Ask Lifehacker: What Should I Look For When Buying A Car?

Dear Lifehacker, I am heading to Brisbane on Wednesday to look for a car. Being more-so from a “geek” background I myself do not have the greatest idea of what to look for in a car. I was wondering if you have any tips on the things to look for when buying a new or used car? Cheers, Aaron

Dear Aaron,

Rather more fervently than is normal for the Ask Lifehacker column, I’m going to throw this one open to the readers straight away. I’m a lifelong non-driver, so while I could throw out some obvious pointers in terms of used cars — check for visible signs of damage, ask to see a maintenance history, research the prices for similar vehicles on sites such as Red Book, Carsguide and eBay — I couldn’t claim any of that was informed by actual experience. So readers, if you’ve got any vital tips for buying a car, please share them in the comments.

The one quick resource I will offer is who to get in contact with in each state to check the actual ownership details for a car — no-one wants to buy a vehicle and discover it was stolen. Here’s the numbers you need:

NSW, ACT and NT: Register of Encumbered Vehicles, 9633 6333 (Sydney) or 1800 424 988 (elsewhere), Victoria: Vehicle Securities Register, 131 171 Queensland: Register of Encumbered Vehicles, 1300 658 030 South Australia: Vehicle Securities Register, 131 084 Western Australia: Register of Encumbered Vehicles, 1300 304 024 Tasmania: DIER Motor Registry, 1300 135 513,

Good luck with the car shopping!

Cheers Lifehacker


  • No where near enough info – need:

    1) What will the car be used for? Short commute or longer trips?
    2) Budget – new or used?
    3) Preference for car size
    4) Interested in how it drives or A to B?

  • This may be an obvious point to make, but given recent circumstances, buyers beware the flood damaged cars from QLD that will most likely be transported to other states then sold with dealers claiming they are unaware of the background history of the car.

    Background checks are essential.

    Vehicles damaged by flooding will be more prone to rust, mould, and all other kinds of car-cancer that will cause the car to fall apart on you sooner rather than later – The “wet dog” smell that can’t be masked regardless of the amount of new car scent they have sprayed around is a nice big hint.

  • Eh.. check for water damage if you’re buying in Brisbane!
    Apart from that,
    the owner says a lot about how the car has been looked after.. If they’re male and less than 30, they’re more likely to have thrashed the guts out of the engine and transmission.
    Check the service history, and the colour of the oil.. Should have a be brown, not black!
    Check the handbrake works, bounce each corner of the car and see how long it takes to stop bouncing.. (should stop immediately)
    Listen for clicking sounds on a hard lock turn in a front wheel drive/AWD to check if the CV joints are buggered.
    Look for bodgy repairs (use a magnet if you suspect anything’s been filled with putty).
    Check that the tyres (including the spare) are at barest minimum, legal, and preferably have some life left in them.
    Check the rego and roadworthiness certificate (if QLD has them).

    and steer clear of spoilers, they’re non-aerodynamic junk that makes it hard to see out the rear window.

  • A lot of these tips are based on my experience of buying bombs but I am not a mechanic or involved in the industry.
    * Check under the wheel arches and anywhere that dirt/sand/gravel/mud can collect under the car. If you find a lot of mud then it is possible the car has been driven through flood waters. Sand means on beach, gravel possibly off road.
    * Line yourself up as close to the car as you can get and look along the bodywork of the car. Afternoon or morning is the best (or night if there is good lighting). Look for evidence of major bodywork repairs, hail damage etc.
    * Check trim and windshield for spray paint splatters. Spots of paint where they don’t belong is evidence of major repairs.
    * Check that the radiator smells OK – old cars with dodgy cooling systems have a strong ‘rusty’ odour.
    * Check major bolts and nuts for evidence of being worked on, e.g. if a car is in good nick it is unlikely that there is any reason to remove the doors!
    * Give a tug on each wheel – the wheel should not move. If the bearings or linkages are loose then repairs will be needed.
    * Push down hard on the back of the car (be careful not to dent the bodywork). The car should go down and up and not keep bouncing (bouncing indicates problems with the shocks).
    * The inside of the exhaust should be a nice grey
    * Look for signs that the car has been used properly (neither hoon or little old lady). Engines have an optimal rpm – too much or too little leads to premature wear (at least that is what I have been told).
    * Check under floor mats and seats. You are looking for evidence of submersion and also just how grotty the owner’s have been. The cleaner the hidden bits are the more likely the owner has maintained the car properly.
    * Look carefully for rust bubbles. This means the rust is on the inside and not the surface. You do not want a rusty car. Look for the obvious rust (under windows, back windscreen, door pillars) and also get down low and look under and around the inside of the doors. Check the drain holes under the door.
    * Get a vehicle inspection by a mechanic or a motorist’s association before handing over money. Make sure you understand what the report means. Like geeks, mechanics have their own special language!
    * The worst car I ever bought was from a friend!
    * If you are after a very cheap car go to the snottiest car yards. If you are luck they might have a trade-in that is about to be shipped off to the auctions because they don’t want that piece of junk in their yard. Got my son a nice car that way!
    * Take someone else with you when looking at the cars. Try and let the salesman think that the other person is the one they have to persuade! It gives you time to think about what is being said and time to look properly at what is on offer.
    * Finally used-car salesman can be very good at selling. I’ve been told some awful lies by some sellers so be on your guard.

  • Thanks guys,

    alot of usefull information there,

    and just so you all know. I had already planned buying it from brisbane and had organised finance.

