According to a leading Australian car history checking company, more than one in four used cars sold in Australia every year conceals an issue. And for the unlucky minority who buy used vehicles with issues, these can cost them an average of around $2,000 in additional out of pocket expenses.
This isn’t surprising considering that the average car has over 10,000 moving parts, and that many issues can be difficult for the layperson to pick up. Which mean used car buyers are at significant risk of paying a premium to buy someone else’s car problems.
It is always advisable to have a used car assessed by a trustworthy third party like a mechanic or assessment centre. However, before you incur the expense of an expert assessment, consider checking the car for any of the following red flag issues.
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1. Service book
All new cars are issued with service books and manuals, so the first thing you should get hold of is a used car’s original service document. This will give you the clearest possible indication of whether or not the car was maintained according to manufacturer specifications. Generally the availability of a service book will also speak volumes about how the car was treated by previous owners.
If the service book is available and up to date, the car was probably treated well. If it was lost or servicing was not conducted at the recommended intervals, it’s possible the owner will have left a mark on the car in other ways. If a service book is not available, you can still check up on the car’s service history with its manufacturer as there may be computer records available. If no records are available, you may want to give the car a miss.
2. Tyre problems
Look out for a brand new set of tyres on a used car. New tyres enhance the appearance of a used vehicle, but can also conceal some mechanical issues that would otherwise leave their fingerprints on an older set of tyres.
If the used car has an older set of tyres, look out for:
- uneven wear of tyres, particularly differences between the tyres on either side of the car which can point to a number of more serious issues with the car’s steering, wheel alignment or braking system
- uneven wear on the tyres themselves, so that one tyre edge has worn tread while the tread on the other side demonstrates relatively little wear. This points to tire alignment issues that could have knock-on effects on other car systems.
3. Electrical faults
Some of the most expensive issues in cars can stem from electrical systems. Fortunately testing these is relatively straightforward:
- ask the seller to sit in the car and activate all the car’s lighting systems and check that these are working properly (headlights, fog lights, indicators, interior lights, etc)
- check that the onboard computer display, if present, is working and presenting information, and that relevant controls on the dashboard are working
- test all electric windows
- lock and unlock the car using the remote locking system
- test the air-conditioning unit
- don’t forget to test the sound system by sitting in the car with the engine off, turning up the volume on the radio gradually and checking for rattles or other unusual noises that could indicate loose or blown speakers.
Rust is a car killer and you should stay clear of any car that shows evidence of rusting or rust repairs.
A basic rust check includes the following steps:
- inspect door edges (which are easily exposed to paint scrapes) and hinges
- from the front of the car look down the side of the car and look out for ripples or bumps in the bodywork – these are evidence of panel repairs which may include rust repairs
- lift up the carpet in the car’s trunk and check the exposed metal for rust
- use a flashlight to inspect the underside of the car for rust. Look out for sections of the undercarriage that appear to be in a significantly better condition than the surrounding areas, as this indicates recent repairs for rust or other problems
- while you’re looking at the underside of the car inspect the wheel wells for rust
- pop the car’s hood and inspect the shock or strut towers – these can be located at the corners of the engine compartment near the windshield.
5. Accident damage
A collision can result in numerous long term mechanical and electrical problems in a car. Unfortunately it is possible to conceal accident damage in the short term by repairing the car’s chassis and immediate mechanical issues, which makes it possible to sell accident damaged vehicles to unwary buyers. With this in mind a used car should always be checked for accident damage.
Check for obvious signs of accident damage repair by crouching in front of the car with a clear line of sight down the vehicle’s side. Accident damage may show up as ripples in the paintwork, or panels which are out of alignment. Also look out for subtle variations in paintwork colour, as these indicate respraying following a repair.
Once you have done this you can use a soft magnet (the type used on fridge magnets and business cards) and a piece of paper to check for the use of the non-metallic fillers commonly used to repair accident damage.
To do this:
- place the paper and then the magnet on any panel where you spotted an issue. If the magnet does not adhere to the car, but does adhere to an adjacent area or panel, then that section has been repaired
- if you can’t see any visible evidence of accident damage, test every major panel on the car in at least once place, and make a note of any areas where the magnet does not stick.
Note that if the magnet does not adhere to any panel on the car, the car’s chassis is built with aluminium or fibreglass, and the results of this test are going to be inconclusive.
In some cases an owner will disclose accident damage to you prior to inspection. When you pick up undisclosed accident damage, rather move on and start looking for another car. Hidden accident damage is most likely the tip of the iceberg.
6. Leaks and smoke emissions
You don’t want to see either of these. Ask the seller to start the car’s engine and look out for dark smoke from the exhaust system. A small amount of smoke is normal for older cars, but persistent smoke of any colour is a major indicator of an underlying issue.
Move the car away from the place it was parked and inspect that area for recent (wet) oil stains. Stop the car and turn off the engine and use your flashlight to inspect the underside of the car for any leaking fluids.
7. Poor performance
Taking a car for a test drive is important for two reasons. Firstly it will give you an idea of whether or not the car is a good fit for you and a comfortable drive. See if you feel cramped for space, whether the seats offer enough support and if the car’s driving controls feel comfortably positioned and accessible. Secondly a test drive gives you important information on the car’s condition.
Don’t hesitate to take the car up to the legal speed limit while testing it. Many problems will only become apparent at higher speeds.
Here are some things to look out for:
- engine noises such as hissing, knocking and screeching
- shuddering when you let the clutch out on manual transmission cars, as well as any roughness when shifting between gears in both manual and automatic cars
- vibrations or shaking from the front of the car while driving over 100 km/h
- steering wheel vibrations
- vibrations or shaking while braking
- pulling to the side – this is best tested in an empty lot, where you can take the car up to 20 km/h then let go of the steering to assess if it pulls to the side
- loose braking – the pedal gives a soft response and the vehicle pulls to either side when braking
- a leaning feeling when taking corners, as well as a juddering or bouncy ride that could indicate worn shock absorbers
- smoke from the car’s exhausts while at a cruising speed. Some smoke during acceleration from a stop is acceptable.
8. A suspect past
If a car passes muster with the checks above, and you are interested in purchasing the vehicle, consider using an online service to run a background check on the car.
For a small fee you’ll be able to use the car’s VIN number or rego number to check:
- whether there is any money owed on the car by the current owner
- whether the car has been stolen or written off
- an indication of what the car’s odometer reading should be
- the vehicle’s sales history.
If the car comes out of its history check with a green light, you can take the step of driving the car to an assessment centre or having it checked by a professional mechanic.
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