Since buying a car is such a big investment, it is important to inspect the vehicle for faults before spending the money. Follow this checklist to make sure you are making a smart decision.
- If possible, choose a bright, sunny day to inspect the vehicle. This will make it easier for you to visually inspect the car. Bringing a torch will allow you to clearly see all of the components under the bonnet.
Alternatively, a rainy day will allow you to check the status of the wipers and demisters, as well as make it easy to see any leaks in the vehicle.
- The cheaper the vehicle, the more likely there is something wrong with it. Higher price generally means higher quality.
- A Warrant of Fitness and Vehicle Registration certify that a vehicle is in a legal, driveable condition. Don’t buy a vehicle that doesn’t have a valid WOF. Be sure to check the expiry date on the WOF and registration.
- Bring a friend with you. Two opinions are more valuable than one. If possible, choose a friend that works in the automotive industry or has a good level of car knowledge.
- Take your time when inspecting the vehicle. Don’t take the seller’s word – check for yourself.
- Always test drive the vehicle before buying it.
Inspecting the exterior:
Check all tyres for deflation, bulges on the sides and peeling around the tyre’s circumference from retreading. Look out for worn patches, especially on the sides showing canvas or wires. Use your flashlight to inspect the tyre if necessary.
Check the tread depth of each tyre, ensuring that they are at least 1.5mm deep across the tyre (the legal limit).
Ask the seller to show you where the spare tyre is stored. Check the status of the spare tyre and ensure that the correct tyre changing equipment is included. Keep in mind that to pass a Warrant of Fitness, your spare wheel needs to be in good condition.
Doors and windows:
Make sure that each door locks and unlocks with the key and remote. Make sure that all panels are aligned correctly. Check the lock on the boot and make sure that the boot stays in place when closed.
Make sure the all door and window rubbers are correctly positioned so that the door can close properly.
As well as being a hassle, a loose window panel will create security and safety risks. Wind all of the windows down and back up again to check their functionality. Listen for any squeaking or jamming.
Make sure to get all spare keys from the owner. Modern keys are very expensive.
Examine the vehicle for rust damage, particularly on edges, corners and structural support points. We recommend that you look in the following places:
- Under the bonnet.
- Around and under the engine.
- Around the tyres.
- The firewall.
- The pillars.
- The boot.
- The spare tyre.
- The suspension components.
- Around and underneath the doors.
- Beneath the car (with a flashlight if necessary).
- Anywhere else you can.
Keep an eye out for any uneven, bubbled paint. This may have been placed to hide vehicle rust. Use a magnet to determine whether a surface is metal or not. If the magnet doesn’t stick, the surface may be a fiberglass replacement which was used to mask the results of a crash or collision.
Take note as to how the vehicle sits. Does it lean to one side? If so, the shock absorbers or springs may be worn or defective.
Use both hands to apply pressure to each corner of the vehicle, pushing it towards the ground. When you let go, examine how the vehicle responds. If the suspension is in good condition, the car will return to its normal level in a single bounce. If the car bounces multiple times, the suspension may be damaged or worn.
Look for signs of oil leaking from the car’s suspension struts. This could affect the car’s ability to pass its next Warrant of Fitness.
Inspecting the interior:
Make sure that the seats (particularly the driver’s seat) are comfortable and adjustable. Make sure that the seats can recline as well as move backwards and forwards. Sit in the driver’s seat and make sure that you are easily able to access the brake, accelerator, wheel and clutch (if manual).
Make sure that the seatbelts work correctly and clip together, including the seat belts in the back seat.
Check underneath the seat covers for stains, cigarette burns and other damage.
Get a friend to check that the car’s brake lights work correctly by standing behind the vehicle while you apply the brakes. Check the headlights, high-beam lights and indicators to make sure that they all function correctly.
Start the car to check the status of the dashboard. Make sure that all gauges work correctly and accurately. If any dashboard warning lights stay on while the engine is running, you should get them diagnosed before purchasing the vehicle, otherwise you may have to pay expensive repair costs.
Always check the number of kilometres the car has travelled, despite what the seller may have told you. The higher the number, the more prone the car will be to malfunctioning.
Make sure that the windscreen wipers work smoothly. Squirt wiper fluid onto the windscreen and test their effectiveness. Listen for squeaking noises and watch out for a smeary finish as the wipers move across the windscreen.
- Test whether the horn works.
- Check under seats and carpets for any rust or leakages.
- Check the status of the stereo and speakers. Make sure the radio has reception.
- Make sure that the CD, auxiliary or Bluetooth functions work on the car’s head unit (if applicable).
- Make sure the heater and air conditioning work correctly.
- Make sure the mirrors can be adjusted.
- Make sure the servicing sticker is present on the windscreen.
- Ask the owner about any accident or water damage.
- Have you considered purchasing an aftermarket vehicle warranty?
- Have you organised insurance for the vehicle?
- Have you considered Roadside Assistance cover?
Checking under the bonnet:
Start the car with the bonnet up and listen to the engine. Does it sound healthy? Get your friend to rev the engine up to 2000 RPM with the vehicle set to park or neutral, your foot on the brake and the handbrake fully engaged. Listen to the tone of the engine. Make sure that the engine revs smoothly and doesn’t rattle at a certain level.
Visually inspect the engine assembly for any cracked, rust or worn parts. Look out for damaged hoses and petrol leaks.
Remove the engine oil dipstick and check the colour of the oil. Ideally, it should be light brown and clear if it is clean oil. Black, carbon-like oil means that the oil needs changing.
Remove the rocker cover oil filter cap and look for signs of white residue. This could indicate water in the oil or a worn engine.
Inquire about when the vehicle last had an oil change and look at the service sticker on the windscreen.
Be cautious about buying a vehicle if you don’t know when the cambelt was last changed. Often, mechanics will leave written notes on the engines cambelt compartment or on the vehicle’s manual. These notes should state when the cambelt was last changed (in KM).
A car’s cambelt should be changed at least every 100,000 KM
If these details are not present, ask the seller about the vehicle’s cambelt history.
Carefully check the radiator for leaks and rust damage. Ask the seller if the vehicle has any history of overheating. Check the coolant levels and inquire about when they were last changed.
Turn the vehicle on and let it idle for a few minutes, then rev the engine to 2000 RPM with your foot on the brake, the handbrake fully applied and the the vehicle set to park or neutral. Get your friend to keep an eye out for any black smoke coming from the exhaust. This can be a sign of a damaged or worn engine.
Make sure that there are NO fumes in the car while you are driving or the engine is running.
Ask the seller when the oil, coolant, and other fluids were last replaced. Also be sure to ask for any documents related to the car’s servicing history.
Test driving the vehicle:
- Listen for strange noises such as shuddering in the engine, squeaking while turning, clunking when changing gears and squealing when applying brakes.
- Test the acceleration – does the vehicle accelerate and change gear smoothly?
- Make sure the vehicle’s temperature stays at a healthy level. Lower or higher temperatures can mean a damaged cooling system.
- Test the car’s CV joints by performing sharp turns at a slow speed. If you hear loud clicking coming from the front of the vehicle, the joints may be worn.
- In a manual vehicle, rapidly change gears. Does the gearbox make clunking noises? If so it may be damaged.
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