Surprise! The "near-perfect" second-hand car you just bought has a faulty transmission, the previous owner skipped the country owing money on it and the odometer has been wound back. What went wrong?

Most car purchases go well. Make a wrong decision, however, and it's easy to throw a few thousand dollars down the gurgler.

I have to admit that trawling the second-hand car market is not something I do. I'm a great believer in Bangernomics - the economics of not upgrading cars.

The logic is that we fool ourselves into thinking we "need" to upgrade our car by using various excuses such as our image, the need for a "reliable" car, a tow bar and so on.


So I've asked the experts for some tips about how to buy a car without being ripped off.

The first question buyers need to ask is whether to buy privately, or from a dealer.

Neither route guarantees the perfect purchase.

Private buyers and sellers tend to favour Trade Me, which has around 60,000 vehicles advertised at any one time.

Other popular methods for private sales include advertising on local noticeboards and newspapers. Advertising in the window of the car works for some people.

Trade Me is a great place to buy a car, but buyers really do need to be careful.

A staggering 15 per cent of Trade Me sales are done sight unseen, says Clive Matthew-Wilson who runs the Dog and Lemon website.

The buyers are also not getting a pre-sale vehicle inspection done, which is essential when buying any car.


Even if you're in Auckland and the seller's in Invercargill, says Jack Biddle, the AA's motoring advice manager, you can still get an AA check done by telephoning and paying for it with a credit card.

If the seller refuses to take the car for the AA inspection, warning bells should ring.

Biddle is keen to add that an AA inspection is about the mechanical state of the vehicle and doesn't tell you if you'll like the colour of the trim.

He recommends people view the vehicle before buying it for aesthetic reasons.

Trade Me is a bit of a magnet to people looking to offload vehicles with hidden defects.

There have been instances of criminals duping people out of money as well. Often they ask for payment before the vehicle is seen or may be posing as overseas buyers or sellers.

Michael O'Donnell, Trade Me's head of operations, encourages members to click on the little sheriff badge that connects them to the site's round-the-clock policing team if they have concerns about a listing.

Anyone planning to buy or sell a vehicle on Trade Me should read every sentence of the website's Selling Guide at Trade

All too often, private car buyers find to their horror that a previous owner owes money on the vehicle to a finance company or other lender, a discovery made as it is repossessed.

Yet a simple search that would reveal this in advance can be done on the website for $1.02. A more comprehensive $19.95 search can be carried out via, which will show whether the person selling the vehicle is actually the owner, any money owing on it and:

* Any unpaid fees that a new owner would have to pay.

* If the car's odometer appears to have been wound back.

* If the seller is the registered owner.

* If the car has been reported stolen.

* If the vehicle is a flood-damaged import.

Buyers of these reports also get a "Repossession Guarantee".

Should your vehicle be repossessed for money owed or for having been reported stolen, you will be compensated, providing you meet stated terms and conditions.

The AA's Biddle says it is still possible to buy a vehicle that has money owing on it.

The buyer must, however, work out a way to ensure that the debt is paid off.

Simply handing over a cheque to a seller who promises to pay the finance company isn't good enough.

One option, says Biddle, is to give the seller a cheque made out to the finance company and, when you are shown a receipt showing the debt has been repaid, go on to pay the seller the balance.

Another useful piece of advice from Biddle is to consider buying a car that has been in New Zealand for a few years and has a good record of being serviced. It may be worth paying $500 more for a vehicle with a good service record over a new import straight off the ship.

Buyers need to be aware that there is a big difference in consumer legal rights between buying at auction or through a negotiated sale.

Car sales, such as those through classified listings, buy-now offers or through car dealer yards are covered by Section 41(3) of the Consumer Guarantees Act.

Vehicles sold at auction or via competitive tender aren't, although the Sale of Goods Act still applies.

Aucklander Lisa Healy tried to make a claim for repairs of $9992 on her 2001 Nissan Primera against Turners Car Auctions under the Consumer Guarantees Act.

Her claim was dismissed by the Motor Vehicles Disputes Tribunal because the car was bought at auction, so the act didn't apply.

Trade Me has been lobbying the Government to give buyers at auction rights under the Consumer Guarantees Act and the Ministry of Consumer Affairs has indicated there will be changes, O'Donnell says.

One buyer who nearly made the same mistake as Healy was Aucklander Fan Yang.

Yang bought a dodgy 2004 VW Golf from Turners late last year. Yang bought the car the day after failing to win it at auction. It turned out the vehicle needed transmission work costing more than $3000, which Turners wasn't aware of.

North Shore branch manager Shane Bigwood claimed at the tribunal that the Consumer Guarantees Act didn't apply because the vehicle was still supplied by auction. The tribunal disagreed, ruled it was a sale by negotiation and awarded Yang $4210.

Turners has resolved to deal with such issues in a more "customer-friendly" manner in the future, Alan Kurtovich, general manager commercial, said this week.

There are several morals to these stories.

One is to be wary of buying at auction - including Trade Me - and if a purchase through a registered dealer or trader of any type goes wrong, complain to the tribunal.

Before buying from any car yard or dealer, it's a good idea to search the tribunal database at to see if there are any judgments against that company.

Car yards aren't always the best place to buy cars either, although some are very good.

Matthew-Wilson believes they charge 25-30 per cent more than someone could pay through a private sale. In return, however, there is more legal comeback and, hopefully, better after-sales service.

Because it's now possible to run a car dealership from home, a small number of rascals pretend to be private sellers. It's not uncommon, Biddle says, for the dealer to claim the car was bought for a family member who didn't like it.

Both Matthew-Wilson and Trade Me recommend when calling a seller about a car listed for sale in the classifieds, to say: "I'm calling about the car ...", not "I'm calling about the Toyota Corolla ..." If the person at the other end replies "which car", you know they are a dealer.

That's not to say you shouldn't buy it. Warning bells may ring, however, if a dealer tries to hide behind a private sale. Is the dealership trying to avoid its legal responsibilities?

All dealers are listed on the Motor Vehicle Traders Register at But they're not all created equal.

As well as being covered by the Consumer Guarantees Act, buyers through dealers are protected from having the car repossessed if an outstanding debt on it was not disclosed before the sale, says Alastair Stewart, communications adviser at the Ministry of Economic Development.