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What to look for when buying a car

By Jane Speechley - 6 May 2017 11

Buying your first car

As far as first car horror stories go, mine is a cracker.

It was a long time before I could even look back with enough fondness to give her a nickname. And even then, the nickname of choice was ‘The Hyundai Deathtrap’.

No offence to Hyundai, of course. It was the individual car – rather than the brand – that was the problem here. Or more specifically, the dodgy dealer.

Bought from one of the (then) larger and seemingly well-established yards on Newcastle Street in Fyshwick, she was a well-priced 1991 Excel hatchback. I congratulated myself on making such a sensible choice.

Stock image sourced from http://www.todoautos.com.pe/f149/club-hyundai-excel-38093/index35.html

Much younger and more naïve then, I didn’t notice the paint colour inside the engine bay was different to the exterior. Weird.

Or that the blueish-white smoke coming from the exhaust might not just be ‘due to the cold weather’ like I was told.

Yes, yes, I know – did I mention I was young and naïve?

Proud new car owner that I was, I kitted her out with every gaudy accessory I could find – including furry black-and-white faux cowhide seat covers, chrome foot pedals and a neon purple gearstick knob.

d8a8850fc82e1bb5bcb0a4dcb5254f99

Super understated, and a total blast for all of the three months she lasted before falling to pieces.

(The story does have a happy ending. It took me seven years and countless court appearances, but I did finally get my money back. With interest. Never did get back my dignity after driving around with those seat covers though …)

In the hope I might spare others such an unpleasant experience, I’ve thrown together a few tips on buying your first, or next, car.

New or used?

This is the first decision, which will guide your choice of car; and there are pros and cons either way.

Used cars are a slightly-less-terrible investment and much cheaper. But they come with existing wear or damage, as well as the risk that you’re buying someone else mistakes and poor quality of care.

New cars are inevitably safe and reliable but are of course, more expensive. And as the cliché goes, you’ll lose most of that money the moment you drive off the lot.

My advice is to shoot for a late model used car. The first thing you should check is the odometer – everything else aside, fewer kilometres means less wear and tear, and less likelihood a few important parts are about to hit the end of their useful life.

Check the service records – these are non-negotiable, in my humble opinion. No service records, no purchase.

Look closely at the condition of the car, especially around the edges – for example, worn on the carpet, scuffing around the doors, handles and locks, even a recently cleaned engine bay. A good detail will hide a lot of sins, but you can find signs that a car has generally been well cared for, or not. Someone who doesn’t care about the car’s appearance might also not care about its mechanics.

Private, auction or dealership?

If you choose to buy your car from a dealership, you’ll likely pay a little more than if buying from a private seller. However, you will get extra protections under the Sale of Motor Vehicles Act 1977, which include things like a three-business-day cooling-off period, guaranteed title over the car, and often some warranty provisions.

(Incidentally, this warranty was what enabled me to take successful action against the dealer that sold me the Deathtrap).

Note however, the list of items not covered by warranty is extensive, and could still provide quite a hit to the hip pocket:

Things not covered by the warranty include tyres, batteries, perishable items such as brake pads and wiper blades, accessories fitted after manufacture such as stereo systems, damage caused by accidents, misuse or negligence after delivery, damage to paintwork or upholstery after delivery, tune-ups or services and tools. (From Access Canberra)

If you buy a car privately, you’re still protected by our basic consumer laws, but the burden is on you to do a few more checks, and you’ll likely have to do a lot more work to chase up any problems. Fair Trading exists to keep businesses in line, but when it comes to private sellers, you’re kinda on your own.

There are a number of questions you must ask, and checks you should complete – I won’t re-write them here because there’s heaps of helpful advice and a great checklist here.

We’re lucky to have access to a few good auction options in Canberra – Pickles and AllBids among them, and you can pick up a great ex-govt fleet car for a song. It’ll likely have higher mileage so be wary of that, but it should’ve been generally well cared for and serviced.

Buying at an auction might feel more like you’re buying from a dealer, but in fact, you should exercise the same degree of care as you would if buying privately. Though if the vehicle is being sold by auction on behalf of a dealer, you may still be covered by the Act.

Brand and parts matter a lot

Now we’ve covered off *how* to buy, we get to the fun part – *what* to buy?

Many people think first about the size of car they need. Big sedan, little hatchback, or even an SUV?

Think very deliberately about what you’ll really use your car for. You might fantasise about long road trips into the country, but if the reality is a daily city commute, that’s going to impact more on your choice of car and how much you enjoy it.

There are many types and sizes of vehicle behind each badge. And contrary to popular belief, fuel is unlikely to be your biggest cost in a car.

When it comes to routine maintenance or in the event of a disaster, the last thing you want is greater expense and delays in time because parts and equipment are so hard to source. Those rare spares might even add to your insurance premium.

