Buying a used car? These tips can help you avoid costly repairs

Have you ever purchased a used car and later found that it required expensive repairs? This is not uncommon, but you can avoid expensive repairs if you know what to look for when buying a used car.

A woman looking at car for sale

Source: Getty Images/JGI/Jamie Grill

Key Points
  • The VIN is the best tool to determine a used car’s history.
  • If you end up buying a stolen car, the vehicle can be taken away from you.
  • The Australian Consumer Law applies only to used cars purchased from a car dealership.
Tim Nicholson works at Royal Automotive Club of Victoria (RACV), managing the road test program and acting as a judge for the show 'Australia’s Best Cars'.

When buying a used car, he says the smartest choice is to go for the safest car you can afford.

Mr Nicholson says the biggest risk in buying a second-hand car is not knowing whether the vehicle has a hidden past that can cause expensive and inconvenient problems down the track.
Things you should look for when buying a used car image

Have you ever purchased a used car and later found that it required expensive repairs? This is not uncommon, especially if you are not a skilled technician who knows how to inspect a vehicle thoroughly. But doing your homework and following some tips can help you find a safe and reliable car that suits your needs and budget.

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Check the VIN

To determine if a used car has been in an accident or whether it has been regularly serviced, Mr Nicholson suggests checking the vehicle's history with the vehicle identification number, more commonly known as the VIN.

This unique serial number serves as a car’s fingerprint and can be used to track recalls, registrations, warranty claims, thefts and insurance coverage.

When buying a used car from a private owner, Mr Nicholson says the VIN is also the best tool to find out if the car has finance owing on it.

If you are buying a second -hand car privately, there’s a possibility that the current owner hasn’t fully paid it off yet.
Young handsome caucasian man looking under car hood.
Source: Getty Images/urbazon

Logan Sommers currently owns his third second-hand car.

He says before purchasing a car, you should ensure the VIN on the car matches the VIN on the vehicle registration document and the logbook. A mismatch could indicate that the car, or parts of that car, are stolen.

You don’t want to be involved in that. If it’s stolen, then the car can be taken from you.

Inspecting a used car

Even if you don’t know a lot about cars, there are things you can look for to find out if the car has damages, faults or poor service history.

  • Always inspect a car on a dry day because rain can make cars look shiny and hide body defects.
  • Check the overall paint condition on each body panel and the roof, looking for scratches, dents and rust.
  • Inspect underneath the car and look for any signs of oil, coolant or other leaks that may indicate a repair need.
  • Look for uneven tire wear, which could mean problems with the wheel alignment or suspension of the car.
  • Check the engine oil level with an oil dipstick before and after taking the car for a test drive.
  • Starting the car when the engine is cold. A particularly smelly smoke means engine problems which could result in expensive repairs. 


Private seller vs Car Dealership

Technical Editor at, Ken Gratton, says that although you may find a slightly better price with a private seller than at a licensed motor vehicle dealership, it is important to know that private sellers aren’t obliged to disclose potential problems even if they’re aware of them.

Mr Gratton says purchasing a car from a reputable dealer can remove some of the pressure from a buyer because at a car dealership:

  • they have probably thoroughly inspected used cars they offer for sale
  • they must guarantee there's no money owing on the car
  • they can help with the paperwork, including transfer of title and registration
  • in some states, they must provide a used car statuary warranty
Most dealers will supply a car with a used car warranty but also, if there is a problem outside the warranty, your case may still be covered by the Australian Consumer Law.
The Australian Consumer Law does not apply to used cars purchased from a private seller.

You can also find useful information on your state transport authority and consumer affairs websites. 

Or check out the NSW Fair Trading video on how to inspect a used car and what to look for before settling on your new second-hand car.

3 min read
Published 26 March 2021 at 5:21pm
By Josipa Kosanovic