlet, is just not going to work?
  • Is the Insurance High or Affordable?
  • How Safe is the Vehicle? What safety features does it have?
  • Is the Vehicle cost-effective to Run and Maintain?

Shop with your head, not your heart.

A Spark Plug
A Spark Plug

To those who do not know a Jack from a Spark Plug or those who actually do, here you will find a simple and comprehensive guide on what you need to inspect and look out for when buying your next vehicle.

This guide may not be exhaustive but it will increase your chances of making a more informed purchase, mechanically. This process of inspection should take about 15 to 20 minutes (excluding test driving).

#About Electric Cars

Buying New

New is Better but not always Best
New is Better but not always Best

Peace of Mind is the term that comes to mind, really what can go wrong with a brand new vehicle when purchasing from a reputable dealer, not much I gather but yet I have dealt with individuals who had the nasty experience of a bad purchase, one comes to mind.

The purchase was for a Brand New popular make and model vehicle, the sale, the paperwork and red tape was expedited with professional precision, The proud new owner left the dealership with a brand new vehicle and popped around at my workshop to show it off.

My first statement to him was, “Congrats on going Diesel”, he looked at me in confusion, No he said its a Petrol model, upon closer inspection, to my disbelief it actually was a petrol model, with a “Bearing Knock”.

Oh what drama, I accompanied him back to the dealership, which was about a mile away. We were sent from pillar to post as no one would accept responsibility, with me present they now could not pull the wool over the client’s eyes and explain away the problem.

I demanded an interview with the Dealer Principal immediately, which was hastily granted and I proceeded to explained the problem to him,

He suggested to provide the client with a courtesy vehicle and that the engine from his purchase be removed, repaired, re-fitted and delivered to the client within 3 days. Surprisingly the client agreed to this.

Check the Mileage
Check the Mileage

This was not acceptable, I pressed, as the client bought a brand new vehicle, not a used car. With the threat of legal action, the Dealer Principal ordered that a new vehicle from their existing stock be pre-delivery inspected and registered for delivery that very late afternoon.

The client was ecstatic, not only did he get a New Vehicle but an Upgrade Model at no extra cost, because they had no stock of the standard model left. The faulty one was the last standard model available, makes one think HUH!!!!.

The point that I am making here is:

Take along a knowledgeable person to check out your purchase, new or second hand, most reputable Auto Mechanics offer this service to their existing clients free of charge

Buying Second Hand

When you are buying from a Private Seller there is more room for price negotiations, but you will be buying as is, so the Guide Lines laid out below will benefit you greatly as the Buyer.

When purchasing from a Second Hand Dealer, there is less room for negotiations on price as they usually have overheads to cover,

Although a 30 Day Warranty is usually required by consumer law to return your purchase for repair if any problems arise within this time (unless you agreed to purchase as is), which normally indicates a bad buy,

Dealers are not always prepared to put the 30-day warranty into effect as there may be known issues which the Dealer does not want to declare to expedite the sale and save on repair cost, increasing their profit.

American Muscle
American Muscle 

What to inspect on a Vehicle without an expert in attendance, Purchasing from a Dealer or Privately

 The Body

  • Inspect the body of the vehicle for scratches, dents, and abnormalities, check that the gaps between the hood and front panels and the boot lid and rear panels are the same on both sides.
  • Misalignment will probably indicate past body damage that was repaired, apply the same method when looking at each door individually when closed. In today’s day and age, consumer laws dictate that known defects be declared by the Seller even when it is a Private Sale
  • Look for mismatched panel shades, say a difference in shade between a fender and a door panel, this will also indicate a respray of certain panels, it is seldom that a perfect match of metallic colours is achieved when only selected panels are re-prayed instead of the whole vehicle, this I refer to as patch jobs, done to save costs for resale to increase profits.
  • Open and inspect the inner doors and doorposts for rust, damage or tightness, check for sagging of the doors when opening and closing, Check for wear on the door hinge.
  • Check door locking and unlocking functions and child-proof locks for correct operation.
  • Visually inspect Windshields, back and front, Windows and Sun Roofs for smooth opening and closing operation, and signs of leaking, old watermarks or rust.
  • Visually inspect lights and lenses for cracks and damage, switch on lights and turn signal indicators to check operation certainty.
Old Beauties
Old Beauties

