Buying a used car

Buying a used car to drive in Queensland.

We get asked this question all the time, “What kind of car should I get?”, and the answer is never straightforward. There are lots of variables to take into account, including personal taste (for which there is no accounting), price, and serviceability.
So this article is a bit specific. It should be titled:
“How to buy a used car to drive in Queensland that doesn’t cost much to run, is cheap and easy to service, won’t break down or won’t be hard to fix, and I don’t care if it doesn’t look cool. And, preferably cheap to buy. Really I just want basic transport that won’t care if I never maintain it.”

If you really need a ‘65 Mustang or an FB Holden, good for you, we encourage those ideals. But this guide won’t help in the slightest. Find a car club for advice, or at minimum a good friend who knows a lot about them. Also, the Internet has lots of interest groups and forums, sometimes they can even be helpful. Be prepared to pay (lots) for repairs or learn to do them yourself. If you want a van for camping, stay tuned for an upcoming article. Similarly, if you are looking at very recent model used cars (under 3 years old), some of the following may not apply. But some will, so read on!

Please note that this article is purely our opinion – Ralph’s Garage takes no responsibility for your purchase decision, but encourages you to do as much research as possible before spending your money. All cars are a ripoff, they break down constantly and destroy the environment. They add to the erosion of family life and cause countless injuries. Buyer beware.

So here we go, things to look for, in no particular order:

1. Made in Japan. Or at least in a Japanese owned factory. That means Toyota, Mazda, Nissan, Suzuki, Honda, to a lesser extent Mitsubishi, maybe Daihatsu (owned by Toyota) and possibly Subaru. There could be some more, but these are the most popular, and therefore easy to get spares for. Holden and Ford Australia also sell some re-badged Japanese cars that are just as good because they are exactly the same. Some Hyundais (Korea) have proven fairly reliable / easy to fix, but make sure you pick a very common model in good condition if you go this route.

2. Not a grey import. Even though your car may be common in Thailand, it doesn’t mean spare parts are easy to get in Airlie Beach. This can be identified by the presence of an import compliance plate.

3. Less than 250,000 km on the clock and less than 15 years old. Most Japanese engines will go to about 400,000 if well maintained. 20,000km per year is average.
Also: Check to see if any major services are due for the model you are looking at, in particular the timing belt. These can be hideously expensive.

4. Has a Roadworthy / Safety Certificate. That means it has already been issued with one. If the seller says “It will pass, no problems”, ask them to go get it. It only costs around $70, so why don’t they have it already? Incidentally, it’s illegal to offer a registered vehicle for sale in Qld without one, and the seller is supposed to provide it. See below for more on this, we can issue safety certificates right here if required.

5. Has had some basic maintenance history. Even if it is only an oil change every 10,000km, it means someone has been looking after it. This is also good to see what may be lurking on the horizon, service wise. Well-maintained service documentation and logbooks are good, incomplete, brand-new or mysteriously missing logbooks should be treated with suspicion – especially if they have services entered,but no garage / dealership stamp.

6. Not made in Europe. European cars are usually well designed, fast, economical, comfortable, stylish, and need to have all their spares imported from Germany.

7. Gadgets don’t count. A 120dB sound system won’t get you to Byron when the radiator is blown, and 21” rims crack when you “touch” park. If the car is already good and happens to have funky extras, fair enough. Don’t ignore the essentials over a bit of bling. Also some exotic items may cause the vehicle to fail a safety inspection, like incorrectly sized wheels, or bull horns on the bonnet. Especially applies to ancient campervans with nice kitchen fitouts.

8. Get an RACQ pre-purchase inspection. These are notoriously thorough, and if the seller won’t let you do it, they probably know something won’t pass. We also offer this inspection service, it costs from $45-135 depending on how much effort is required to check the vehicle over.
Exceptions: If your brother-in-law (or whoever) is giving you a free, registered and roadworthy vehicle, don’t knock it back because it isn’t a 2007 Mazda 6. Take it, drive it until it starts to cost money, then evaluate it’s ongoing worth.
Also: Test drive it as if it were already yours. Take it on the freeway, with the radio off, for at least 10 minutes to allow the engine to get nice and warm. Overheating problems can sometimes slip past inspectors, this is the best way to check. The temperature gauge should rise to and sit about mid way and be stable, any thing else could spell trouble. There’s an article on this US site that tells what a seller should allow for a smooth transaction.

