You’ve scoured the internet for your dream ride and are ready to lay down a large wad of money for that shiny hatchback which has been carefully driven by one elderly lady owner. But, before you commit yourself to ‘that deal of a lifetime’, make sure to follow the steps below before parting with your hard-earned cash.
1. Determine your budget
Before buying any car, it’s prudent to take a moment to determine your budget, and to set yourself a realistic price cap. You can use an online calculator to help work out what you can afford and what your monthly instalments will be if you decide to get vehicle finance
Also, it’s worth taking a few minutes to research the vehicle’s fuel consumption and the indicative monthly insurance premium.
Lastly, and we see this all too often at Start My Car, bear in mind parts availability and the future maintenance and service costs.
As a quick example, I recently saw a late model Cadillac going for a song online. It’s a premium marque, equipped with all the bells and whistles, and several worlds apart from the ten-year older, higher mileage Nissan Micra 1.2 featured a few clicks away on the same webpage.
It seems a no brainer. But then stop to consider – assuming you want a good five years use out the vehicle you intend to buy. In that time and considering the mileage of the car, it’s fair to assume the clutch would need replacement. The CVs and turbo would both be nearing the end of their design life. At some point, tyres and brake pads would also need replacing, and of course, there are the regular service items.
A few phone-calls later, the scenario looks massively different. The Cadillac would cost me more in maintenance in its’ first year then it’s entire purchase price. In five years, this would quadruple. And that’s assuming that parts are still available then, as Cadillac is no longer sold in South Africa, and the vehicle it was based on, SAAB, has been insolvent for almost a decade. So yes, I’d rather buy the Nissan.
2. Buying privately or through a dealership
Each option offers pros-and-cons. You would probably find a far bigger variety of vehicles through private sales, and they will often be cheaper than at a dealership, which is especially important if you’re on a tight budget.
On the other hand, legitimate dealership buys can bring some peace of mind that there is a company standing behind the quality of the vehicle you’re purchasing. Do your homework first to find a trusted dealership.
3. Research a pre-owned car dealership
Buying a used car from a pre-owned dealership can provide you with greater peace of mind, particularly if you’re buying from a reputable, established outlet.
The Retail Motor Industry of South Africa (RMI) can assist you with information on local car dealerships that are members of the National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA).
It’s also recommended that you investigate social media platforms to see what other motorists have to say about the dealer you’re considering buying from. I always try Googling the company name and see if there are any google reviews, and then do the same on Hellopeter.
I also ask for the address and go onto google maps and see the street view. If I had R10 for every time google maps showed me that “car dealership” is located on a vacant piece of land between Bertrams and Troyeville, I would be driving an Italian sportscar by now. And not a Fiat one. One with a prancing horse emblazoned on the grill.
There are many scams out there. We will go into some of the more common ones in next week’s article.
Even if the dealership is legitimate and has glowing reviews (which we hope they didn’t write themselves), I’d still phone up and confirm that the model, variant, spec-level, kilometres and price is the same as shown as the advert. This is yet another area “mistakes” are often made to woo you into visiting the dealership. Maybe they’ll come clean then, maybe never.
4. Research the value of the car of interest
You can use TransUnion’s Car-Value-Report system
to gain insight into the trade-in and retail value of a used vehicle. This is also known as the ‘book-value’ ( The ‘book’ refers to TransUnion’s monthly Auto Guide, which lists vehicles from A to Z in terms of their original retail price compared to how the value of the car has depreciated).
For every vehicle, TransUnion lists two values, the ‘trade’ and the ‘retail’. In an ideal world, the dealer would buy your vehicle at the trade price and sell it to the next customer at the retail price.
If you are buying a car, use this knowledge to ensure you aren’t paying significantly more than ‘book-value’ for a car, although it is important to note that sought-after used cars might command ‘above-book’ prices. I also wouldn’t way to pay massively below the book value. That is as big a red flag that something is fishy as you ever likely to get.
At the same time, if you are considering trading in your vehicle, it’s worth getting the indicative ‘trade’ value of your car.
It’s always funny to me that dealers will never pay you the trade value for your car (due to a small scratch on the bumper, or a bald spot on the spare tyre), but expect you to pay the full retail “book value” for the car you want to buy (despite the fact the engine is smoking like a 1935 diesel freight train and three of the five gears won’t engage). Hold that thought.
5. Check the police won’t come for your baby
Whether you’re buying from a private person or a dealership, you have a right, actually make that a responsibility, to check whether a vehicle is stolen, or whether it has been stolen and recovered in the past. A vehicle verification will help you to see the status of the car you’re considering buying. All you need is the car’s VIN (Vehicle Identification Number). If the vehicle is stolen, whether you paid top dollar for it or not, the police have every right to take her away.