One of the best tips I was ever given was to stick to well-known and more common brands because it’s so much easier to find the bits and pieces you need.

Think about the previous owner

We all long for the cliché of the car that was owned by a little old lady who only drove to and from church on Sundays. But it is actually a good approach overall, to think about the kind of person who might’ve driven the car before you.

This is also why it’s generally a good idea to steer away from, for example, high-performance cars.

You might be draw in by their slick looks and cool appeal. And hey, you might get lucky and find one that was owned by a real enthusiast.

More likely, you’ll find it was owned by someone who bought it for what it can do and pushed it to its limits accordingly.

And again, there’s a good chance your insurance company knows that as well and will charge you accordingly.

Mileage really matters

No matter how good a vehicle is to begin with, or how well cared for it has been, the numbers on the odometer are arguably your best indication of how wise a purchase it will prove to be.

That’s because even the best, most loved cars experience wear and tear. Cars are filled with lots of moving parts that wear out, break down, and need to be replaced.

The more kilometres a car has done, the more likely it is those bits and pieces will be due for repair or replacement. And that means a cost to you.

Narrow down your choice to the brand, model and year you like; then filter your options by how many kilometres they’ve travelled.

Most experts will tell you a good benchmark to aim for is 15 000 – 20 000 kilometres for every year of life.

But that’s particularly tough to apply in Canberra, because so many of us drive, and we drive for relatively long distances too.

On the upside, our commutes and road trips tend to be longer, easier drives – with less time sitting in stop-start traffic. And that’s better for your car and less wear-and-tear on the parts.

So if you’re buying a local used car, 20 000, even up to 25 000 kilometres per year, might be a more realistic aim and still a pretty safe bet.

Buying a car

A final word on budget

For most of us, what we can afford to pay will guide our search more than anything.

Everyone loves a bargain, and no one likes the idea of being ripped off. There are various sites where you can get a good idea of the value of a car – RedBook is one of the best known.

However, when it comes to used cars especially (much like in real estate), it’s really the market that sets the price. You’ll get some peace of mind if you remember that.

Don’t get too caught up in what a car *should* be worth. Once you’ve settled on your model of choice, spend a bit of time trawling sites like CarsGuide, CarSales and Drive. You’ll soon get an idea of the upper and lower ends of the price ranges as well as all the averages in between.

That’s your best indication of what you’ll actually have to pay.

Do you have a car buying horror story of your own to share? What are your best tips for buying a first or next car?

Captions: Middle, stock image sourced from http://www.todoautos.com.pe/f149/club-hyundai-excel-38093/index35.html. Above, image from https://au.pinterest.com/pin/436427020120678203.

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11 Responses to
What to look for when buying a car
dungfungus 9:11 pm 13 May 17

devils_advocate said :

dungfungus said :

devils_advocate said :

dungfungus said :

Most manufacturers no longer make manual versions. For example, the Toyota Camry, which is a Japanese car made in Australia, ceased to have a manual version in 2009. This has created a premium price for used Camrys with manual 5 speed transmission.

The Aussie built Camry is one of the best value for money cars ever made. They ill no longer be made in Australia after 2017.

Fair point. My real concern is with the technically complicated “quasi-manuals’ that have entered the market. They actually have a gearbox that is designed with a set of conventional gears, but with various robotics to operate the clutch. They all have various proprietary names. They used to be reserved for high-end sports cars but are gradually filtering into the entry-level econoboxes. The interface for the driver is largely the same – you can put it in drive and go or select gears – but there is no pedal-operated clutch. The problem is they either malfunction for the life of the car or they stop working altogether and cost more to repair than the car is worth (by the time it breaks).
So for me, preference is 1) manual 2) conventional auto slushbox.

These trendy gearboxes that you refer to are dependent of lots of sensors and actuators and when they play up (which they will) they cost a bundle to fix, as you very well point out.

By the way, is someone in the ACT who learnt to drive in an auto allowed to drive a quasi-manual? Their license category prevents them from driving a normal manual I understand.

From memory there was a license condition that said “A” but it went away after a certain number of years or when you got your full license. I can’t really recall because when I was a kid it was such a loser move to do your license test in an auto that I can’t recall anyone ever having done it. So it was all rumour and hearsay.

According to Road Transport (Driver Licensing) Regulation 2000 (which covers 273 pages of absolute gobbledegook), there is a vague mention of it as follows:

22 Learning to drive manual transmission vehicles
(1) This section applies to a person who is the holder of a driver licence that is subject to the condition shown by the driver licence condition code A (which requires the person to drive only a motor vehicle fitted with automatic transmission).

