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8 tips to help you avoid buying a lemon used car

Used cars are often near identical to their brand new counterparts. If you know what to look for you could find one that drives and looks like new, for thousands of dollars less.

To buy a pearler of a used car you first have to avoid the lemons. Follow these eight steps to make sure you do.

1. Consider the price

If the price of a used car seems too good to be true it probably is. Take a look at the asking prices of similar models of comparable age and compare their prices to the car you’re considering. If the car you’re looking at is cheaper or more expensive find out why.

2. Check money owing

If you buy from a private seller there’s always a risk that the car has money owing against it, as private sellers are not required by law to disclose this. To protect yourself purchase a  Personal Property Security Register (PPSR) report here.

Alternatively for extra peace of mind purchase your car from a registered car dealer who are legally required to disclose any money owing on a vehicle for sale (and as a result will never sell such cars).


Never buy a used car without its Warrant of Fitness.

3. Don’t buy without a WOF

Private sellers and some dealers will sometimes offer a discount off a car’s sale price if you purchase it without a warrant of fitness (WOF). Avoid this at all costs as often the car will require expensive repairs to pass its WOF.

4. Ask an expert

Unless you’re a qualified and experienced automotive mechanic you won’t be able to pick up on most hidden issues when inspecting a used car for sale. Instead of risking it you should always buy an inspection report from a qualified expert that you trust.

5. Look out for damaged imports

Every year hundreds, maybe thousands of damaged cars are imported into New Zealand. Usually these cars are repaired and sold for cheap, so be wary of vehicles that are going for less than similar models for no obvious reason.

Dealers must disclose that the car has been damaged so when they do be sure to ask about the nature of the damage. Private sellers are not required to disclose prior damage so make sure to check. It may also be worth searching the vehicle’s license number on the NZ Motor Vehicle Registry as details of the damage and repairs may be recorded there.

6. Check the car’s interior

Before buying a used car you should always inspect it yourself. Arrange an inspection during the day and take a good look around the inside of the car. Look under floor mats for rubbish or damage and try all the knobs and switches like the windscreen wipers, aircon, stereo, door locks and window controls.

Note the smells inside the car for any sign that the past owner was a smoker as this scent can stick around for years but be covered up in the short term with air freshener.


Going for a quick drive is a great way to pick up on issues with a used car.

7. Go for a drive

After you’ve had a good look around the car’s interior ask the dealer or private seller to go for a drive. Adjust the car seat and all the mirrors to your preferred position before setting off to make sure it’s comfortable.

When you set off try both the foot brake and the handbrake – the car should stop steadily in a straight line. Listen for any squeaking or scratching sounds that could indicate the brakes are damaged.

Drive on a motorway and on residential streets to make sure the car handles well at all speeds. Listen for grinding when you change gears and ensure the engine accelerates and decelerates smoothly without any knocking or rattling sounds. Listen for knocks and rattles again when you go over speed bumps – this could indicate that the car’s suspension is loose or damaged.

8. Solve an issue with the seller

If you buy a lemon from a private seller unfortunately there’s not often much you can do about it. You may be able to take them to small claims court under the Contract and Commercial Law Act if:

  • You bought the car based on a misleading statement they made
  • The seller still owed money on the car and was dishonest with you about it
  • They didn’t have the right to sell the car, e.g. didn’t own the car

With dealers on the other hand you have far more protection if the car you buy isn’t up to standard. Dealers must comply with the Fair Trading Act, the Consumer Guarantees Act, be registered and comply with the Motor Vehicle Sales Act and provide a consumer information notice on every vehicle they sell. At the very least these guarantees mean that any car you buy from a dealer must be of acceptable quality, be fit for its intended use, and be as described by the dealer.

Are you looking for a used car that drives like it’s brand new? Drop into your nearest Nicholson Auto Dealership today and check out our awesome (lemon-free) used vehicles.

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