The world of buying used cars is in many respects a scary one, with persisting notions of that dodgy used car salesman and horror stories of friends not getting what they bargained for. Compound that with the fact that it’s not the sort of thing anyone does too often and we could all use a bit of advice when we’re in the market.

In the end, we all just have to get a little bit savvy. Here are ten tips we’ve put together for you to keep in mind as you look to buy a used car…

It's not always a bad experience, do your research // Photo: Mark Coggins

It’s not always a bad experience, do your research // Photo: Mark Coggins

1. Know what you want

Before jumping online or heading to your local used car dealership, take stock of what it is that you actually want. What features do you need? Is there a particular brand you favour? What’s your budget? How important is fuel economy to you? Having a clear mind about these things will save you from much indecision later on. Have a checklist handy with these things so you’re looking at it as a reminder for each and every car you look at.

2. Do your research

If you’ve narrowed your search down to a few key models, continue by doing some more research – The Internet is the best thing to happen for buyers of all things and cars are no different. Find the history of the model that you are considering. Are they reliable? How do they hold up in various tests? Have they sold well or have models been recalled? The last thing you want is to buy an awesome car then have it cost you a bucket load years later in parts and service costs.

3. Know your prices

Your research should also extend to finding how much the model that you are interested in commonly sells for as a used car. The Red Book used to be a tiny little book car salesmen would use to check this, and today it’s a website everyone can access. Once you know the range you are dealing with, stick with it. Car dealers may be persuasive, but remember, you only buy a few cars in your lifetime. Don’t go over your budget!

4. Always test drive

One of the golden rules of buying a used car is this: test drive. Even if the used car you want is selling at a bargain price, insist on going on at least one test drive. Is the used car comfortable and easy to handle? Does it have enough power? These are all important concerns that you can’t always tell by the specifications or advertisement. Always test drive. Always. And – refer back to your checklist!

5. Check the build date

There’s a difference between the build date and compliance date – if you don’t know the difference, that’s something extra to research. It’s important to know the build date when you’re trying to find a used car as some dealers may try to sell you a car older than what they say it is.

6. Come closer…

Look closely at the paint finishing – are there inconsistencies or patchy parts? If so, this might indicate that there has been some respraying going on. Are there small dents on the headlights, or scratches on the tyres? Don’t be afraid to ask the car salesman or person selling your car what happened. It’s your right to know if you’re thinking of becoming the new owner!

7. Go through a used car checklist

Checking the finishing is just one item on a very long checklist that you should go through. We’re not talking about the things you want in a car, we’re talking about the things to look for when checking out a used car. Do an easy search online, download a list, and slowly work your way through it, taking into account things such as bodywork, windows and doors, electrics, interior, tyres, engine, and suspension.

8. Ask for documentation

Always ask for the car log and any other registration papers. If the car dealer is reluctant to give you full records of service and work done to the car, you should strongly reconsider proceeding with the purchase. You don’t want the headache of having a recurring problem with your new used car, all because the car dealer failed to disclose it to you at the time of purchase.

9. Don’t be afraid to get a professional inspection

You can research, you can test drive, and you can scrutinise documentation, but at the end of the day, it’s wise to fork out that extra $100 for a professional examination of the used car you are planning to purchase, especially if it’s not from a commercial dealer. You’re in a buyer’s market here, so take advantage of it.

10. Think long-term

Sure this used car may be great for your next three years, but it’s wiser to think long-term about your purchase. What will be the car’s resale value five years down the line? How about ten years? Would it be worthwhile to pay an extra $1000 for a better model now offering a greater return?

It’s a tough market at any time for the infrequent buyer, so take your time.