(2) The person may drive a motor vehicle with a manual transmission, of a kind that the person’s licence authorises the person to drive,
if—
(a) the seat next to the person is occupied by a person who holds a
full licence that authorises the person to drive the motor
vehicle; and
(b) L-plates are conspicuously displayed, the correct way up, at the
front and rear of the vehicle or on its roof, and are clearly
visible from ahead of and behind the vehicle.
(3) Subsection (2) (b) does not apply if the person—
(a) is a police trainee undertaking recruit training or assessment;
and
(b) is driving a police vehicle.

Is there someone in ACT Traffic police who reads RA (between arresting felons) who can verify what the regulations actually are?

bigred 2:06 pm 12 May 17

devils_advocate said :

dungfungus said :

Most manufacturers no longer make manual versions. For example, the Toyota Camry, which is a Japanese car made in Australia, ceased to have a manual version in 2009. This has created a premium price for used Camrys with manual 5 speed transmission.

The Aussie built Camry is one of the best value for money cars ever made. They ill no longer be made in Australia after 2017.

Fair point. My real concern is with the technically complicated “quasi-manuals’ that have entered the market. They actually have a gearbox that is designed with a set of conventional gears, but with various robotics to operate the clutch. They all have various proprietary names. They used to be reserved for high-end sports cars but are gradually filtering into the entry-level econoboxes. The interface for the driver is largely the same – you can put it in drive and go or select gears – but there is no pedal-operated clutch. The problem is they either malfunction for the life of the car or they stop working altogether and cost more to repair than the car is worth (by the time it breaks).
So for me, preference is 1) manual 2) conventional auto slushbox.

I cannot let the commentary on the “quasi manuals” go. They are actually the way of the future and, with two disgraceful exceptions involving dry clutch versions are performing very well in day to day service. I have seen them in motorcycles, commercial vehicles and a wide range of cars.

Yes, I have had one for 4 years now (not a dry clutch version) and it has performed admirably. They require a different driving style to a standard automatic and once you get to know each other the experience is really good. I really like the quick down changes it just knows to do, right when you need it.

devils_advocate 9:41 am 12 May 17

dungfungus said :

devils_advocate said :

dungfungus said :

Most manufacturers no longer make manual versions. For example, the Toyota Camry, which is a Japanese car made in Australia, ceased to have a manual version in 2009. This has created a premium price for used Camrys with manual 5 speed transmission.

The Aussie built Camry is one of the best value for money cars ever made. They ill no longer be made in Australia after 2017.

Fair point. My real concern is with the technically complicated “quasi-manuals’ that have entered the market. They actually have a gearbox that is designed with a set of conventional gears, but with various robotics to operate the clutch. They all have various proprietary names. They used to be reserved for high-end sports cars but are gradually filtering into the entry-level econoboxes. The interface for the driver is largely the same – you can put it in drive and go or select gears – but there is no pedal-operated clutch. The problem is they either malfunction for the life of the car or they stop working altogether and cost more to repair than the car is worth (by the time it breaks).
So for me, preference is 1) manual 2) conventional auto slushbox.

These trendy gearboxes that you refer to are dependent of lots of sensors and actuators and when they play up (which they will) they cost a bundle to fix, as you very well point out.

By the way, is someone in the ACT who learnt to drive in an auto allowed to drive a quasi-manual? Their license category prevents them from driving a normal manual I understand.

From memory there was a license condition that said “A” but it went away after a certain number of years or when you got your full license. I can’t really recall because when I was a kid it was such a loser move to do your license test in an auto that I can’t recall anyone ever having done it. So it was all rumour and hearsay.

dungfungus 9:33 pm 10 May 17

devils_advocate said :

dungfungus said :

Most manufacturers no longer make manual versions. For example, the Toyota Camry, which is a Japanese car made in Australia, ceased to have a manual version in 2009. This has created a premium price for used Camrys with manual 5 speed transmission.

The Aussie built Camry is one of the best value for money cars ever made. They ill no longer be made in Australia after 2017.

Fair point. My real concern is with the technically complicated “quasi-manuals’ that have entered the market. They actually have a gearbox that is designed with a set of conventional gears, but with various robotics to operate the clutch. They all have various proprietary names. They used to be reserved for high-end sports cars but are gradually filtering into the entry-level econoboxes. The interface for the driver is largely the same – you can put it in drive and go or select gears – but there is no pedal-operated clutch. The problem is they either malfunction for the life of the car or they stop working altogether and cost more to repair than the car is worth (by the time it breaks).
So for me, preference is 1) manual 2) conventional auto slushbox.

These trendy gearboxes that you refer to are dependent of lots of sensors and actuators and when they play up (which they will) they cost a bundle to fix, as you very well point out.

By the way, is someone in the ACT who learnt to drive in an auto allowed to drive a quasi-manual? Their license category prevents them from driving a normal manual I understand.

Jane Speechley 8:14 pm 10 May 17

devils_advocate said :

3) Match the car to your driving style.