6. Check the sheriff won’t come for your baby
It's also worth seeing if any money is owed on the vehicle. This is known as a car lien. A car lien is an interest in the car that the owner grants to another party (such as a bank, financial institution, or other party), usually as security or collateral for a debt, until such debt has been discharged. As an example, if you own a vehicle and you finance all or some of that vehicle with a bank, your vehicle will likely have a lien registered against it by the bank. The vehicle is the bank’s “security” that you will pay back the money they loaned you.
If you don’t pay it back, they could repossess the vehicle. As a buyer, you may be responsible for any unpaid debt (the amount of the lien) registered against a used vehicle that you buy. If you find out that the lien was not paid off on a car you now own, then the secured party may be able to repossess the car from you.
The last thing you need is for the bank to repossess the vehicle you paid several years of savings for, while the seller’s number goes directly to voicemail, or he answers the call from his new apartment in Lagos.
Again, make use of Transunion’s vehicle verification service
, to be confident the vehicle is not stolen and that the asset is not still subject to a previous finance agreement.
7. Checking your car’s origin
Buying a used car means you’re taking a gamble on the vehicle’s mechanical history. During your research, play attention to kilometres on the odometer, investigate things like the car’s service manuals and ask about its accident history and if it comes with the spare key.
On that note, be aware that service histories can be forged. Remember that story of a well-known dealership that had various rubber stamps made of fictitious workshops? They then stamped all the service books of the cars they were selling hoping that the buyer would never actually check if these dealerships ever existed. And they didn’t, because they ran this scam for many moons before being caught.
Also bear in mind of odometer fraud. Digital odometers are by no means tamper-proof. They can be rolled back by removing the vehicle’s circuit board to change the odometer reading or using rollback equipment that hooks right into the vehicle’s electronic circuit.
If a car has no service history, I personally would never take the kilometres on the clock at face value. We will discuss this more in next week’s article.
8. Checking the vehicle’s mechanicals
As said above, and worth reiterating, buying a used car means you’re taking a gamble on the vehicle’s mechanical history. In order to mitigate this risk somewhat, and to limit unexpected repair and maintenance expenses, I would advise sending the car for an independent check-up to better determine the actual condition of the car.
is currently the leading supplier of roadworthy tests in South Africa and provide full bumper-to-bumper mechanical inspections. It is well worth the cost considering the cost of not doing one and landing up purchasing a lemon.If the dealer or seller does not let you take the car for an independent test, well, isn’t that your answer right there?
9. How to negotiate a used car deal
Once you’ve concluded your research on your dream car and you’ve decided that you’re going to buy it, you can start your negotiations with the private seller or dealership. But be patient in this process as the seller might reduce the price if you can give them a good reason to, based on your research.
It’s important to remember that walking away is your right as a buyer, and you should be prepared to leave if you feel pressured or uncertain about a vehicle.
Although purchasing a brand-new car would be first prize, the truth is that reality does not always allow for it. If you in market for a secondhand car, I would suggest the following:
Research the vehicle you wish to buy – Google the make and model that you wish to buy. Try find previous local road tests and user forums of what commonly goes wrong. Some cars are prone to rust, other’s turbocharger failure etc. Research part prices and availability.
Research the seller/dealership and the vehicle’s provenance – In addition to the points listed above, have a hard look at the dates and places where the car has been serviced. Phone the workshops and see if they exist, and if the car was serviced there as claimed. Buying privately? Grill the owner about where he lived and worked to see if the mileage make’s sense. He can’t be travelling 70kms a day from Boksburg to Sandton, and yet the car has only 10 000kms between this years’ service and last.
Know your numbers – Firstly, know what you can realistically afford. Remember the price you see is not the price you pay. There are often ‘admin and on the road fees’ which can be several thousand Rands. Some dealer’s lower vehicle price and compensate by inflating these fees. Know the running costs of what your vehicle is likely to cost you going forward. Also, know what your vehicle is worth and what the vehicle you are buying is worth. This knowledge will help you negotiate a better deal.
Check your vehicle’s history and mechanicals – Yes, the Transunion report and DEKRA test will cost you, but it may cost you far more in the long term not to do it. We unfortunately live in a society rife with corruption and fraud. I would fork out a bit to dodge a potential bullet.
Set emotions aside – Lastly, ensure that the choice you have made is not an emotional one. Often, our emotions significantly impact our purchasing behaviours and decisions.