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What to look for in a secondhand car

Used Cars by Thomas Hawk

Next to property, a car is one of the most expensive purchases you can make in Singapore. In fact, our country has the dubious distinction of still being the most expensive place in the world to own a car, despite the average cost of a new compact car having dropped around 30% between 2012 and 2018. Plus, most millennials have given up even wanting to buy a car, which is a depreciating asset––many consider it better to put that money towards property. (And in this economy, who would blame them?)

Fortunately for the cash-conscious among us, used cars are nowhere near as expensive––it’ll cost you anywhere from 50%–70% less on average than a new car. If your life circumstances require you to drive, those savings start to look very attractive. And it’s more environmentally friendly too: why have a perfectly good vehicle rusting away in some dealership, when you could be the one to give it a new and loving home?

Still, like any big-ticket purchase, buying a car requires some investigation and forethought as to what its overall value to your life will be. For instance, you don’t want something that’s cheap, but will cost you a ton in repair and reconditioning costs further down the line.

So what do you need to look for when buying a second hand car? Here are a few things to consider.

Price: how much is it, and how much can you afford?

It might seem obvious, but being clear with your own financial situation is fundamental to buying anything. Used cars are cheaper than new, but there’s still no point considering a particular car if you can’t afford to pay it off.

Some questions you can ask yourself: what is your budget? How are your finances? What can you afford in terms of a down payment? How long can you afford monthly payments, and at what price point?

Your own lifestyle

There are tons of ‘best of’ and ‘recommended’ lists out there––we have our fair share of cars we personally like and recommend––but you’re the one owning it at the end of the day, so your needs and lifestyle come first in this equation.

A few things to ask yourself: what do you need a car for? How many people are going to be driving or riding? Is it for work? Will you have a long commute? Will you take it on road trips? How much space do you have for parking? Do you need a large or small car? Do you like automatic cars? Are you in the market for something environmentally friendly?

Is it a PARF or COE car?

Not barf, PARF––Preferential Additional Registration Fee! Basically, this refers to a car that’s still using the original Certificate of Entitlement (COE), which means it’s less than 10 years old. A COE car, on the other hand, is a car that’s had its COE renewed––which means it’s generally older than 10 years.

The PARF is important because it tells you what its ‘scrap value’ is. If the vehicle is de-registered within 10 years from when it was first registered, the registered owner gets a PARF rebate. For example, if you buy a used car that’s 3 years old, and you decide to de-register it when it’s 6 years old, you still qualify for that tasty, tasty PARF rebate. (And a COE rebate for the amount of unused COE time!) Of course, PARF cars are more expensive than COE cars (because they’re newer) and require higher down payments.

COE cars, on the other hand, are the cheapest option around. It’ll be at least 10 years old, which comes with the usual drawbacks of an older car––higher road tax, the likelihood of lots of mileage, lower driving performance, and the probability of higher maintenance costs. Think about all this when you’re considering your options!

Look at the actual car

So you’ve done your research, and you’ve found a few cars at your preferred second hand car dealership. (Hopefully that’s us!) The first thing you need to do before you even hop in for a test drive is a cosmetic walkaround, which is a fancier way of saying ‘look carefully at the car.’

Check out the bodywork. Basically, you want to see whether this car has been in past accidents or has sustained damage. Are there any scratches or dents, or indication of rust? You don’t want rust. You can probably live with some minor dings and scratches (depending on the price) but large areas of damage are an obvious red flag. Does the colour of the car match everywhere? Check the body panels: if they’re unevenly lined up, it could be a sign that the vehicle wasn’t properly repaired after an accident, and that could be a little unsafe. Also, open and close everything you can––doors, boot, even the petrol cap. They should open and close smoothly.

Check all four wheels and their tyres. Make sure the wheels aren’t dinged or bent, because that’s dangerous and they’ll need replacing. As for the tyres, did the dealer replace them with new ones, or are they semi-used preexisting tyres? (New tyres are expensive, so this might be where you can negotiate a little.) The tyres shouldn’t have any cuts or gouges, and they should have at least 1.6mm tread (although at this point they really should be replaced anyway). They should also be evenly worn.

Look underneath the car for signs of an oil leak. If there’s sludge underneath, that might indicate an oil leak. You’ll want to look inside the bonnet, too, and see if there are any fluids leaking. For example, you should look out for engine oil (brown or black), coolant or antifreeze (green, pink, or yellow), and gearbox fluid (reddish brown).

Now for the inside. Plop yourself in the seats––not just in the driver’s seat, but in all the passenger seats. Are the seats comfortable? Is there unusual wear and tear in the upholstery? Does it smell funny? (If it does, check for signs of leaking or water damage.) Make sure the seatbelts work properly, and that you can smoothly fasten and unfasten them. In fact, make sure everything works as intended, from the lights to the air-conditioning (SO important in Singapore). If something doesn’t work, you’ll need to negotiate down and/or budget for repairs.

We don't recommend that your dog does the test drive! Photo: Rusty Clark by Maia.

Take it for a test drive

If the car ticks all the boxes above, it’s time to take it for a spin. As with a new car, this is a key part of the process, and the dealer should be happy to come with you. Listen to how it sounds when you turn it on. In fact, you don’t want to hear any unorthodox noises from your brakes or engine when you’re idling or driving––there should be no tapping, clicking, sputtering, or anything like that.

Check how much mileage there is on the car (look at the dashboard) and compare that to how it looks, how it feels when you drive, and any used car documentation on hand. Do the numbers match? If it’s only racked up 20,000km, does the car still feel relatively new?

Assess how it feels when you drive. Are the brakes working properly? The brake pedal should feel quite firm when you press down on it. Are the windshield wipers swiping smoothly? (If not, you’ll want to have them changed.) Are the side mirrors in good condition? Does the car feel aligned, or does it drift to the side when you loosen your grip on the steering wheel? Can you shift gears smoothly? Try taking it on a bumpy road to see how it performs.

Most importantly, when you’re looking for a second hand car, you’ll want to consider whether it’s comfortable and right for you. You could be test-driving the sexiest second hand SUV on the market, but if all you need is a cute little hatchback to ferry yourself around town, just stop right there and keep on shopping.

In the market for a second hand car? We gotchu fam. Head on over to ST Auto for a test drive with our friendly sales staff. Call +65 6464 9098 or email us at

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