Purchasing a second hand vehicle can be fraught with danger if you don't know what you're doing. The best advice we can give you is "consider taking someone knowledgeable with you".
Always get an independent mechanical inspection, regardless of how clever you are mechanically!
Here are a few tips which might help you;
When buying a used car you're going to come across a number of Used Car Salesman, some of whom you will quickly determine if you want to do business with them or not. If you find the salesman or saleswoman to be the kind of person you would like to have a beer or cup of coffee with then you're onto a winner, if on the other hand they seem a bit dodgy (you can tell very quickly) then you should stay away from them and the vehicles they offer you. You need to always feel comfortable and not pressured! A salesman's job is to sell you something and some of them can be quite pushy, they think this is ok but in reality it isn't. The thought of additional money, by way of a commission, can change people and you are a meal ticket for them. You need to be able to make your decision based on the facts and not because you feel pressured into buying. The way a Salesman dresses, their appearance, how they walk, their mannerisms, posture, and body language all tell you a lot About a them. When they speak to you, listen to what they say and how they say it. Are they condescending in any way? Does their tone and spoken word show they respect you or do they appear to have a "holy than thou" attitude.
Regardless, you must always be ease and never on the back foot - you are in control - not them!
The way a car looks, in most cases, can tell you a great deal about it and how it was treaded by its previous owner. A well presented vehicle that has obviously been looked after is a big plus. Remember though, most dealers send their cars out to be professionally cleaned, or have in house detailers, to make them look shinny and new. When a car is particularly bad a professional clean wont cover up poor external appearances. Dents, faded paint, scratches etc. Having said that, some vehicles with metallic paint are prone to fading because of poor quality paint and preparation at the factory. Sometimes dents and scratches can't be avoided, but they are all signs of how a vehicle was driven and looked after. Vehicle detailers can do wonders with an acid wash, a quick buff, and some good old fashioned elbow grease. Whilst these small things might not amount to much, in the overall scheme of things they're the kind of stuff you need to look for.
Carefully examine the paintwork and look for colour changes between panels. If one panel is a slightly different shade or panels are faded while one of them is shiny and has good colour - these things suggest paint has been applied. That may not be a problem because people get dents and other defects repaired all the time, but they are tell tale signs of a possible accident in the past.
You should carefully listen to how the engine sounds. Even if you don't know anything About engines you can tell a lot by how smoothly an engine runs and sounds. Did it start without using the throttle? Does it run rough? Is it blowing any blue smoke on start up or while running? Do you hear any rhythmic tap-tap-tap sounds? Some of the 2000 - 2002 Mitsubishi Tritons were prone to blowing blue smoke out the back and it was often caused by nothing more than a blocked Positive Crank Ventilation (PCV) Valve, although in some cases it was more sinister - Valve Stem Oil Seals for example.
Look at the oil, is it clean and fresh or black and dirty. Remember that vehicles running on Gas tend to be very clean and the oil is often clean looking. Smell the oil, does it smell burnt? On a non-gas vehicle very fresh looking oil means the dealer has probably changed the it. That's a good thing, but be aware that all you can tell from the oil is that it has been changed - you don't know what it was like before.
Do some research! Some vehicles have known faults and you need to be aware of a possible repair bill in the future. Again, the 2000 to 2003 Kia Carnivals were notorious for blowing engines within the first 80,000 Kilometres. This was due to a wet-sleeve system that allowed water into the combustion chambers, which in turn blew the engine to bits. We I was sell cars and were trading in a Carnival we would always verify with Kia that the engine had been already been rebuilt. There are known problems with most cars, do a little hunting around and you will discover what they are.
Look at key items
You should look under the Oil Cap for foam or other discoloration and check the oil level to ensure it's correct. Interestingly, a vehicle whose oil has been overfilled is just as bad as one with low oil.
Look inside the radiator and see if the coolant is the right colour and free of any debris floating around. A well maintained car with 300,000KM on the clock will look and sound better than a badly maintained one with only 100,000KM on it. Floaties in the radiator might indicate that someone has put a bottle of "Liquid Head Gasket" in to cover up a much larger problem.
Drive the vehicle and take note of how it feels on the road, does it feel stable and do the brakes pull you up smoothly and straight or does it pull to the left of right? Does the brake pedal pulsate up and down when you apply the brakes? Are there any unusual vibrations of noises. Keep an eye on the temperature gauge, does the temperature change when you turn on the air conditioning?
On a flat and straight bit of road take your hands off the wheel and see if it continues to drive straight or does it pull to one side. Test all speed ranges looking for any vibrations which might indicate a simple wheel balance issue.
Pay attention and make a mental note of how it drove. If you have concerns talk to someone you trust who knows something About cars. The salesman will probably try to explain away anything you discover, and he might be right. Remember, most of them you can trust but some you can't.
Remember that the cars you're looking at are not new and therefore minor problems may be present. In such cases some dealers will offer to repair defects, noises, clunks and rattles. They're the guys you want to deal with! If someone says to you "sorry you have to buy it as is" then you should be wary. Use repairs as a bargaining tool, say to them "I will buy this car if you repair the following defects!". Let's face it - you don't get if you don't ask!
It is important that you know that some of the things to look for do not always indicate trouble, for example a foaming oil cap could simply be a build up of moister which is common if a vehicle is not driven regularly ( some times a car might not be driven for a week or two at a yard ). If you are unsure then get an Independent Mechanical Inspection, not a mate or a friend, but a professional - someone not attached or known to the yard you are dealing with. They can be independent and offer you valuable advice based on many years of experience. Some vehicles have known issues and that's a fact of life.
At the end of the day, it is not a new car and there are bound to minor issues.
It is vital that you perform a REVS check to ensure the vehicle has no money owing on and that no finance companies have an interest in it. I know people who paid cash for a vehicle only to have it repossessed because the previous owner didn't pay out their loan.
Check the National Vehicle Service Register to see if the vehicle has a Service History. A REVS & NVSR check are free, so what have you got to lose.
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Formally known as R.E.V.S Check you can determine if money is owing on a Vehicle before purchasing.
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