Car Buying Guide: How to buy a car
Find out what to look when buying a car and compare finance options now.
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A car is likely to be one of the most expensive purchases you ever make, so it pays to make sure you get it right.
What car should I buy?
What’s your budget?
What features do you need?
By working out the features you need, you can narrow down the type of vehicles you'll want to compare. Once you've identified a shortlist of potential cars, you'll want to research them further, by checking out their specs and reading car reviews.
Where can I buy a car?
|Where to buy||How it works||What it’s good for|
|Dealership (new car)||Walk onto a car lot and shop for a new car||Good for checking out a wide range of options, test driving each of them and getting some expert advice.|
If you want a new car and want to see a lot of options in one place, this might be the best choice for you.
|Dealership (used car)||Visit a used car dealer to see what’s available||Good for finding a lot of relatively affordable options all in one place.|
If you’re after a used car but want the flexibility to shop around on the lot, or you're not confident going to a private seller, then this might be the best option for you.
|Private seller (used car)||Buy a used car directly from a private seller, typically the previous owner||If you’re after the best price possible, then buying used from a private seller is often the way to go.|
Make sure you know how to check the car thoroughly before buying, including its service history.
|Demonstrator vehicles||Buy a lightly-used newer model vehicle that’s been used for test drives, demos and other light purposes by a car dealership||This might be a good option if you want to buy almost-new rather than brand new and want to get a good price on a recent make and model.|
However, the savings can vary and your options will naturally be more limited, and demo cars might be fitted with extras that you don’t necessarily want but will have to pay for anyway.
|Imported cars||Import a car from overseas||It’s safe to say that this will never be the cheapest option as it involves a range of additional taxes and expenses. However, sometimes it might be the only way to get a vehicle that isn’t available in Australia.|
|Car auctions||Bid on vehicles at an auction||This can be one of the most affordable ways to buy a car – it’s so good that car dealers often buy their stock at auctions.|
The downside is that the quality of auctioned vehicles and the quality of their discounts can vary, so you need to have a good sense of how much a car is worth and how to properly inspect it in order to get a good price. Also, you typically won’t be able to take the car for a test drive.
How to get the best deal
The number one tip is to know how much a car is worth. Look up the value of the make and model beforehand, so you have a ballpark figure to work with. If someone asks for more than that, you can ask why it’s so expensive and haggle for a better price.
From there, familiarise yourself with the different options and features you can get with the car. Decide which ones you want and which ones you don’t and make sure to ask the seller if the car has any of the features you're after.
How do I inspect a car?
Checklist for inspecting a used car
You’re looking for anything you’ll have to fix yourself, any damage that means it’s a dud and any red flags that might indicate that the seller isn’t being honest.
- There are no signs of previous accidents, hail or other damage, and no chips or imperfections in the paint. You should know about every scratch on the car before buying.
- For improper sealing: Pop the hood, open the trunk and try all the doors and windows. It should all work smoothly and evenly.
- For panel irregularities: All body panels and doors should be flush.
On the inside:
- Pay special attention to the electronics and check that all the functions work.
- Check the condition of all the upholstery.
- Check that all the lights are functioning.
- Ensure that the windows, air conditioning, audio and all other electronics are working.
- Where possible, lift the carpets and look inside the doors for any signs of damage or repairs.
Other things to look for:
- Paint. A new paint job on an old car might be hiding something and you’re generally better off with the original paint. Watch out for any signs of painted-over imperfections, bubbles under the paint and mismatched paint on adjacent body panels.
- Tires. If you’ll have to replace the tires after buying, then factor that into the cost and don’t pay too much for the car. Tires should also wear down evenly. If they’re not evenly worn then there may have been a previous accident or the car might have other problems.
- Glass. This can be expensive to replace, so pay special attention to any chips or cracks in the windows, indicator lights, mirrors and anywhere else.
- Under the car. Don’t forget to inspect under the car. Rust often starts here, so look out for any signs of corrosion or other damage.
Turn on the engine to test it properly.
- Warm up the engine by letting the car idle for a few minutes, then give the accelerator a quick push. If you see a puff of smoke then you might be looking at piston or valve stem problems.
- Let the car stand for a while and check for oil drips or wet surface residue on the surface of the engine and under the car.
