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Buying your first used car? Here are five tips to help you buy the right one


Buying a used car for the first time can be an intimidating and anxiety-inducing process. But not when you know exactly what to look out for. Here’s a list of what you need to know.

Do your homework

Work out your budget before you start looking

The first thing to know when you’re looking to buy a second-hand car is what you can afford to spend each month – that is, if you aren’t paying cash upfront.

To create a budget, start by looking at your monthly income and all your expenses. Group your expenses as either fixed (such as your rent, utilities, or student loan repayments) or discretionary (such as eating out or buying new clothes). This will give you an idea of what you can spend each month on a car.

Just be careful to not use all your “free” money on the car repayment because buying a car comes with additional costs. These include things like:

  • Car insurance
  • Petrol
  • Maintenance (like services, replacing brakes or tyres)
  • Unforeseen repairs that aren’t covered by warranties

Find a car that suits your needs

Once you know what you can afford each month you can narrow down the type of car to look for. While doing research, you will be tempted by the deals and low prices on the brands that you love. But it’s really important to stick to your budget while looking for the best car possible.

Here are some important factors to consider:

Specific features you really need/want in your car. Things like: electric windows, airbags, aircon, four-door car, lots of boot space, low fuel consumption, Bluetooth feature, sensors for the front and back of the car, etc.

Cost of services and parts. Find out how often the car will need to be serviced, how much a service costs if the car comes without a service plan (very likely), how many things you need to replace regularly like new brakes, windscreen wipers, etc. cost, and so on. Dealerships usually have this information on hand, so just give them a call to find out.

Also find out if the car is manufactured locally. If the car you fancy isn’t manufactured locally, it could cost you big when it comes to buying parts. This is because the parts will more than likely need to be imported.

General maintenance issues. Read all the reviews you can find on the cars you’re interested in to make sure there are no generally known maintenance issues or faults. There’s a reason some cars are more popular than others.

The mileage on the vehicle. You will want a car with mileage that isn’t too high. If it’s too high, it might mean more maintenance and wear and tear.

As a rule of thumb, the average car will rack up 20,000 km within one year (a distance that manufacturers use for warranty coverage). For example, a seven-year-old car should have between 140,000 to 150,000 kilometres on the odometer, which might mean that it needs more maintenance. Try look for a car within your budget that has a lower mileage rather than a high one.

Buy from reputable physical or online dealerships and ask for the car’s service history and registration papers

Look at reputable dealerships. A good place to start is online. Places like Autotrader, Webuycars or are well-known and have a wide range of cars to look at. When going to physical dealerships, you want one that’s established and also well-known. That way if you have any issues, you’ll have a better chance of getting your car fixed. The car should also come with a full service history, and well-known dealerships generally shouldn’t be selling stolen cars.

Dealerships often sell demo cars that have been used for test drives. Ask what they have on the floor and if any of their sister companies have any demos available. Demo cars are great options because they are usually low in mileage and might still be in warranty.

There are also places like Bidvest Burchmore's and Auction Nation where you can buy cars on auction. Going this route might mean that you forfeit your ability to hold the dealership responsible for faults that the car might have after you’ve bought it.

For more certainty that the dealership you’re buying from is reliable, try looking for reviews on Hellopeter, Facebook and Google. This will give you a good idea of other people’s experiences with a specific dealer.

Buying a car from friends and family is another viable option. If you do end up going this route, just make sure that you know the history of the car and whether it’s been in any car accidents. Also be upfront and open about what to do if the car has any major faults shortly after you’ve bought the car.

Remember to ask for the full-service report as well as registration papers.

Be cautious buying a car from someone you don’t know. You might think you’ve found a sweet deal through Marketplace or Gumtree but it’s deals like that that are almost always too good to be true. If you do go this route, just be sure to double-check the car hasn’t been stolen (see how to do this in the next section) and ask for a full service report as well as the car’s registration papers.

Be sure to see the car in person and ask the right questions

Compile a checklist to take with you to see the vehicle

  • Is there a service history?
  • Does the car have an active service and/or warranty plan?
  • Cross-reference the VIN number on documents with the number on the car to make sure everything is consistent or that it hasn’t been tampered with – you don’t want to buy a stolen car.
  • The same goes for mileage. Check that the mileage and age on the service records and are the same everywhere.
  • Ask if the vehicle has been in an accident. You can use Autotrader's Vehicle Check or Lightstone Auto to see if there’s anything you need to know about the car. For example, if the police have any interest in the car or if there are any accident reports involving the car. What you’ll need: the car’s VIN number and R99.

