Buying a Car: What to Look For When Buying a Car


What should you look for when buying a car? There’s a bunch of independent factors to look for in each different car. The criteria for assessing a new car and a secondhand car are vastly different. When you’re looking at a brand new car most of the assessment is in the specifications, colour, safety, trim level, servicing and fuel economy. All of these factors are personal preferences. With new cars, quality is generally assured.

When you’re looking at buying a secondhand car, the criteria is still personal, but there needs to be far more weighting on condition factors. You still look at cars you like, in colors you like, with features that you like. The assessment becomes focussed on that specific car and not just what make/model you like best.

As a forewarning the list for assessing a secondhand car is way, way, wayyy longer than assessing a new car.

What to Look for When Buying a Car:

The criteria is far more personally focussed and the maintenance/condition factors come down to brand reputation. Still with new cars it’s worth asking what to look for before buying a car.

  • What are the reviews like? Have a look at the pro’s and con’s and the general reputation for the brand. This will usually clue you in early to things that could go wrong, be annoying or important information to your ownership.
  • What are the safety ratings for that car. You’re looking for the ANCAP rating of 5 for most modern cars.
  • What are the fuel economy stats. The more efficient the car, the more money you save.
  • What colour do you want. You should take pride in your car and to be honest, there’s enough grey cars on the road, so you can afford to bring a bit of personality to it.
  • What’s it like to test drive? Take it for at least a 30 minute commute and use all the features that you’ll use over the course of your ownership. You’ll use this stuff everyday, so it needs to work well.
  • What are the specs for the car. What we mean with this is, the engine size, the transmission, two-wheel drive or four-wheel drive?, the wheels, the brakes. It’s the things that affect how the car drives and what the car can do.
  • Next, figure out what features you like. Is the stereo compatible with your phone? Does it have heated seats? Does it have cruise control? One of the most overlooked things is how comfortable it is to live with a car.
  • Have a look at the warranty and servicing plan. These will either save you, or cost you money in the long term.

With the levels of efficiency, quality and safety of modern cars, while you should still look into the condition and maintenance costs, most of the thought shifts to what you want. You’re picking the best car that suits you, in your price range. That’s the appeal of buying a new car – the car can be catered to what you want.

What About for Used Cars:

This is where things get a little trickier, the quality of the car is no longer assumed and it makes up most of what you need to assess. We’ll have some pointers on how to assess/get a car assessed after the list. We’ve done our best to pool our knowledge on this one, but if you want real peace of mind, a pre-purchase inspection is essential. You can get one of our partner garages to do one of those here.

  • How many kilometers has the car done? Cross reference this with known maintenance requirements for that model car with that many kilometers. For example, when does it need a new cambelt? When are the oil changes required? Does the transmission need flushing?
    If you can know what servicing is needed, or needed to be done and wasn’t, not only does that help you negotiate but it also helps you to evaluate your options and narrow it down to the best condition examples you can find.
  • Check the tyres for tread depth. Tyres are expensive and the better the condition, the lower the cost of your ownership.
  • What’s the warrant of fitness and registration like? Does the car conform to all safety standards required?
  • Check that the body and glass are all in good condition and there are no signs of rust, touch up paint or cracking. All of these can indicate a less than stellar ownership history.
  • Check the suspension and brakes when test driving, does it turn, does it stop and does it not bounce going down the road? If you notice any issues with any of those aspects of the test drive it could indicate a need to service some suspension parts.
  • Also when test driving, make sure there are no weird squeaks, rattles, or grinding. These will need looking into.
  • Check that there are no rattles, knocks or surges when the engine is idling and running.
  • Make sure the exhaust smoke is clear and not blue, black or consistently white. Any of these can indicate internal engine issues.
  • Get a torch and check the engine bay for weeping, leaks or rust. Some leaks are tolerable and some leaks are expensive.
  • Check that the A/C works and that all the air vents flow air.
  • Make sure the stereo works well as well as the speakers.
  • Check the electronics, the headlights, indicators, and brake lights.
  • Check the interior for any rips, damage or noticeable wear and tear.

As you can see there’s a whole bunch of things that you need to assess. There’s plenty more criteria which are all vehicle as well as the usual; what colour, what model, what year, what trim level, what specifications etc. Don’t ignore these questions when asking what to look for when buying a car.

Which is why we really recommend a ‘Pre-Purchase Inspection’. A pre-purchase inspection, is where a qualified mechanic comes out to assess the mechanical aspects of the car. This gives you a more informed opinion on the car, it also leaves all your work to just researching the car, figuring out how comfortable the car is, and focus more on the personal preferences.

A lot of our partner garages offer Pre-Purchase Inspections and we think that they’re really important. When assessing mechanical, electronic and suspension parts of a potential purchase, it’s best to trust the people who deal with those things daily.

If you’d like to keep learning more about the ins and outs of buying and selling cars, you can find more of that good stuff here.