Brilliant advice! Thanks devils_advocate.

devils_advocate 9:58 am 09 May 17

dungfungus said :

Most manufacturers no longer make manual versions. For example, the Toyota Camry, which is a Japanese car made in Australia, ceased to have a manual version in 2009. This has created a premium price for used Camrys with manual 5 speed transmission.

The Aussie built Camry is one of the best value for money cars ever made. They ill no longer be made in Australia after 2017.

Fair point. My real concern is with the technically complicated “quasi-manuals’ that have entered the market. They actually have a gearbox that is designed with a set of conventional gears, but with various robotics to operate the clutch. They all have various proprietary names. They used to be reserved for high-end sports cars but are gradually filtering into the entry-level econoboxes. The interface for the driver is largely the same – you can put it in drive and go or select gears – but there is no pedal-operated clutch. The problem is they either malfunction for the life of the car or they stop working altogether and cost more to repair than the car is worth (by the time it breaks).
So for me, preference is 1) manual 2) conventional auto slushbox.

dungfungus 11:18 am 08 May 17

devils_advocate said :

my experience is:
1) in Australia, Japanese cars represent the best short-term value in terms of purchase price, and long-term value for ongoing maintenance.
2) if money is an object, complicated transmissions are not worth it. Get a manual or a conventional automatic, (or even a CVT) but not some weird hybrid clutch-less manual.
3) Match the car to your driving style. If you have a heavy foot, buying an econ-box won’t save you money because you’ll be wringing the car’s neck all the time.
4) the safety star ratings don’t work across different car types. For example, a 5-star rated hatchback is in NO WAY comparable to a similarly rated SUV for side impact, side intrusion or front impact, even if the SUV is from a few years ago. If safety is an important consideration, do the research and understand how the ANCAP star rating system works (or doesn’t, depending on your perspective).

Most manufacturers no longer make manual versions. For example, the Toyota Camry, which is a Japanese car made in Australia, ceased to have a manual version in 2009. This has created a premium price for used Camrys with manual 5 speed transmission.

The Aussie built Camry is one of the best value for money cars ever made. They ill no longer be made in Australia after 2017.

devils_advocate 9:13 am 08 May 17

my experience is:
1) in Australia, Japanese cars represent the best short-term value in terms of purchase price, and long-term value for ongoing maintenance.
2) if money is an object, complicated transmissions are not worth it. Get a manual or a conventional automatic, (or even a CVT) but not some weird hybrid clutch-less manual.
3) Match the car to your driving style. If you have a heavy foot, buying an econ-box won’t save you money because you’ll be wringing the car’s neck all the time.
4) the safety star ratings don’t work across different car types. For example, a 5-star rated hatchback is in NO WAY comparable to a similarly rated SUV for side impact, side intrusion or front impact, even if the SUV is from a few years ago. If safety is an important consideration, do the research and understand how the ANCAP star rating system works (or doesn’t, depending on your perspective).

Glynis Quinlan 9:44 am 06 May 17

Loved your article, Jane! Like Elias I have only ever owned second-hand cars and I find them much better value-for-money but you do have to be a very careful buyer. I think all your tips are right on the mark! My car horror stories have come about because I then keep those second-hand cars until they completely konk out and are buried at the wreckers. Of course that means I tend to experience a lot of breakdowns before they finally die. My first car as a 17-year-old (although it was technically not really mine) was a Datsun 180B without a working muffler. If I came home late at night the entire neighbourhood knew about it!

dungfungus 9:42 am 06 May 17

I have found the best “insurance” is to consult internet forums on the exact model/make you are considering.

For example, you could Google “problems with 2005 Strumbuggy Turbo Coupe” and discover that they are notorious for failed clutches and coolant pumps around 150,000 km.
Then check the service records to see if these events have happened and they have been rectified and then negotiate with the seller to adjust the price accordingly.

Most diesels sold since 2000 have “diesel particulate filters” (DPFs) and these are prone to fail if the vehicle is only used for short distance driving. They usually start to “play up” and make the vehicle go into “limp home mode” when you are somewhere miles from a service point and they cost up to $3,000 to replace. They are not covered by warranty as they are conveniently called “consumables”.

Actually, diesels are totally overrated and should be avoided.

Beware.

Elias Hallaj (aka CB 7:58 am 06 May 17

Good advice Jane! I’ve only ever owned second hand cars that have already depreciated in value a fair bit. Most people don’t realise depreciation is often the biggest cost in owning a car, so your advice about buying a good second hand car is Wise if you want to save money. My current beast is a nineteen year old Prado (I needed the seven seats to transport kids around & Canberra has some awesome 4WD tracks within a short drive). Luckily for me I picked it up from someone who had never taken it off-road, so even though it had done a few kilometres, they were pretty gentle kilometres for a 4wd.

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