Ultimate Used Car Buying Checklist

Shopping for your next vehicle is supposed to be exciting and fun. It shouldn’t be a process fraught with stress, drama, arguments, and flared tempers. Finding the right car is a process of research, elimination, and a pinch of patience.

With around 100,000 used cars for sale on the internet from around South Africa, you’re bound to find a better car around the corner. Taking the time to perform due diligence will pay dividends when your car performs flawlessly and that “new car” honeymoon experience lasts longer than a week… That’s why we’ve compiled this list, the ultimate used car buying checklist, to help you to find your way around a used car you’re looking to park on your driveway.

Having performed thousands of vehicle inspections, taken many hundreds of cars through roadworthy inspections, and driven thousands of used cars over the years, we stick to a checklist that we’ve honed with experience to objectively assess and test cars of all types. Being meticulous and thorough might take a bit more time, but it is well worth it when you know the car you’re about to buy isn’t a Code 3 rebuild being disguised as a bargain buy…


• Check that the license disc information of the car matches its number plate and VIN number on the windscreen and in the engine bay. This is an often-overlooked step and it has left some used car dealers red-faced when they’ve mistakenly bought a Code 3 or a stolen vehicle.
• Does the seller have the right to sell the vehicle? Make sure the seller is the legal owner of the car – or has legal proxy to act as an agent on behalf of the owner.


The car’s engine is one of its most expensive aspects so you want to make sure it is in excellent health – anything less, you need to walk away.
• Check the engine for any leaks by checking the head gasket condition, under the car where it’s been parked, and check for any oil leaks.
• Check the oil level of the engine and the overall condition of the engine’s various components.
• Start the car to listen for any abnormal sounds during the start-up phase: you can learn a great deal about an engine’s condition during its start-up phase.
• Once the engine’s settled into its normal operating window, check the exhaust for smoke, listen to the cooling system to check if it kicks in during light load levels, and listen for any clucking or knocking sounds coming from the engine.
• Make sure the car’s dashboard shows no Check Engine Light or oil warning lights.
•Engage the clutch and listen for any noises: if you hear any clutch noises, it is a sign that it will need to be replaced soon.
• Switch on the aircon to listen to the compressor kick in. Does it make any abnormal noises? Does it begin to cool the car’s interior? If not, it might need to be repaired.


Apart from the engine, the gearbox and clutch are tell-tale signs of the car’s condition and its history. • For manual transmissions, you need to drive the vehicle to check that all gears work, that no strange noises are emanating from the transmission tunnel, and you can also test the clutch’s biting point.
• An automatic transmission needs to be smooth and shift speedily. You can test its operation only be driving it. Stop on an incline: if the car rolls back when you move your foot off the brake pedal, then the car’s transmission is showing signs of needing a service and a new clutch. If you come to a stop, lift your foot off the brake pedal and gently accelerate to then lift off the accelerator pedal: if it jerks or hesitates, the gearbox needs attention.
• Inspect the vehicle’s service book to see when the gearbox was serviced. Call the workshop where the car was last serviced and ask them for independent feedback and assessment on the car’s condition.


• Curb crashes or pavement rash is to be expected: check the alloy rims and tyres for signs of excessive damage or wear. If the alloy wheels are dented, they might be an indicator of a minor crash that could have resulted in damage to the axles.
• Tyres need to have the minimum amount of tread on them to pass a roadworthy inspection and they need to all be matching: rear tyres’ brands and sizes must match; and, the same goes for the front tyres.
• Minor dents and scratches are understandable. Look around the door seals, panel gaps and window rubber seals for signs of respray work carried out and for tell-tale bubbles in the panels hiding any dents. All panels must line-up and must be straight. Expect the front bumper to have a certain amount of stone chips, but the headlights and foglights must be in great condition. These small dents, scratches, and stone chips can be repaired by a body shop if necessary. The purpose of the inspection is to identify any areas that the seller hasn’t pointed out to you; there always are. Scrutinize the panels, the roof, and wheel arches for any signs of parts replacement or repairs carried out.
• Most good vehicle dealerships will recondition a used car to bring out its best. This usually consists of respraying one or two panels, replacing a cracked headlight or taillight, or changing the tyres. However, you need to inspect every inch of the car for previous work and you need to ensure their repair work didn’t mask larger problems than what they’re presenting to you.
• Open the boot, inspect the seam welds, the spare wheel arch, and inside the taillights for possible previous accident damage.