Inside the Vehicle

  • Do a general visual inspection of inside the vehicle for torn seat coverings and damaged seat frames, smooth sliding motion for seat adjustments and worn, broken door panels and handles.
  • Check indicator, wiper and lights levers/switches for correct operation.
  • Check the condition of the floor coverings to see if it is still original or replacements, the latter could indicate past accident damage.
  • Feel for wetness on the floor mats as this could indicate a leaking heat exchange unit or windscreen rubber leaks.
  • Check Brake, Accelerator, and clutch pedal rubbers.
  • Check the dashboard for cracks and looseness, the latter normally indicates tampering, especially for turning down the mileage for resale purposes.
  • Check to see if the mileage is in line with the year model of the Car if it is too good to be true, it probably is.
  • Inspect the roof lining for sagging.
  • Check interior lights and chimes for proper illumination and audible operation.
  • Inspect steering wheel for excessive play and ignition barrel for damage, this could indicate past theft.
  • Check Horn, Turn Signal, Lights and Wipers operation.
  • Visually inspect seat belt condition, test inertia function of belts.
  • Check that none of the airbags were deployed or missing as this will reduce the safety of the vehicle.

The Boot or Cargo Area

  • Open the boot, check that the lift struts are not worn out, the boot or rear door should stay open on its own.
  • Lift up the mats and check for any creases in the metalwork as this indicates rear-end accident damage that was repaired.
  • Check that the boot light illuminates
  • Check that a matching inflated spare wheel, specific for the vehicle is present and securely mounted.
  • Check for safety reflective triangle, wheel nut spanner and jack, also check for anti-theft nuts on the wheels as a special socket is required for loosening, imagine getting a flat and while changing it out, you discover no anti-theft nut socket.
Giving it a thorough check out
Giving it a thorough check out

Under the Hood

Check Under the Hood when you are buying a car

While the vehicle is shut off, open the hood and inspect hood struts, it should keep the hood open on its own, also check hood hinges for stiffness and corrosion.

  • Remove the dipstick and inspect the oil level, if low this would indicate leaking or burning of oil, engine wear (Which could be costly to repair), leaks would be visible on the engine or ground.
  • Check the water for correct levels and the presents of additives such as Anti-Freeze, in some parts of the Country where Snow occurs in Winter, this is very important as the Anti-Freeze prevents the water from freezing and causing damage to the engine block in the form of cracks.
  • When water freezes it expands.
  • Visually inspect the exposed belts for alignment, cracks, looseness and chaffing, use a torch to illuminate the engine bay area.
  • Check the Brake fluid level, a low level indicates leaks or excessive wear of the brake pads and brake shoe’s friction linings, leaks will be easily visible when inspecting the rear covers of the wheels.
  • Check that the battery is clamped down tightly and inspect the casing for bulging and wetness, as this could indicate a faulty battery or a faulty Alternator, causing the battery to overcharge. The positive and negative terminals should be free of corrosion and tightened correctly.
  • Check Power Steering fluid level, if low this could indicate leaking and could be costly to repair.
  • Check the transmission for visible leaks or corrosion of the casing. Some transmissions have dipsticks in order to check the fluid levels.
  • Generally look at the engine for signs of new components and gaskets, obtain a reasonable explanation for this.
A Reliable Classic
A Reliable Classic

Road Test

  • Check the tires for good inflation and rims for condition, no nicks or visible damage, do a walk around and check nothing loose like wheel nuts or trim, bumpers and lenses.
  • Enter the vehicle and start the motor, it should start easily and quickly, listen for unusual noises such as screeching belts or pulleys, rumble and rough noises.
  • Turn the steering wheel to full lock, left and right to check the power steering function, it should not be noisy and should operate smoothly without a jerky motion, this goes for non-power steering too.
  • Rev the engine gently while in neutral and keep an eye on the rear of the vehicle through the mirrors, ensure that there is no white or black smoke emitting from the exhaust system or hood area.
  • Ensure that the brake pedal has some resistance indicating braking power, if the pedal goes all the way down to the floor this would indicate a brake fluid leak or air in the braking system, a very dangerous defect.
City Traffic
City Traffic

I would end my test drive right here until the said defect is repaired.