- Check the water in the radiator. It should be clean and free of oil.
- Check the oil filter caps. A creamy white substance there probably means a cracked cylinder head or leaking gaskets.
The test drive
As you drive, check that:
- You can change gears smoothly and quickly.
- The engine power is appropriate for the car.
- The car tracks in a straight line and doesn’t drift. The car shouldn’t pitch on corners and the steering wheel shouldn’t pull or try to straighten itself unduly.
- The brakes respond effectively.
- The electrics, dials and other interfaces are all working properly and the speedometer is working accurately.
- The temperature dials, car engine light and all other indicators are not showing problems.
- There is no irregular engine noise.
- You’ve paid attention to the suspension and transmission.
- The exhaust emissions are reasonable.
- All the headlights, tail lights and interior lights work.
The documents and information to get
You’ll want to get:
- The car’s CTP insurance details. You should not test drive a car on public roads if it doesn’t have CTP insurance or is unregistered. Ask to see the certificate before taking it for a test drive and check that the certificate details match the vehicle.
- The VIN. This unique 17-digit code will generally be on the inside of the driver’s door. Record it for later if you plan on buying in order to check the car’s history.
Checking the car’s history
If a car passes the inspection and test drive, the last thing to do before buying is to check its history. Unfortunately there’s a very good chance it won’t pass a history check. But that’s exactly why you need to do it.
You’re checking two things in particular. The first is whether there’s any finance owing on the vehicle and the second is its service history, including previous repairs and whether it’s ever been reported stolen or written off.
- PPSR check. This is how you check whether a vehicle is encumbered. With the car’s VIN number you can easily do it for free. If a vehicle is still under finance it usually means the seller bought it with a car loan and is now trying to sell it before the loan is paid off.
- Service history. You can also do this yourself for free, but you may not be able to get the full results.
If you don’t want to DIY, you can pay a car history service to check these for you. It generally doesn’t cost much and usually includes both a PPSR and service history check.
Making the purchase
When buying a used car from a private seller, you’ll need to transfer ownership to make it official. You should generally get all relevant documents at the time of purchase, including:
- Vehicle registration
- A PPSR notice if applicable
The seller will need to inform the state road authority that they’ve transferred registration and ownership of the vehicle and you will need to accept the transfer. This can generally be done online through your state motor authority.
What if I find a problem?
If it’s a problem that the seller has tried concealing, such as if you spot any painted-over rust spots, then you’ll want to think twice about whether or not you really know what you’re buying. Similarly, you probably don’t want to buy a car from a private seller if they refuse to let you take it to an independent mechanic for an inspection.
If a car is under finance then the seller should mention this. Ideally, you won’t buy an encumbered vehicle, but you can if you want. You’ll need to have a plan for the finance, however, it’s not your problem until you buy the car so the ideal option might be to make sure the seller takes care of it.
If a car has previously been written off then you shouldn’t buy it, even if it seems fine. It’s almost certainly not as fine as it seems.Back to top
Find out what finance options are available below and compare the pros and cons.
Paying for the car outright
You can use your existing savings to cover the cost of the car.
- There’s no need to pay interest when you pay it all upfront.
- You need to have enough saved.
You can fund your car directly through the dealer. The dealer secures finance on your behalf and you then make regular repayments to cover the purchase of the vehicle.
- It can be convenient to get finance from the same place that you buy the car.
- It might not be the most cost-effective choice. Dealers will be looking to make money on the deal, and you may be able to get a better deal elsewhere.
Regular car loan
You can apply for a car loan with a range of banks, credit unions and non-bank lenders. You borrow what you need to buy the car and then repay the loan over a set term, plus interest.
- There's a wide range of options. For example, a good credit applicant might get more competitive rates, or you might choose to borrow only the amount you need and pay the rest with savings. You can also consider the loan terms and conditions at your own pace, outside the car dealership.
- You'll need to meet certain eligibility requirements. Most lenders will require that you're over 18 years old, an Australian citizen or permanent resident and currently employed.
Finance from a car loan broker
You can also use a broker to help find you a car loan through their network of lenders.
- They will find loans that are suitable for your situation. For example, bad credit applicants who keep getting knocked back by lenders might have more luck going through a broker.
