If you buy a second-hand car or motorcycle, it’s important to inspect it thoroughly. Vehicle inspections can help you identify problems and assess a vehicle’s value more accurately. It can also provide some room for negotiation on the sale price.
Buying a used car video
To help you do a thorough inspection of a second hand vehicle, we've produced a handy video.
It goes through all the checks described on this page, and shows you what to look for when thinking about buying your next used car.
Watch our buying a used car video
Car buyers inspection checklist
Under the hood
Engine number and Vehicle Identification Number (VIN)
VIN is an international system for identifying motor vehicles and is required under ADR's. It’s a combination of letters and numbers to identify its individual characteristics, for example model code, series, luxury level and body style.
The numbers shown on the Certificate of Registration must match the engine and VIN numbers on the car. Be aware of any signs of interference such as scratches, grind marks or drill holes. These may indicate illegal tampering with the numbers and the vehicle.
A motor vehicle built date is the date that the engine was fixed to the chassis. This is usually determined as the date of manufacture. This date is usually stamped on a metal plate fixed to the motor vehicle.
A motor vehicle compliance plate will show the date that the vehicle complied with certain Australian Design Rules (ADR). With some imported vehicles, the date of compliance will vary from the date of manufacture.
A build-up of dirt can suggest poor maintenance or mechanical problems.
Dirty/thick oil and a build-up of sludge in the engine can suggest poor maintenance. Grey or milky coloured oil may suggest the presence of water, which would indicate serious problems.
The engine should idle smoothly. Listen for irregular running or any unusual noise such as any knocking or rattling noises.
Remove the oil filler cap while the engine is idling. Fumes can signify worn piston rings or cylinders. Thick, black smoke coming from the exhaust can signify problems as well.
The radiator coolant should be clean and brightly coloured. Oil in the coolant may indicate a cracked cylinder-head or a leaky gasket.
Radiator cooler fins or core tubes
Check for corrosion or damage on the radiator cooler fins or core tubes.
Battery mounting platform/bracket
Check for acid corrosion on the battery.
Check that the odometer is working during the test drive. Note the number of kilometres travelled which can indicate when a major service is required. The Motor Dealers and Repairers Act (The Act) makes it illegal to interfere with an odometer. The following is deemed to be interference:
- altering the reading of the odometer
- removing or replacing the odometer
- rendering the odometer inoperative or inaccurate by any means whatsoever
- fitting a device capable of rendering the odometer inoperative or inaccurate.
A dealer is also prohibited from advertising or specifying that the reading of an odometer is accurate if the dealer knows or has reasonable cause to know that this is not the case.
Underneath the car
Tyres (don't forget the spare)
Uneven wear on tyres might indicate worn or misaligned steering or suspension. Check that there is at least 5mm of tread.
Check the engine, transmission, axles, brakes, power steering and shock absorbers. A leak in any of these areas could indicate a problem and could be dangerous.
Fumes or excessive noise can suggest there is a hole or rust in the pipes or the muffler.
Body of the car
Check inside the boot, the floor wells, doors and lower sills for red or other dark stains, dimpled or bubbled paint. Use a soft fridge magnet to check panels for plastic body filler.
Hail damage makes a car difficult to insure. Check the horizontal panels such as the bonnet, roof and boot lid.
Loose panels can indicate accident damage or that the car has been driven over rough roads.
Doors and boot lid
Catches on doors and the boot should close firmly and lock. Rubber seals can perish over time.
Look for colour variation, overspraying, dents or ripples. This can indicate that the car has been in an accident.
Inside the car
Upholstery, trim, carpets
Check for wear and tear on all upholstery, trim and carpets.
Check that the belts are not frayed or damaged, and that the belts, buckles and adjusters and child restraint anchorage points are in good condition.
Check that all lights, both inside and outside the car, are working. If the car is fitted with ABS and/or SRS (airbags), check that the dashboard warning lights illuminate for a short time when the ignition is turned on.
Equipment and accessories
Check air-conditioning, ventilation fan, electric windows, sound systems, horn, windscreen wipers etc. Broken items can be expensive to repair or replace.
Jack and tool-kit
Jack and tool-kits should be in place and in serviceable condition.
Test driving the vehicle
Excessive ‘free travel’ or wandering on straight roads can indicate worn suspension or misaligned steering.
The car should stop smoothly and in a straight line. The pedal should not sink to the floor or feel spongy and the steering wheel should not vibrate.
Blue smoke indicates oil is burning.
Should run smoothly (accelerating, decelerating and cruising) and the water temperature gauge should stay in the safe range. Rattling or knocking could mean incorrect tuning or excessive wear.
Gear changes (manual and automatic) should be smooth, without any rattles or knocking noises. On front-wheel drive vehicles, these noises could indicate worn constant-velocity joints.
Suspension and bodywork
Listen for rattles when you drive over bumps. It’s also wise to have the car inspected by a reputable mechanic.
Note: Before taking the car for a test drive, check with the seller that they have an insurance policy that will cover you if an accident occurs.