9. Check the vehicle’s history. Every time a car changes owners or registration details, or has a safety certificate issued, the details are recorded in the State Government archives, along with the date and odometer reading. You can access this information here. Other cool things you will find are whether the car has been stolen/recovered, or written off. You will need the vehicle’s VIN and engine number – if the owner can’t or won’t provide these details, shop elsewhere. You’ll also need a valid credit card.

More about Safety Certificates:
Safety Certificates, also known as Roadworthy Certificates, RWCs, or “Roadies”, basically ensure the car will try it’s hardest to not kill or injure you, or other road and footpath users, and are required to transfer registration in Qld. It’s not a guarantee that the car is good, but it is a start. Dodgy roadworthy certificates exist, as do operators who fail lots of things on your car in order to make more money. But buying an un-roadworthy car can be costly, for example:
•    Four new tyres – $450
•    Broken taillight lens – $125
•    Structural rust – $1000
•    Massive oil leak – $800
And so on. Remember that brakes and tyres wear out between 10-40,000km depending on the driver, so even seemingly new cars can fail.
Important note:
A Safety Certificate is not a warranty that the car will last forever, or even more than ten minutes after you hand over the cash. It is a snapshot of the vehicle’s safetiness (safeability?) at the point in time that the inspection is carried out, and means very little beyond that point. Also don’t wait for the seller to mail you the certificate, or complete it after the sale. If you can’t see the actual completed blue certificate, it is not a legal sale.
A special note for (many) Western Australian registered vehicles:
Whenever we see a family wagon or van loaded up with backpacking gear and sporting Western Australian number plates roll into our shop, we reach for the defect ticksheet. WA registration means the car never needs a regular safety inspection, even if you change the ownership. Subsequently they always have terrible brakes, missing wipers, leaking fuel lines etc., and usually fairly expensive mechanical issues as they haven’t been properly serviced for 15 years. The ownership history usually reads like the credits to an SBS movie. You will almost certainly be wasting your money. NB. This in no way reflects badly on the Western Australian transport department, as the cars hardly ever get back to WA to cause problems.

What about Holden Astras, Barinas, Vectras, Tigras etc? These are often cheap and appealing, and can be not bad if very well maintained. Although it feels good to buy Australian, they are actually re-badged Opel/Daewoo models, made in Korea, or sometimes in parts of Europe where labour is cheap. They usually come up for sale just before they reach 100,000km, because the timing belt service is due.  This service costs between $700 and $1500. Holden has actually revised the timing belt service schedule to 60,000km, because too many belts were failing, destroying the engines, which cost about $3000 to fix.

Used car warranties: Extended warranties are like medical benefits. You need to weigh up the potential costs of repair (which you don’t actually know) against the cost of a warranty, and the trouble/benefit of getting repairs done under that warranty. Some of them are good, some are OK, some are worthless and actually end up costing more than just paying for repairs. And sometimes the dealers won’t honour the warranty, and you have to take them to the small claims tribunal. As they say, there is no such thing as a free lunch. Read the small print, you will be surprised how little is covered. At best, a warranty will reduce the cost of some repairs. It is rare that you will get away without paying anything. All dealer used cars in Qld have a limited warranty already.

My personal choice: The venerable Toyota Corolla. Stalwart of the lawn bowls scene, about as exciting as scrambled eggs. Features:
•    Reliable
•    Cheap, readily available parts
•    Minimal and non-exotic service requirements
•    Fairly economical
•    Lots of them around = plentiful spares
•    Good resale value.
Update: The Mazda 3 is also pretty good, now that nice used examples are starting to show up.

If you want to do a lot of long distance travelling, a 6-cylinder car or wagon may be more suitable. With more cylinders comes more maintenance costs, and the extra size will mean more fuel consumption / space issues in an urban environment. For 4WD & diesel vehicles maintenance costs increase dramatically, due to heavier duty parts, and more complex drivetrain systems.

Good Links:
Choice Online