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

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

Now is a good time to think about it. Winter is peak buying season for new car owners, falling six months after the peak of 16s when new drivers start getting their restricted licenses.

A first car can be a consumer’s first big headache, but there are many simple defensive buying measures that everyone should follow when looking for a used car.

Fair Go asked three 17-year-old first-timers at Albany Senior High School for advice. It runs an Adulting 101 course that covers life skills students identify as wanting to learn – like how to apply for a job, do their 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 clean, so she scoured car yards with her family until she got what she wanted for $7,000.

“It had a pretty good number of miles. We took it for a test drive, and it had a pretty good history.”

Twin brother Matthew knew he wanted trunk space, so he opted for a Nissan Bluebird sedan – older, less fuel efficient but a bit cheaper at $5800.

“A family friend of ours who does car maintenance checked it out and made sure it was safe.”

Both purchased from resellers, which means the purchase is covered by the Consumer Warranties Act – meaning a ‘fair and reasonable’ test applies to any faults which later arise.

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

“We knew they didn’t drive it much, it was their backup 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 issues, noises, service history, evidence of accidental damage? Does it have a warrant of fitness?” asks Greg Hedgepeth, general manager of Turners Cars.

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

Hedgepeth says the WoF is just a visual safety check, so a pre-purchase inspection is a must to investigate any potential mechanical issues, especially for older, cheaper cars.

Inspections can cost the buyer between $100 and $200, far less than the thousands of dollars a major defect could cost to repair later.

If the seller is hesitant to allow one, “that would be a red flag,” says Hedgepeth.

There are limits; Hedgepeth warns that companies that carry out pre-purchase inspections usually have a disclaimer that they do their best, but will not accept responsibility if anything is missed during the check.

“It’s hard to find all the problems in a car. There are a lot of mechanical parts, a lot of them are locked away and apart from taking the engine apart or taking the transmission apart, it’s really hard to know.”

He says Turners Auctions uses diagnostic scan tools that are pretty good at detecting issues. This includes whether someone else might have used a scan tool before to erase all data from the car that could indicate potential issues, an uncommon but telling warning sign.

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

“It boils down to what is fair and reasonable in relation to the age of the vehicle, the mileage, the condition of the vehicle which is indicated by the price that was paid. When you look at all of those things, is fair and reasonable that this car has this problem in this time frame since purchase?” Hedgepeth said.

Our trio of first-time buyers had no major problems with their cars in the first 11 months – and some are now said to be reluctant to return to the seller if a problem arises.

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

His classmates say they would probably take him on the chin and go to a mechanic, which sounds like the confidence born of doing their homework in the first place.

You can make your own not only on the car, but also on the company selling it by checking reviews online. The local Buyerscore site offers customer ratings for dealerships; Google and Facebook are full of recommendations, so use your judgment.

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

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