- Brokers generally charge additional fees for their services.
Pre-approved car loan
This when you get approval from a lender for a certain amount before selecting a vehicle. You can then use the funds to cover the cost of the car you want.
- It helps you to know where you stand and how much you can borrow.
- You might borrow too much or too little. If the car you choose won't be covered by the loan amount, you'll need to find additional funding, and if you borrow too much, you'll be stuck paying unnecessary interest.
A finance option for employees that allows them to lease a car using their pre-tax salary.
- You will reduce your taxable income and save on tax.
- Your employer will need to approve the lease.
This is a business vehicle finance option that lets you lease a vehicle while taking immediate ownership.
- Chattel mortgages may be more flexible and provide tax benefits.
- It’s only available for business vehicles.
- No monthly fees
- No early repayment fees
- Borrow up to $75,000
100% confidential application
IMB New Car Loan
A low rate loan to finance new vehicles or cars up to two years old. Borrow up to $75,000.
- Interest rate: 4.99% p.a.
- Comparison rate: 5.34% p.a.
- Interest rate type: Fixed
- Application fee: $275.12
- Minimum loan amount: $2,000
- Maximum loan amount: $75,000
Compare car loans
What extra costs should I budget for?
Additional costs when buying
- Stamp duty: This is a type of tax. When you buy new or used from a dealer it’s generally built into the sticker price, but when you buy from a private seller, stamp duty needs to be paid when transferring ownership. You’ll typically see this as a “dutiable value” field on the transfer documents. The amount can vary widely, but for a typical used car, one might expect to pay around 3% in stamp duty. See how it works in each state to find out how much you’ll have to pay in stamp duty.
- Extras and modifications: The price you get at a dealer will depend largely on which features and extras are thrown in. This can turn the price thousands of dollars either way. Generally, it might be a good idea to turn down any extras you don’t want in order to keep costs down. The same might be true when buying used from a private seller with a modified car. If you don’t care about the mods, you might want to give it a miss to avoid overpaying.
- Registration: For new cars, you’ll have to pay a fee to register it. And if you’re buying used, you’ll need to pay a fee for the transfer of registration/ownership (generally around $20 to $30 depending on the state). The cost of renewing your registration or registering a new car varies widely depending on your state, whether you can get any concessions and other factors.
Additional costs after buying
- CTP insurance: Compulsory third party (CTP) insurance is the mandatory car insurance to help cover the cost of injuries sustained on the road. It works differently and costs vary depending on your state. In all states except NSW, it can be attached to your car registration and built into the cost of new and renewed registrations. In NSW your CTP insurance takes the form of a separate “green slip” and you can shop around for better prices from different insurers.
- Additional car insurance: It’s not mandatory, but additional car insurance is generally a good idea. The cost can vary widely depending on the type and quality of cover, the insurer and your personal circumstances.
- Maintenance and fuel: It’s worth planning for operating costs. The cost of fuel and routine car maintenance will depend on the type of car and how much you drive.
- Car loan repayments: If you’re not careful these might become a major headache. You should know how much the repayments will cost before taking on a car loan.
In some situations, you’re likely to encounter other miscellaneous expenses too. For example, the luxury car tax (when buying a particularly expensive car), licence plate transfer fees (if you’re buying the plates from the old owner – more if they’re custom plates), stamp duty on the cost of your car insurance (built into your insurance payments) and more.
Compare comprehensive car insurance policies
Are cooling off periods legal? Can I get a refund?
Cooling off periods
If you change your mind after buying, such as if you realise you can’t afford the financing or that you just got a bad deal, then you have a limited time to contact the dealer in writing, cancel your agreement and get a refund.
This period of time is the “cooling off period”. It works differently in each state, but in all cases, the cooling off period will only apply to purchases from licensed car dealers. It is not available when buying at an auction or from a private seller.
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Car Loan OffersImportant Information*
You'll receive a fixed rate of 4.99% p.a.
A low minimum borrowing amount of $2,000 that you can use to purchase a new car or one up to two years old.
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A larger loan of $5,000 or more to help you buy a new or used car. 5-hour pre approval available and no ongoing fees.
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Purchase a new or used car up to 2 years old and benefit from a fixed rate and no monthly fees. Pre-approval available within 5 business hours.
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