Wheels and Tyres:

• Check the wheels for any scuff marks and scratches to their lips and spokes. Gauge whether there might be more serious damage to the wheels and suspension parts by inspecting the wheels for further indications of wear such as cracks and welding repairs.
• Tyres need to meet the minimum tread depth to meet with roadworthy inspections to claim a roadworthy certificate, but you might be able to bargain with the seller if the tyres are in poor condition.
• Make sure all the tyres are of the same size, same brand, and same model. For all-wheel-drive vehicles, this is especially important. To pass a roadworthy inspection, the tyres on each axle of a car must match, so you could find the front and rear tyres might not match.
• Check the spare tyre for its condition and whether it will need to be replaced too.


This is the area in which you’ll be spending most of your time so you want a car that’s clean, neat and free from any damage and unsightly repairs.
• Inspect the boot for the spare tyre, its accessories such as jack and spanner.
• Check the condition of the seats’ material and foam, inspect for any tears and cigarette burn marks.
• Make sure all accessories and equipment such as the cigarette lighter are in place and operational, and that ashtrays are in place and other such parts.
• Go over the steering wheel to see that their buttons and levers all work, the dashboard and centre console is without any blemishes or repair work indicative of an accident or theft replacements, and pay attention to the knobs, buttons and controllers for any signs of damage. We look at all the ergonomic touch points for wear and tear: if a steering wheel, audio controls, and aircon knobs are in good condition, it is usually a sign that the car was well taken care of during its life.

Test Drive:

As much as your investigative processes are honed, nothing beats a good test drive to reveal all about the car’s condition. The purpose of a test drive is to evaluate a vehicle to identify any problem areas.
• Upon startup, listen carefully to the engine as it warms up through the start-up phase.
• Check the dashboard for any warning lights that may appear during your test drive.
• Check all lights to make sure they work, even foglights.
• You don’t need to drive a car very fast to gauge its faults or qualities: pulling away from a stop and gently accelerating will show up the car’s clutch, engine response, and any problems with the suspension.
• Going over an uneven piece of road is better than a perfectly new road surface: you’re able to feel how the car moves over the pitted road to evaluate how its suspension components react.
• Testing the brakes is important: find a quiet section of road and slam on the brakes as hard as you can from 60km/h to a stop. If the vehicle aggressively pulls to the left or right of the road despite you keeping it in a straight line will identify any worn suspension items.
• Park the vehicle on an incline and use the handbrake. Test whether the car rolls back at all.
• Do also check that the aircon works: put it on to its coldest setting and set the fan speed to its fastest. If it cools the interior of the car quickly without any overtly loud noises from the compressor in the engine bay, it is in good working order. If it doesn’t cool the cabin and the seller is adamant that it is gassed up, it is a sign of a faulty aircon.


• Take your time to read through the car’s service manual.
• Check that the seller has the NATIS (RLV1) document.
• Make sure the car’s VIN and engine numbers match with these documents.
• Ask for a roadworthy certificate or AA Dekra test report.

Walk Away:

With more than 100,000 vehicles for sale online in South Africa, you’ll be sure to find a better example of the car your heart desires somewhere else in South Africa. Don’t settle or compromise on the quality of car you’re after for your hard-earned cash. If the car isn’t entirely what you are after, walk away. If there is one thing that bothers you about the car, simply walk away. Don’t forget that you have the power in this transaction.

We hope that this ultimate checklist will help you to find the car of your dreams. What else would you add to the article?

+ posts

One thought on “Ultimate Used Car Buying Checklist

Leave a Reply