How to avoid getting a lemon when buying a used car

There are plenty of lemons on the market, but there are ways to ensure you don't buy one.

There are plenty of lemons on the market, but there are ways to ensure you don't buy one. Photo: Getty

More Australians are in the market for secondhand vehicles as cost-of-living pressures push people away from expensive new models, but the used car market can be risky.

It’s all too easy to drive away with a “lemon” – a car that doesn’t work properly or fit your needs – and it can be notoriously difficult to know if you’re about to buy one.

That’s especially the case as more secondhand car sales are found on social media platforms like Facebook.

So, how can you avoid buying a dud? Luckily, there are steps you can take to protect yourself.

Avoid these red flags 

Jackie Pederson, the general manager of automative services at RACV, says Australians should “avoid poorly maintained vehicles or any car with serious accident damage”.

“Engine oil, transmission fluid and coolant leaks could indicate poor maintenance, as can uneven tyre wear and a poor service history,” Pederson said.

“Poorly fitting panels or mismatched paint can indicate that a vehicle may have been in a major crash.”

Much of this involves knowing about a vehicle’s history, so make sure you learn about where a car has been and how it has been driven.

That includes whether the vehicle has been written off previously, if the current owner still has an outstanding loan for it, and whether it has been listed as stolen.

The good news is you can get a vehicle history check done online if you can provide the car’s VIN number, registration, the odometer reading and the make/model.

“A car with higher mileage that has been carefully maintained and regularly serviced might be a better buy than one with lower mileage but a poor service history,” Pederson said.

Take a friend, consult an expert

Another tip when buying a used car is to take someone with you when inspecting a vehicle.

Not only will that give you an extra perspective on the car, it can prevent you from getting carried away or caught up in any of the sales tactics the dealer or car owner tries to pull.

It helps if your friend knows their way around a vehicle and can identify any red flags on a test drive.

But that’s also no replacement for a qualified expert opinion either; you should get any used car checked by a third party mechanic before buying, even if it already has a roadworthy certificate.

Dealerships over private sales

Where you buy a used car can be just as important as the vehicle you buy.

Pederson said dealerships offer better protections against getting a dud.

“It’s often safer to buy from a dealership than an unknown private seller,” Pederson said. 

Secondhand vehicles marketed through social media platforms like Facebook have become notorious for scams and people trying to offload vehicles that aren’t roadworthy.

Know your rights

While there is no specific definition of a “lemon” in Australian laws, there are a variety of consumer protections that still apply to sales of used vehicles.

That includes Australian Consumer Law, which extends a warranty on your vehicle beyond any manufacturer guarantees (usually five years) if the car suffers a serious mechanical failure.

In Victoria, protections extend further with laws ensuring that secondhand vehicles that are less than 10 years old and have travelled fewer than 160,000 kilometres can be claimed.

It must be within three months of purchase and the vehicle can’t have travelled more than 5000 kilometres in that time.

Be careful though, those protections only apply if you purchase through a licensed car dealer.

Topics: Consumer
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