What To Look For When Buying A Used Car

What To Look For When Buying A Used Car

motomatch / 8 April 2021

We’ve all been there – it’s time to upgrade the wheels and the flashy new imports on the showroom floor are oh-so-tempting. But did you know that new cars depreciate really quickly? Once you’ve purchased a new car, it’s worth a lot less than what you paid for it once it’s off the floor.

Buying a car that’s at least a year-old means that you can get an excellent vehicle at a really great price. Of course, there are also risks when buying a used car. In South Africa, the responsibility is on you as the buyer to have the car achieve Roadworthy status before it’s transferred into your name, so it’s important that you do all the proper checks before you hand over the cash. We’ve come up with a handy checklist for questions to ask and what to look out for when buying a second-hand car.

Ask the right questions

A lot of people feel intimidated when buying a used car and don’t ask the tough questions because they’re worried about offending the seller. Don’t be afraid to ask what you need to know and insist on evidence where necessary.

Here are some important questions to ask when choosing a used car:

  • How many owners has the car had? The answer you’re looking for usually depends on the age of the car, but three is a respectable limit
  • How old is the car? You may be comfortable with a golden oldie, but just a reminder that banks will not finance vehicles older than eight years old
  • Has the car got a service history, and a book/documentation to back that up?
  • Has the car been in any accidents? A small fender bender is not too risky, but if a car’s been in a massive wreck there could be more serious permanent damage to the chassis or the engine
  • Has the car passed Roadworthy previously?
  • Is the owner willing to let you take the car to your mechanic for inspection? This is vital. If they say no or seem strangely hesitant, it should ring alarm bells
  • What else has been fixed or replaced over the years? This will give you an indication of the actual state of the car. There are expected replacements due to wear and tear, such as the tyres, cam belt, wipers, etc. But if something has been repeatedly replaced, you may want to ask deeper questions

Here’s our checklist on what to look for when buying a used car

General look and feel

  • Make sure you do your inspection in broad daylight
  • Does the car appear to be relatively well looked after?
  • Is the mileage reading, the age of the car and its appearance relatively consistent with what you’d expect?
  • Is there any indication that the car was in an accident and this has been covered up? Check that the paint finish is even all over the car and that there are no spray marks on handles, windows or upholstery. Make sure there are no gaps between the panels that could mean bad knocks were covered up. Look under the carpets or other hidden areas to check that everything matches
  • Are there any cracks in the windscreen or windows that may need replacing soon?
  • Rust. This can actually be a pretty big deal. The problem is that when rust is not dealt with, it just eats away through the car. Now, you may decide that you’re okay with spending some money fixing a bit of surface rust – that’s up to you – but if it’s quite deep or covers a substantial amount of the vehicle, you may want to look at a better option. Check carefully to see if there is any rust under the bonnet, around the door handles, or where the window meets the body of the vehicle. Check underneath the car as well.
  • What does the car smell like inside? If it’s a bit musty, that’s ok because that’s something an air freshener or a valet can fix, but strong odours like cigarette smoke or animal fur can be very difficult to remove

Under the hood

  • Look under the oil cap – is there any sludge there that could indicate a problem? A sticky white substance could mean that the coolant is mixing with the oil, which means that there may be a problem with the head gasket
  • Again, is there any corrosion or rust?
  • Check all fluid levels; this includes oil, brake and power steering fluid. If the levels are very low, it could be a sign of neglect
  • Check under the car for any leaks
  • Is there any usual welding under the hood that indicates the car was in a bad accident?
  • Ask the owner when last the cam belt was replaced, and check that they have the documentation to back this up; if they don’t it’s a deal-breaker – this is an expensive fix and could be dangerous if it snaps while you’re driving
  • And on that note, getting a vehicle that has a drive chain instead of a cam belt can be a much safter option


  • Does the engine start fine from cold?
  • Ensure the radio is turned off and listen to the engine. Are there any strange noises that could indicate a problem?
  • What does the exhaust sound like? Do you get a strong smell of exhaust or can you see black smoke coming from it? If yes, it could mean expensive fixes that cost more than the purchase price!

When you test drive – key safety and functionality tests

  • Before you get in, look at the tyres and confirm that they’re in good condition. The tread should be at least 3mm in depth or you’re going to have to replace them soon
  • Give the car a good push down on the bonnet – what does the “bounce” feel like? Is it tight and sturdy? If it feels loose or makes any strange noises it could mean that the shocks need to be replaced
  • Check that each of the seatbelts tighten when pulled at force and that they click in properly
  • Do the doors lock and open easily?
  • Are all exterior lights and indicators working?
  • Are all the warning lights working as expected? Do the ABS and oil lights go off as expected once the car is running?
  • Watch the temperature gauge – does it stay in the middle as expected, or does it lean too far to the right or left?
  • Test the brakes. Do they respond quickly? When you brake, does the car stop cleanly? Is the braking even or does the car pull to one side?
  • Does the clutch make any noise when pressed?
  • When accelerating up a hill in a high gear, does the car slip?
  • Try a quick getaway and check that the car pulls away without a shudder
  • Is the steering straight or does it veer to one side?
  • Is there any vibration in the steering wheel while driving?
  • Try to get up to a good speed and accelerate through the gears – is the car performing as expected? Or does it feel sluggish or awkward?
  • Can you switch between gears easily? Or do they stick or make grinding noises? If the car is automatic, check that the changes are smooth and in line with speed and engine load
  • When you drive over speedbumps or uneven terrain, do you feel any unusual thumps or jolts? This could mean that there’s a problem with the suspension
  • Are the windscreen wipers in good working order?
  • Is the car comfortable to drive? Could you take it on longer road trips if need be?

Odds and ends

  • Do all the bells and whistles work? Check that the aircon, electronics, and sound system work as you expect
  • Is the spare wheel, spanner and jack stowed safely and are they all in good working order?
  • Does the owner have all the keys ready to give to you once the sale goes through?

Check the documents

It goes without saying that buyers should check all documentation carefully, but many people glance over the paperwork and if everything “looks ok”, they don’t ask any questions. Before you sign anything, here are important things to check before you buy a used car:

  • Does the person have all the documentation on-hand (Registration document, Roadworthy certificate, valid licence disc, service history, etc.)
  • Confirm that the person’s ID matches the name and ID number on the Registration document. If not, and they are selling it on behalf of someone else, ask for a letter of proof. Be very wary here and use common sense. Sometimes people are legitimately selling a car on behalf of a family member or friend, but this is also one of the most common scams in SA – so be on the lookout for anything suspicious, and if your gut feeling is “no”, then just walk away
  • Are there any spelling mistakes on the official documentation that could indicate fraud?
  • Check that the service history matches the indicated mileage of the car

We hope you’ve found our checklist useful – it’s by no means exhaustive, but it’s a pretty good place to start. When in doubt, get a friend who knows more about cars than you do to test drive it with you. Or, if you have a little extra cash to spend, take it to a worthy mechanic to check out. Remember, always go with your gut.

One of the most important questions to ask yourself before you buy a used car is – “do I like it?” How do you feel when you are driving the car? Are you comfortable and confident, or is the pedal too high? Or maybe there’s so many gadgets you can’t concentrate on driving! There’s no point spending money on a car if you cringe every time you climb into it or if it’s not comfortable for you to drive. Driving pleasure is a huge part of the decision-making process, so take your time and choose a used car that not only ticks all the boxes, but which makes you smile every time you use it, too!