  • Put the transmission lever in Drive, pay attention to any excessive vibration or transmission lever movement as this could indicate worn engine and transmission mounts, do this in Reverse gear as well.
  • Release the foot brake to test that the Parking brake is effective, still holding the vehicle from rolling forward while idling in drive, loosen Parking brake and drive off.
Off the beaten Track
Off the beaten Track
  • When driving straight, release the steering wheel and see that the vehicle stays on course and not veer off course, this would indicate bad wheel alignment settings or worn front suspension components and/or uneven tire pressures.
  • Drive at different speeds and pay attention to vibrations on the steering wheel if present it could indicate worn shocks, suspension components, such as ball joints, track rods, tie rod ends or badly balanced wheels.
  • Note how the auto transmission is changing gears, is it smooth or delayed?, the latter could indicate a worn transmission.
  • With a manual transmission, note that if the clutch engages with the pedal fairly far out it could indicate that the clutch plate is excessively worn and may require replacement in the near future,

Comfortable Passenger Carrier

  • listen for any noises when the clutch pedal is depressed, if noisy this may indicate a worn release bearing.
  • If the pedal is fairly hard to depress, this may indicate a pressure plate or clutch cable fault.
  • Increase speed when in 3rd gear at around 40 Kph with a manual transmission if the revs of the engine rise too quickly and the speed seems slow for the revs then the clutch is probably slipping and needs to be replaced.
  • When increasing speed, check for vibration through the centre of the vehicle, if present it could indicate worn components on the drive train, centre bearing, u joint wear or an unbalanced driveshaft.
  • At very low speed, do a U-turn with the steering at full lock, in the turn accelerate gently, check for a “cluck, cluck” sound on all Front Wheel Drive and All-Wheel Drive cars, indicating worn CV Joints. Do a left and a right turn to check both sides.
  • While performing all these driving tests keep an eye for smoke emissions from the exhaust.
  • White smoke indicates oil burning.
  • Black smoke indicates Over Fueling in Petrol Engines.
  • Diesel engines emitting Black Smoke could indicate dirty Filters and/or Injectors and/or a faulty Diesel Pump.

Old Faithful

  • Listen for whistling noises inside the cabin, if present and all the windows are shut, it indicates leaking window and/or door rubber seals.
  • Do a section of driving on a Freeway to obtain a higher driving speed and apply normal braking, if the steering wheel shakes in your hand and you feel a pulsating sensation through the brake pedal, then the front brake rotors are in all probability buckled.
  • Test the Air Conditioner for effectiveness as it is always expensive to repair.
  • Check the power of the vehicle ensure that it matches the size of the engine, sluggishness, jerking, misfiring and backfiring could indicate a loss of compression, bad spark, turbo failure if aspirated, burnt valves or worn piston rings, all of which could be costly repair jobs.
  • Get a general feel for the vehicle, if you are a licensed and/or experienced driver you should have a fairly good feel of how an average vehicle should drive.

Make a mental list of all defects as you go along.

Deciding to buy or not.


Now that you have a better idea of the defects, if any, you are better equipped to make a decision.

  • Enquire about a documented Service History in the form of a service book and check the frequency or Servicing/Repairs, this will give you a general idea whether the vehicle was cared for or not.
  • If the negatives outweigh the positives then walk away, as you may end up with a “LEMON”, a very bad buy.
  • If there are minor problems which will cost a few hundred dollars to repair, then, by all means, negotiate and try to get the best deal possible.
  • Check for any outstanding license fees and warrants, and be sure to add this into your calculations.
  • Ensure that the vehicle is actually owned by the Seller, Proof of Ownership must be verified, even before you go through your tests and checks.

Good Luck and I hope this helps you make a more informed choice on your next car purchase.

What are your thoughts, has this post helped you? Comment below !!

Until Next Time “Safe Motoring”


Gary De La Cruz

I have been 30+ years in the motor industry, still hands on, and have great passion for my chosen profession, I learn new things each day and believe that "if you enjoy your work, you never have to work a day in your life"I believe in honesty, integrity and helping where help is needed.

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