Don’t buy a second hand car without reading this

person being handed car keys in car dealership

Nicholas Muscat

Posted August 06, 2019

Eight things you need to know before buying a used or second-hand vehicle.

Veteran motoring journalist Greg Hill has been testing and reviewing cars at RACV for 37 years so he knows a thing or two about what makes a vehicle tick. We asked him what to consider before buying second-hand.

Eight things to look out for when buying a used car


Choosing what’s right for you

Your neighbour might tell you that his V8 Commodore is the best car on the road because it suits his towing needs, but it may not be the best for you. The first step to buying a car is deciding which one fits your lifestyle. Hatchbacks and small SUVs have strong city driving capabilities, thanks to their light steering and small economical engines. But if your daily drive is long or you like to road trip, the superior ride, stronger performance and features of mid-sized sedans or bigger SUVs might suit you better. There’s no such thing as the perfect car, but the perfect car for you. 

Do your homework... thoroughly

Don’t rush in, do your research. People say, “I bought the first one I saw because I didn’t have time to look around.” But if you’ve worked hundreds of hours to earn the purchase price, you should take at least a couple of days to shop around. Once you’ve picked a vehicle type, evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of different makes and models. Safety, reliability and running costs are vital considerations. Don’t set your heart on one particular model. Test drive and check multiple cars and shortlist the best. When you’ve narrowed down to a model, drive two or three then pick the best to have professionally inspected

Use your resources

Helpful resources for comparing different makes and models include ANCAP’s how safe is your’s running costs survey and used car reviews. For $25, the government-run Personal Property Securities Register will deliver a full vehicle history report indicating if the car has been written off, stolen or has finance owing, as well as registration data and Takata airbag recall information. You will need the car’s VIN or registration number to search it.

What to avoid 

When inspecting a car, have a thorough look and take it for a good test drive. You want to avoid poorly maintained vehicles or one with serious accident damage. Engine oil, transmission fluid and coolant leaks could indicate poor maintenance, as can uneven tyre wear and a poor service history. Poorly fitting panels or mismatched paint can indicate that a car has been in a major crash, and a PPSR report and professional inspection may be able to confirm this. It’s often safer to buy from a dealership than an unknown private seller.


person with hand on steering wheel in car driving at sunset

Taking the time to hire before you buy can make the difference between finding your ideal car and a motoring lemon.

Kilometres don’t tell the whole story 

Kilometres on the clock tell you how far a car has travelled, but that’s just part of the story. How it has travelled those kilometres is important. A car with higher mileage that has been carefully maintained, washed every weekend and regularly serviced might be a better buy than one with lower mileage but a poor service history and some hard living in its past. 

Hire before you buy

If you’re buying a newish car, go to a car-rental firm and hire the model you’re interested in for a few days as an extended test drive (RACV members save 15 per cent on car hire at Thrifty). If you like it, it’ll buy you peace of mind. If it’s uncomfortable, too noisy on the highway or just not for you, keep looking. It’s better to fork out for a couple of days’ car hire than spend thousands on a vehicle you don’t like.

Don’t spend your whole budget 

Never spend your entire budget on the purchase price alone. Allow room for ‘on-road’ costs such as transfer fees, stamp duty and registration, which could shock both you and your bank account. Use VicRoads’ vehicle duty fees calculator to determine these costs. To have a $16,000 car transferred to your name, for example, VicRoads will charge $712 in motor vehicle duty (a type of stamp duty) and transfer fees. Factor in registration renewal and the cost of insurance. If you allow wriggle room in your budget, you’ll also have money on hand for servicing and to get it back on the road if something goes wrong.

The less you spend the more trouble you might buy 

A cheap car isn’t necessarily a bad car, just as an expensive car can be a lemon. But the cheaper the car, the greater your chances of breakdowns and having to spend money to keep it on the road. The higher up-front cost of a newer vehicle may also reward you with lower running costs than an older car and better protection in a crash.