How to avoid buying a lemon with Fair Go’s car buying guide

Know what you’re looking for, start saving early and opt for something economical, these are the top tips from first-time buyers to those about to buy their vehicle, but there’s more to it.

Now is a good time to think about it. Winter is the peak buying season for first-time car owners, falling six months after the peak number of 16th birthdays, when new drivers begin to get their restricted driver’s licenses.

A first car can be the first major consumer concern, but there are many simple defensive buying steps everyone should take when in the used car market.

Fair Go asked three 17-year-old first-time buyers at Albany Senior High School for advice. It runs an Adulting 101 course that covers life skills students find they want to learn — how to apply for a job, do your taxes, cook, or buy a car.

Rebecca Furness knew she wanted a gray Mazda Demio because it would be cheap to run and easy to keep clean, so she and her family scoured truck stops until she got what she wanted for $7,000.

“It had pretty good mileage. We took it for a test drive and it had a pretty good history.”

Twin brother Matthew knew he needed trunk space, so he settled on a Nissan Bluebird sedan—older, less fuel-efficient, but slightly cheaper at $5800.

“One of our family friends who does car maintenance checked it out and made sure it’s safe.”

Both bought from retailers, meaning the purchase is covered by the Consumer Guarantees Act – meaning a “fair and reasonable” test will apply to any fault that later emerges.

Classmate Mackenzie Hill bought her Mazda Axela privately — meaning there’s no CGA protection — but her family knew the seller, so there was trust and confidence.

“We knew they didn’t really drive it around much, it was their spare family car.”

Which brings us to the best “ouch” question you can ask when buying – why is the seller selling?

“Does the car have any problems, noise, service history, accident damage records? Does it have proof of eligibility?” asks Greg Hedgepeth, Managing Director of Turners Cars.

Of course, this WoF should not be more than a month old at the time of sale, unless the buyer signs an agreement to accept the car in this condition.

According to Hedgepeth, the WoF is just a visual safety check, so a pre-purchase inspection is a must to delve deeply into potential mechanical issues, especially on older, cheaper cars.

Inspections can cost the buyer $100 to $200, much less than the thousands of dollars it could cost to later repair a major fault.

If the seller is reluctant to let one in, “that would be a red flag,” says Hedgepeth.

There are Limits; Hedgepeth warns that the companies that do pre-sale inspections usually have a disclaimer saying they do their best efforts but accept no liability if something is missed during the inspection.

“It’s difficult to find every problem in a car. There’s a lot of mechanical work, a lot of it is cased, and other than actually disassembling the engine or the transmission, it’s really difficult to know.”

He says Turners Auctions uses diagnostic scanning tools that are pretty good at spotting problems. These include whether anyone else has previously used a scan tool to erase data on the car, which could indicate potential problems, an unusual but revealing red flag.

After the sale, it’s a balance between complying with the law and doing good business.

“It comes down to what is fair and reasonable in terms of the age of the vehicle, the mileage, the condition of the vehicle as shown by the price paid for it. When you look at all of these things, is it fair and reasonable that this car would have had this problem within this timeframe since purchase?” says Hedgepeth.

Our trio of first-time buyers didn’t have any major problems with their cars for the first 11 months – and some would now be reluctant to go back to the seller should a problem arise.

“Possibly if it was something really big that could have been there when I got it, then I would consider it,” says Matthew Furness.

His classmates say they’d probably just take it on the chin and go to a mechanic, which sounds like the confidence that comes from doing your homework at all.

You can use your car not only for the car but also for the company that sells it by looking for reviews online. Local site Buyer Rating carries customer ratings for dealers; Google and Facebook are awash with recommendations, so use your judgement.

And of course, if it’s a private sale, double that check and ask the ouch questions.

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