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Sorting Out The Lemme-Have From The Lemon: Tips On Buying A Car

Freya Hill
Freya Hill

If it hasn’t happened to you, it's happened to someone you know. The initial giddy high of purchasing a dream car that quickly dissolves into a living nightmare.

It is the chameleon car that was blue when you purchased it, but as each paint chip comes off it is becoming increasingly clear that it started off life as red. Or it is the money/soul sucker of a lemon, where a little repair here and there quickly mounts to cost you triple what you paid for the honour of owning the old bomber. 

While there is no foolproof guide to buying a car, the following points are worth bearing in mind.

1.The Plan of Attack

Before you even look at a car, it pays to do a brainstorm of what you need and want out of your new vehicle. Consider:

What kind of tasks the car will be performing? (Long distances? Multiple short trips? Carrying a lot or carrying very little?).

What sort of features will the car need to fit with the role it will be performing. A hatchback may be ideal for zipping around in urban areas, but might lack the comfort need for long distances. Also work out your budget. Be realistic and aim to stick to it.

It might seem a bit pedantic writing down ‘We need a 5 door car because that will be easier with the kids’, but in the long run it will help. Breaking down exactly what you are looking for, before you start, will make it much easier to eliminate what you don’t want, in a market which offers an overwhelming selection.

2. What Do I Want?

There will be multiple cars which will fit the initial criteria you may come up with, so it is helpful to research the specific makes and models which you may be interested in purchasing.

The NZ version of The Dog and Lemon Guide ($25, available widely in bookstores or online) and similar car guides, compile reviews of hundreds of makes and models, offering overall ratings as well as ratings on specific categories (safety, comfort etc).

3.Where To Look For The New Car

In purchasing a new car, you are likely to acquire it through three main areas:

  • Private Sale
  • Car Auction
  • Car Dealer

Sale through a private vendor will save you the auction house’s fees or the dealer’s mark up, but lacks some of the legal cover which a sale through a recognised car dealer will provide.

When buying from a dealer, you will be protected under The Consumer Guarantees and Fair Trade Act. A car dealer must be registered as such. You can check that the vendor you are working with is a registered car dealer through the Motor Vehicles Register ( or 0508 668 678).

If a dispute arises from a sale with a registered car dealer, you will be able to take the dispute to the Motor Vehicle Despites Tribunal. The Tribunal charges a $50 fee for hearing disputes, and will hear disputes up to the value of $50,000 (0800 367 6838 or MVDH Po Box 6848 Wellesley St, Auckland).

A sale with a private vendor will not be covered by the MVDH nor The Consumer Guarantees and Fair Trade Act, but claims can be taken to the Disputes Tribunal.

4. Giving It A ‘Once Over’

Once you have decided on whom to buy from, and found a car which you are interested in, the great inspection can begin.

An important thing to remember at this point is that, unless you are a professional when it comes to inspecting cars, the professionals can do a better job than you.

To commission a pre-purchase inspection of the car you are interested in, contact your mechanic, the AA (0800 500 333) or other listed professionals under ‘Vehicle Inspections’ in the Yellow Pages. The inspection should cost around $130; a fraction of the cost of buying ( a potentially unsafe) car.

You can, of course, do some preliminary inspections yourself; to weed out cars that are it would be laughable to pay good money to establish they are unroadworthy.

First off, ask about the WOF.  Cars sold by a dealer must have a WOF no more than a month old.  Also be aware that private vendors can sell a car without a WOF.

Ensure that you are seeing the vehicle in good, ideally natural, light.

Assess, on the outside:
Rust, especially in the body of the car.
The paint: Is it starting to chip away? Are there signs that it has recently been patched over?
The tyres: Legally, the tread must be 1.5mm across 3/4 of the tyre. Also, uneven wear can demonstrate a problem with the suspension.
The panelling: Does it all align evenly.

On the inside:
Dashboard area: Are all the knobs there and do they all seem to work?
Pedals? Too loose could illustrate poor suspension.

Look at the engine. A dirty fill usually be a sign of an ill cared for car.

If the car has passed your entail size up, you may want to take it for a test drive. Check before getting behind the wheel that the dealer’s insurance does not leave you liable for any accidents, which may occur, on the drive.

During the test drive, use all your senses. Listen to the sounds of the engine, smell-are there any unusual smells-and feel; how does the car handle hills, acceleration and breaking.

5. More Paper Work

If the car is so far impressing you enough to consider negotiating a sale, there some other important pieces of paper work to enquiry about.  A car dealer should provide you with a Supplier Information Notice (SIN). This notice should detail car ownership, and any debts against the car.

If the sale is with a private vendor, you can have a vehicle history checking service (for example to check if the car is free of outstanding debts.

6. The Negotiation

If thunder birds are go, and all inspections seem to be coming back with top marks for your new car-to-be, be prepared to negotiation with the vendor. Be aware that if the vendor is aware that you have your heart set on one particular car, this will limit your bargaining power more than if you are investigating several with the same vendor. A cash purchase should get you a bigger discount.

7. Change Of Ownership

If a sale is negotiation, a change of ownership will need to be registered with the LTSA. The buyer is responsible for paying for this. In seeking finance, consider that banks will probably be able to give you more reasonable rates than a dealer.

Finances and a smooth change of ownership allowing, you should soon be zipping about town in a lovely new number. Though there are plenty of nightmare stories out there about buying a new car, a little time and leg work before you purchase can insure you end up with a dream car, and not lumped with a lemon.

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