Guide to Buying

You've decided to buy a used car in New Zealand, you've decided on the model, and you've got an idea of how much you can afford. Do you buy from a dealer or from a private seller? What else needs to be checked with the car?

Kea evaluating car near Homer Tunnel in Milford Sound, New Zealand

Pre-Test Checkover

You can learn a lot about a car you're considering buying by checking for:

  • Bodywork
  • Dents, scratches or ripples; does the paint on panels and doors all match. Has the car been crashed and repaired
  • Paint overspray on trim, under wheel arches or underneath the car from repainting after crash or rust repairs.
  • Rust in the bottom of doors or tailgates, in wheel arches or bubbling in the sills.
  • Consistent gaps between panels and door and boot lid shut lines. Disparencies can indicate poor reassembly after crash repairs.
  • Chipping or starring of the windscreen which may prevent the car getting a Warrant of Fitness (WOF).

Under the Bonnet, check:

  • The level and condition of the oil. There should be no creamy sludge and the oil should still be relatively clean and transparent-looking.
  • The level of the cooling fluid in the radiator header/catch tank. Look for signs of oil in the water.
  • Cracks or wear in the hoses and drive belts.
  • For burning oil smells or other out-of-the-ordinary fumes or excessive smoke. Look for signs of oil leaks.

Inside the cabin, check for:

  • Wear on upholstery, pedal rubbers or carpeting that seems excessive for the car's mileage or age. Saggy seats on a low-mileage car can hint at odometer being wound back.
  • Damp areas on the carpet, roof lining or carpet underfelt, indicating water leaks. Be suspicious if there are any musty smells.
  • That all the controls work, and that the sound system and air-conditioning, power mirrors and windows are operating correctly.
  • Odometer reading consistent with the car's age; most cars do between 12,000 and 20,000km a year. Company cars will often have done more. Be suspicious of cars that show too little mileage for their age or condition. High-performance, sports or classic cars may, however, have been used only on weekends. Quiz the seller if you think the odo reading is too low.

The Used Car Test Drive: a 12-Step test checklist

  1. Start the car yourself, preferably from cold, and listen for any out-of place mechanical sounds. Look for excessive smoke on start-up. There will be some light grey smoke till the automatic choke switches off as the engine warms up. Wait till the engine is fully warmed before starting off. The temperature gauge needle should be around halfway between cold and hot. Be wary of any car where the needle is too far towards hot.
  2. As you move off the engine should deliver its power smoothly and without hesitation. The clutch should engage cleanly on manual cars with no smell of burning clutch lining, indicating clutch slip. There should be no shrieking from drive belts.
  3. On manual cars the gear lever should shift smoothly between gears and the gears should engage crisply without any graunching or grinding sounds. Automatics should change smoothly and without jerking or thumping.
  4. Around 50km/h lift off the throttle abruptly and check the rear-view mirrors for signs of smoke indicating piston/cylinder wear.
  5. Check for burning oil or exhaust fume smells and reject any car which has either.
  6. Drive up a steep hill and look in the mirror for signs of smoke; worn engines will develop excessive smoke when they come under high load.
  7. Stop the car on the hill and apply the handbrake. The car should hold firm. On manuals, the hill start will also be a good check of the clutch's operation.
  8. Try to do some open road or motorway driving as well. You can gauge the acceleration, check for excessive exhaust smoke as the car accelerates. At speed, check for any shuddering through the steering wheel (commonly between 85 and 100km/h) indicating out of balance or misaligned wheels. Listen for any trim or bodywork rattles or squeaks.
  9. In an empty open space or car park, take your hands off the wheel and check whether the car pulls to either side: it should track straight ahead. Cars that don't may have steering or wheel alignment problems.
  10. On front-wheel drive cars, wind down the windows and drive circles on full lock in both directions. Any knocking or mechanical chatter from the front wheels will indicate worn constant velocity joints.
  11. Check the brakes efficiency by braking hard to a full stop. The car should stop in a straight line without pulling to one side or juddering.
  12. Before you take a car for a test drive, make sure it's insured.

Buy a used car in NZ

Buyers often believe they'll snap up a bargain by negotiating with a private owner, even though the risks are far higher. What they don't realise is that it is worth buying from a licensed dealer because of the greater security and comeback. Dealers car prices are very competitive and can often be better than private sellers.

What is the price of peace of mind? Many private sellers also attempt to sell their vehicles at dealer prices while ignoring the total package offered by a licensed dealer. A dealer can provide finance and vehicle warranties, not to mention the ability to trade in your old car. Not many private sellers will do that. It's a case of caveat emptor, or let the buyer beware. A cheap price inevitably means higher risk - and if the price of a car seems too good to be true, it probably is.

Buying a car from a dealer

  • Car dealers provide the maximum legal protection. They must be able to show they own the car and that it is not encumbered by debt.
  • Car dealers have a yard or place of business.
  • Car dealers are members of trade associations.
  • Car dealers offer warranties and can provide finance and accept trade-ins

Buying a car from a Private Seller

  • Private sellers can advertise cars at cheaper prices.
  • Make sure the seller actually owns the car.
  • Don't buy from someone who wants to meet without revealing a home address or wants to sell you the car without viewing it first. If you have a home address you can make a simple check such as looking up the buyer in the online and verifying the address. In either case, get a vehicle inspection either from a mechanic or from an organisation like the AA.

Money Owing

If you're buying privately, check that the vehicle hasn't been stolen, doesn't have any outstanding debts attached and who is the registered owner. You don't want your new car repossessed or find yourself liable for unpaid bills.

If the vehicle is diesel powered, check that there are no Road User Charges owing (telephone the RUC Helpdesk, 0800 655 644). Services that can provide an immediate and comprehensive check that includes these issues and more are - They can tell you the vehicle's ownership history since it was first registered in New Zealand, and provide you with the vehicle's current legal status.

A buyer is required by law to notify the NZTA. of any change in ownership, this can be completed online or the forms can be obtained from NZ POST, VINZ and VTNZ.