3 Must-ask Questions for a Used-Car Salesman


The risks associated with buying used rather than new are far greater for the unwary, but, if you do your homework properly, you’ll discover the problems and spare yourself a whole lot of drama.

With the weaker rand driving new car price inflation and living costs soaring, new cars sales in South Africa are declining sharply – WesBank predicts they’ll be down 12% this year, but used car sales are on the up and up as there’s generally lots of value to be had with cars that have been around the block a few times.

Unfortunately, many a seemingly good looking exterior hides a bad “haircut”: an odometer that's been fraudulently turned back, major accident damage, leaks and mechanical disasters. But even if you avoid those major pitfalls there are three simple questions you should still ask the salesman about a used car.

They are:

1. Does this car have its original service book? 

2. Do you have its spare key?

3. Does the spare wheel (assuming it's a model that comes with a spare) match the car?

And here’s the thing: an answer of yes is not enough; you must demand proof.

Why a yes is not enough

If they can’t produce the spare key (and sorry to have to say this, but do check that it fits the car), and the service book (again, check that it’s the right one for the car, and that the service records don’t look like they’ve all been filled in with the same pen at the same time), do not proceed with the deal.

Just don’t. Do not fall for the “we just have to get it from the previous owner” line. You’ll probably never get that spare key and there’s no doubt a very good reason the service book is not made available to you at the time of the sale.

And then there’s the spare wheel issue. Don’t assume it’s a fit for the car.

Brett Hills bought a used Tata from a dealer in Umhlanga on Christmas Eve of 2014.  Fast forward to March this year, when he awoke to find the right front tyre was flat.

An unpleasant surprise

But an even more unpleasant surprise awaited him inside the car’s boot. “The spanner was too large for the bolts of the wheel and the spare wheel bolt holes were not aligned to fit my wheels – a complete mismatch, despite them being brand new," he said.

He paid a local tyre dealer R592 to supply the correct tyre, and then asked the dealership to provide the correct spare tyre and spanner.

After a lengthy email exchange, he received the following response from the dealership: “Fourteen months have passed since the purchase of the vehicle. Unfortunately, it cannot be proven when the incorrect spare tyre and spanner were placed in the vehicle.

“Our offer still stands to assist you to get the best pricing for the parts you require."

'No proof of when incorrect spare and spanner were fitted'

Unsurprisingly, Hills didn’t take kindly to the insinuation.

“I feel like I am being accused of fraud,” he said in an email to me.

“Why would I go out and purchase the incorrect equipment for my vehicle?

“And how could this be overlooked in the COR (certificate of roadworthiness), which was supplied by the dealership?”

I put it to the dealer principle that if it is to be assumed that the dealership sold the car with the correct spare and tools to fit it, it follows that either Hills lied about what happened, or that at some point in those 14 months, for reasons unknown, some mystery person stole the original spare and tools and replaced them with another new, but mismatched tyre and tools.

The fact that Hills only raised the problem 14 months after buying the car was irrelevant, I said, as the same argument could have been made a day or a week after purchase if the problem had been raised then.

The balance of probabilities favoured Hills’ version of events, I ventured.

Ask the dealership to check, even if it sounds silly

“All he wants is for the tyre and tools in question to be taken back by the dealership and the correct ones supplied.

“Is the dealership really not willing to give him the benefit of the doubt in this matter?”

The response was brief: “I have spoken to Mr Hills. We have ordered the new parts, spanner and spare wheel for him.

“I will notify him when it has arrived on our premises.”

In his original email to me, Hills wrote: “I have never heard of any buyer asking the dealership to fit the spare wheel to confirm it's correct.”

Well, that sounds like a fine idea to me.

Any views or opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not represent those of Cars.co.za or its editorial content team.

More consumer advice:

The Motor Industry Ombudsman Of South Africa - In-Depth Q&A

Car Theft Insurance Claims: When Are You Negligent?

Vehicle Warranties: The Devil's in the Detail

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