Test drive the car

Turn off the radio and open the windows; listen for anything that doesn’t sound right. See if the car pulls to one side when driving it; it might mean that the wheel bearings need looking at or an indication of a previous accident. It’s also a good idea to take a friend or a family member with you to help point out any strange noises coming from the rear of the car. Play with all the buttons, knobs, and levers – you’ll be able to tell if anything needs fixing before you buy it.

Look at the condition of the car (scratches, dents, weird paint job)

You don’t want to be buying a car that has any dents, scratches, or worn-out parts. Nor do you want to buy a car that’s been in a car accident. Here are a few things to help you check the condition of the car:

  • Inspect the car in a highly lit area. Look for any obvious leaks, check if the tyres have little to no tread left on them – they might need replacing before you buy the car. See that the windscreen wipers work properly. Test all the electronics. Look for any chips or cracks in the windscreen. Sit on all the seats, and see that they’re still okay and comfy. Look in the boot to see that the spare tyre and jack are still there. Also check if the licence disc is up to date. You’ll be fined if it isn’t.
  • Look for signs of a repaint. An easy giveaway that a car has been in an accident is when there’s been an overspray on the inside of doors. This is when paint might’ve carried over to other parts of the car after it has been repaired and then resprayed.
  • Another sign that the car has been involved in an accident is when there are unusually inconsistent gaps between body panels. If the gap between a door and another body panel looks bigger than any other gap on the car, it might be a sign that it’s been in an accident.
  • Open and close all the doors, boot, and bonnet. Listen for any strange popping or squeaking. It might tell you that the car has been previously damaged.
  • Ask a mechanic to take a look at the car. Since this is your first car, you can always ask your friends and family for recommendations, or you can check out online reviews for good mechanics in your area. Or you can book through Dekra Automotive which offers a service to do this.

Think about buying a service and warranty plan

When you buy a new car, it usually comes with a warranty and service plan and once that plan expires, many people opt to sell the car. This means that most second-hand cars come without service and warranty plans in place.

Service plans generally cover the cost of all services done either annually or at a certain mileage for a particular period – whichever comes first.

Warranty plans are generally the seller’s promise that the car they are selling won’t have any failures or problems. But if there are any such problems or failures, the seller or manufacturer will cover them. Without the warranty in place, you will have to cover any malfunctions or failures yourself – often costing thousands of rands.

Note that service plans and warranty plans might not cover things like general wear and tear or any environmental changes to your car. So make sure you completely understand what the warranty/service plan you are buying covers.

You can ask the seller to include the price of these plans in the overall asking price for the vehicle. They aren’t compulsory, but they are advised.

Think about how you are planning to pay for the car

First make sure you are paying the right price

See if you can get your hands on a Mead and McGrouther booklet. It can give you an indication of what other cars of the same make, model and year of manufacture have been trading for recently. Most dealerships should have one at hand.

You can also ask your insurer what the retail value is on the specific car you are looking at. And don't be afraid to drive a hard bargain – try not to just accept the asking price and make sure you deduct any additional cost you might incur. Things like new tyres, fixing scratches, new brakes, chips on the windscreen, etc.

Explore your financing options

You might have the cash saved up to pay for the car in one shot. Cash is always the cheapest option in the long run but if you can’t, you can loan the money from a bank, your parents or someone close to you who doesn’t mind lending you the money.

The dealership can help you with the application process: all you have to do is fill out a few forms, provide proof of address, and provide your ID. The dealership will apply to many banks at once and try to get you the best possible interest rate.

One thing that can help improve your interest rate is if you have money to put down upfront as a deposit. This will decrease the amount that you’ll loan from the bank.

Once you have approval for a loan, ask for a breakdown of the total amount you’ll end up paying at the end of your loan as well as your exact monthly payment. This will help you have a more accurate idea of how much you will be paying each month along with all the other expenses like petrol and insurance.

Consider your insurance options

If you’re financing the car then you won’t be allowed to leave the showroom unless you have comprehensively insured it.

Dealerships usually offer insurance through the finance house or their own broker. But you can always explore your own options for insurance. It’s best to look around and ask for a few quotes to find the most affordable policy for you and your budget.

With Naked, you can buy insurance on the app within a couple of minutes, while you’re in the dealership. You’ll also be able to give the dealership proof of your insurance instantly as you can grab the necessary documents straight from the app!

And don’t forget about adding shortfall cover, especially if you took out a car loan and paid no deposit. What is a shortfall? There is a risk that if your car is written off or stolen, the amount you still owe could be higher than the amount your car is insured for, shortfall cover will protect you against that.

Now that you have all the info you need, go on and find some new wheels!


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