    Little hard to change. =\

    But I will definatly be using these ideas, big thanks to topcat and stevethedevo for your excellent tips 🙂

    and thanks to you Angus, may I ask. How do you find life without a car at all? Because I have only been in this situation recently. Understandably we have 2 completely different circumstances. i.e you work from home – I work 20 minutes out of town… etc.

    Thanks =]

    • Living without a car? You don’t miss what you’ve never had, and there’s less than 100 years of human history where a car has been deemed “essential” in western society.

      Living in a major city, I use lots of public transport (and have always lived near a train line). When I worked in the CBD, a train was more practical than driving anyway. And you can take a lot of taxis for the price of insurance and rego.

      When I lived in a regional town, I cycled quite a bit (I cycle in Sydney for exercise, but not for transit as I don’t trust the traffic). And everywhere I am, I walk a lot – it’s only when the walk tops an hour that I’ll think twice about it.

    • All very good advice, just a few more points:
      1) Never, ever buy a car that had a “mechanic” for an owner, experience tells me they cut corners on their own car and attempt repairs they are not qualified for.
      2)Buy a post 2000 car, anything prior to that is a junker.
      3)Go to the newsagency and buy a copy of “The Dog and Lemon Guide” it’s about $25 and worth every cent.
      4) If you like a car, especially a private sale (no cooling down or warranty period for a private sale), spend the money on a check by the RACQ. Well worth the money.
      5)Do not ever buy the extended warranty on a car from the dealership. They have more exit clauses and rarely pay out. If you want an extended warranty, shop around and buy direct from the insurer.

  • Angus,

    I commend you for your efforts, I am a perfect example for why generation Y is bad..

    I am lazy, and a hypocryte.. A deadly combination, and although most Gen Y’s will not admit. I will happily admit on behalf. We are mostly lazy.

    Got any old posts on how to break bad habits, or excercising (not for tone or muscle, just general wellbeing).

    I remeber when I was younger, somehow my mother convinced me into doing Pilates every morning for 4 weeks. As much as I hated it at the time, I now see it was a great thing and by the end of the 4 weeks I was feeling great!

    You should do a post on “lazy fitness”, either that, or let me do it =P

    That is something I would not be lazy about.

    • There is a Bible for this. as one may turn to Lifehacker for all sorts of generalist width of knowledge and specialist tech-zeitgeist stuff, one does well to seek advice from people with wide and specialist knowledge in the area of……cars. It’s called The Dog And Lemon Guide (just google it). It costs $20 at the newsagent if you can find one (it’s the size of a small phone book) and is written by complete cynics. It manages to be fun, funny, and deadly seriously informative. The 2-page tips on how to buy a car are worth it alone. Actually reviews cars in terms of whether they do what they’re supposed to do, from the basics up. I might save you the twenty bucks though and quote a well-respected motorcycle reviewer, who concurs entirely with the good folk at the Dog & Lemon. “The answer to most questions on four wheels is Camry.” Good luck.

  • Was just in Brisbane myself trying to buy a used car also!

    All the things that topcat and other posters said is really handy. Write them all down in a book and tick off each when you go see the car.

    Take someone else with you and they can ask the questions while you do the test driving, also while you are concentrating on the driving tell them to have a look around at the interior more closely.

    But I reckon the best piece of advice is once you find the car you think you want to buy, take it to RACQ for a master inspection. It’s about $200 but they put it up on the hoist and take it for a test drive themselves. Can save accidentally buying a dud, or can also find some minor fixes that you can use to bargain the price down.

  • Here’s a simple tip – take a fridge magnet with you. Apply it in the typical spots that rust would form, if the magnet doesn’t stick, then rust’s been cut and bogged.

    I remember showing up at a car yard and doing that once the dealer thought he had me, turns out the car was more bog than car. I asked him about it, he pretty much wet himself and run off.

  • the whole male under 30 thing is a load of crap. I am a mid 20s male and have a few friends, those that are into driving and probably you would consider ‘trash’ their car are possible the ones to buy off.

    My car might see a little time with the tacho sitting further up the rev range but its driven regularly, i generaly heal and toe on the downshifts so the gearbox and clutch are copping it less, its never driven hard before its warmed up, the oils are checked with regularity, the brakes are glazed over from riding them every hill and when something needs replacing e.g. pads, tyres, etc… i don’t pick the cheapest retred special.

    When you test drive.
    You probably want to visist the whole rev range of the engine, almost all modern cars should be smooth the entire way and depending on the type of car either have a consistant power band dropping off a little at the end or a more peaky power band getting progressivly stronger towards the redline. (e.g. a sporty car will probably get more power in the upper limit and may have a kick about 1/2 to 2/3 of the way up).

    The gears should feel solid and smooth, again use all gears, you shouldn’t NEED to double clutch or rev match to go down gears (except first at anything above ~20km/h). If its an auto use the manual override try and isolate each shift between 1>2 2>3 etc… and back the otherway look for any odds noises/whirring on the way down and thumps/bumps on the way up. If its manual its a good idea to see the clutch still has a fair bit of grip, find a slight slope and take off in second it should require a bit of extra slipping but should still do it easily.

    Try and find an empty car park or similar and test the steering (not at speed) while moving slowly you should be able to go lock to lock with out any odd resistance (it will get harder at the locks) it should feel more or less the same the whole way with out any tug back. It should also be able to hold near lock (don’t hold full lock) being driven in a slow circle with out cracking it.

    • Absolutely it’s a very general rule of thumb, but you can generally tell when someone cares little for their car, compared to someone who thinks their car is more important than anything else in the world.

  • Most of the time you can’t go wrong with an ex-fleet vehicle 🙂
    Proper maintenance, quite new, quite cheap and all decent cars (save for the Holdens and Fords).

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