1. Phone first and confirm all the details in the ad are correct. Focus on year model, engine size, exactly which model (GL, GLS etc.), Extras, Mileage. Save a copy of the actual ad. Check the prefix of the phone number. Stay away from dubious areas.
2. Make an appointment to view the car. Take someone with you who knows about mechanical things if you don't have the knowledge. Don't appear to be over eager to the seller.
3. Break your inspection up into two segments. Bodywork and mechanical. Start with the bodywork. Walk slowly around the car starting and ending at the same point. Look carefully at each body panel. Look for signs of body repairs and overspray. Open every door as well as the boot and bonnet. Always examine bodywork in good light and never look at a car in the rain or if it is wet. Best light is neon. Bright sunlight can also hide things. Be careful. Check the roof, bonnet and boot lid. Bumpers are prone to damage and scuff marks. Check corners for rust. If you don't have an eye for this, take a small magnet with you. If it doesn't want to stick to the body panels, there is probably body filler under the paint. Remember certain cars have plastic panels (Renault, Smart, etc.) so the magnet trick wont work.
4. Still on bodywork: Check all the glass but pay attention to the windscreen for chips and pitmarks. Look at indicator and headlamp lenses for damage. Make notes of everything you find wrong. These will become valuable bargaining tools later on. Check the wheels (mags or hubcaps) for damage.
5. Open the boot and look inside. Check the spare and tools. The condition of the boot will often tell you a lot about the rest of the car. Look under the boot mat for signs of rear accident damage.
6. Open the bonnet and check the firewall, shock housings and chassis rails for signs of repair or damage. Fresh paint is a give away. Look for manufacturers plates and original stickers. If the paintwork under the bonnet seems new, be suspicious and check further.
7. Check inside the car. Look at the general condition of carpets and upholstery. Test everything including electric windows, mirrors, radios, CD's, Seat mechanisms, check ashtray for signs of cigarette ash. If you are a non smoker, the smell of old stale smoke might irritate you for the rest of the time you own this car.
8. Check the service books. Compare actual mileage to the last service. Do the dates check out? If you are a bit suspicious, check that the ink is not the same for all the services and signed and written by the same person over 4 years - highly unlikely! Check the service sticker in the door pillar. Does it match the service book? Check the steering wheel and pedals for wear. Does it match the mileage reflected on the odometer. Ask questions. If the seller seems to be getting annoyed, he is probably hiding something. (Also read the page on this site on Odometers)
Check the oil on the dipstick. Is it clean and clear? Is it filled to the correct level? Check for milkiness which will indicate water in the oil - usually a blown head gasket. Does everything under the bonnet look neat and clean?
9. Get onto your hands and knees and look under the car. Does everything look normal? Check for thick black paint which can hide accident damage.
10. Right - now for the mechanical test. Start the car. Does it start easily when cold?
11. Check all the instruments are working properly, including check that the aircon is actually getting cold.
12. Does the car drive quietly? Do the gears select easily? How does the clutch feel? Does the car pull left or right? Are the brakes effective? Check the handbrake. Take the car to a place where you can lock the steering fully and drive in a tight circle. Test it in both clockwise and anti-clockwise directions. You are listening for noisy CV joints.
13. Test the car on a highway if possible. Listen for odd noises and also wind noise (common after an accident repair)
14. After the test, try to not make an immediate decision, but preferably think about things overnight. Obtain the book value and ask your friendly local car dealer for advice on this models' popularity and value. Book values may also be obtained from Transunion on their website www.myautoinfo.co.za
15. Once you are happy with all your observations and you are certain this is the car you want to buy, write down the price you would like to pay for the car based on your research. Also write down the highest price you are willing to pay. It's a good idea to discuss this with your partner before making offers.
16. Now go in and make your first offer and see what happens. Be patient and don't rush things.
17. If you are uncertain at any stage about the overall condition of the car, you can ask for an AA test. Be prepared to foot the rather hefty bill for this, but at least you will get a thorough report on the car. When reading an AA report, take the age and mileage of the car into consideration and understand you are not buying a new vehicle - make allowances for that. Don't miss out on a good buy because the AA report says something like : Appreciable wear on tyres.
18. It is a very good idea to do an HPi check on the car (through the AA) if you are buying privately, as you will have very little recourse to the seller once you have paid. If buying through a dealer it is not necessary. (More detail on the HPi check is available elsewhere on this site)
19. Try to pay per bank cheque or electronic internet transfer. Avoid handling large amounts of cash.
20. Before you pay, check the registration certificate. Is the year of first registration correct? Is it registered in the owner and title holder's name (the same name)? Is it still in the name of a finance company? (If so, the seller must first register it in his name as both title holder and owner). Is there a roadworthy certificate? Is the licence current and valid? Ask if there are any outstanding traffic fines? Make the seller sign a letter that he will be responsible for any outstanding fines.
21. Insist on a letter or invoice from the seller. It should state the date, all the details of the vehicle, the price, and any conditions of sale. You will need this to register the car on your name.
22. It is often better and safer to buy from a reputable car dealer than risking a large sum of money on a private sale, even though it might seem a ‘bargain’ at the time.