Buying Your First Car: Do’s and Don’ts

Jennifer Lyons

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Look people, I’m not here to put boots on a caterpillar, I’m here to give it to you straight.

Suck it up, you’re not getting a Merc, Beamer or anything top of the range. There won’t be two litres, convertibles, or anything you’ll see in Fast & Furious. To be honest, we’re probably talking less alloy wheels and more hubcaps!

This list is your bible. Here is what you need to know when you’re out searching for your new baby – your first ever car.

  • Interrogate the seller. Don’t go all Guantanamo Bay on them, but don’t leave any stone unturned – “Pink furry dice… really?”
    • Always speak to the seller/dealer on the phone and again in person. Now my advice would be to get your first car from a dealer as you will get 12 months warranty which will give you peace of mind, but I’ve included questions for both.
    • Your aim is to get as much information as possible. Confidence gets you everywhere, so brush up on what to ask and you’re laughing.
  • Ask why they are selling the car?
  • How many previous owners?
  • How long have they had the car?
  • Where and when it was last serviced?
  • Does it have a full service history? (FSH is what it might say in an ad). Properly serviced cars will last longer.
  • Has this car ever been crashed, damaged or had any major repairs? You could really do without the hassle of having a car that will end up driving sideways.
  • Is there finance on the car?
  • Is the car NCT’d and taxed, and if so how long is left? An NCT is more important here, the more recent the NCT, the more confident you can be that mechanically everything is sound underneath.
  • And finally what is their bottom price. You can always negotiate with them.
  • Check the engine size. Is it a 1.0L, 1.2L, 1.6L, etc. The engine size plays a huge part in how much your road tax and insurance will be. The lower the engine size the cheaper the tax and insurance. Diesel is best, but those cars will either have too big an engine or will be too saucy on the old wallet, so your best option for city driving is a smaller 1.0-1.2L car. Sure they’ll just run on the fumes of petrol alone! For longer journeys, you would probably want at the very least a 1.3.
  • Check the mileage.  A very important thing but sometimes forgotten about. The average is about 10,000miles/16,000km a year. Don’t mix up km with m!

Watch out!
In recent years the number of cars being imported into Ireland from the UK has increased. But the big thing here is that nearly 85% of these cars have very high mileage and are clocked. Clocked means that the mileage counter (odometer) has been reset to show a lower mileage. So while the cars imported might look lovely and appear cheaper, in a short space of time you’re going to have major engine problems. As I said before, save yourself the hassle and buy from a reputable main dealer and get your full warranty.

  • Actually look at the car! Don’t get distracted by… SQUIRREL!
    • You need to look beyond the nice air freshener, or the spoiler on the boot door. Bypass how phenomenal the car might look, and really look at every little detail. Walk around it slowly checking that every panel is straight.
    • Look at the paint work. Dullness can be polished away as can some minor scratches. Peeling paint or cracks though is generally an indication that some dodgy repairs have been carried out over some previously obtained damage.
    • Don’t worry too much about stone chips. To be honest they are pretty much pretty much unavoidable. But watch out for subtle differences in colour. Are the door sills/steps slightly darker? Are the wings slightly brighter? These are tell-tale signs of not only a shocking re-spray, but that something has happened to the car.
  • Make sure all the electronics work. Push all the buttons, turn on the radio, try all the lights, indicators, windows, EVERYTHING. Electronics can be an expensive job to fix and they’re known to be a favourite amongst the NCT inspectors.
  • Open and close every door. Sit in the back seat and look around. Check out the interior. Make sure there’s no wear and tear on the seats. Try the seats belts.
  • One important thing to look out for is condensation on the windows, this coupled with a damp odour will tell you that there are window or door seals gone. Imagine you’re driving along when suddenly the skies open. You’re probably going to be more soaked than a sponge in a bucket.

As Ace Ventura would say “Allll-righty then”, once you’ve all that done and everything seems to be decent so far, it is time to open up the bonnet (Pop the trunk for all my US fans), and check the engine.

  • First things first: look for damage of any kind. Probably rare, but if there is anything here you can be sure it won’t be too difficult to spot.
    • The engine bay should be reasonably clean. What we don’t want to see is anything wet. Check the oil level especially if it is a private sale. Low oil level? Honestly, just go home and search again for another car.
    • Important: Find out when the timing belt was changed last. It needs to be changed every 60-120,000 miles depending on the make/model of the car. The majority of mechanics will write the mileage in white marker if it’s not in the service book! If it snaps… Oh dear, you’re in a whole lot of trouble and your wallet won’t be happy.
  • Just like the third wise man said to the baby Jesus, “But wait, there’s Myrrh”. The last and final step: TEST DRIVE!
    • A vital step this one! Don’t worry, your common sense will help you through.
    • Any strange clunky noise, knocks or shudders are a huge reason for concern.
    • When you’re changing gears does it grind? How high do you have to lift your left foot off the clutch before it allows you to put the car into gear? A high “biting point” means that the clutch is on its last legs.
    • Your steering wheel should feel firm and respond to every turn. A slight pull to either side means that the wheel alignment is a tad off, nothing major though. A violent pull could be something a bit more sinister.
    • Test the brakes. They should respond straight away and not slowly bring the car to a stop. If there’s a growl, the brake pads/discs need to be replaced. If the car pulls to one side when you brake, this means that one side needs to be adjusted as it will fail the NCT.
    • Make sure the handbrake works, 3 to 4 clicks is good.
    • Check for blue or black smoke. Not a healthy engine if you’re seeing either of these.

So now you know what you need to look out for so now you just need to find your motor! But where to begin?! What model?! What make?! Don’t fret! I have advice on what cars are good and what you should avoid.

Renault: Avoid

French cars are beautiful to look at, but everyone has heard about German efficiency and not French efficiency! These cars cause a bit of trouble. Yes they’re cheap but are prone to electrical problems and parts are expensive to buy.

Citroen: Avoid

Like the Renault, these also cause some trouble and their parts are expensive to buy. In recent years there’s been a huge demand for the Citroen Berlingo. This became popular with many young workers; plumbers, builders etc. However due to demand, there is now a shortage of them in Ireland and so they are now being imported from the UK. These imports can cause a lot of engine trouble. Like I said earlier, the mileage could be clocked. So be wary.

Honda: Good

The Honda Civic: a classic amongst boy racers, so avoid earlier models. Those cars will be knackered and driven into the ground! The later spaceship-esque models are the way to go, and while it might be on the expensive side, it is a great, comfortable car.

Ford/ Toyota/ Volkswagen/ Opel: Good

These four have been predominately the main cars sold in Ireland over the past number of years, and for good reason too. Each is as reliable as the next.

Opel is German, and after BMW, Audi and Mercedes, this is your realistic German-engineered choice.

Volkswagens may seem boring, but re sale values are always quite high. The Golf is a strong, reliable car and is quite a looker as well.

Ford Focus and Toyota Corollas – the traditional first car for many people so you can’t really go wrong here.

Hyundai: Good

Hyundai’s have been increasing in popularity in recent years. Their new found design and reliability makes these makes something to consider. For example, the i10 was voted best city car this year, and can be found with low mileage and much cheaper as you go back through the years. Even better news though is that Hyundai don’t tend to lose their value much in comparison to other cars, which is great when you are ready to move on to another car!

Fancy something a bit different?

Mazda: Pack your broom – You’ll be cleaning up!

Ok, ok, ok. I know I said earlier that convertibles may be off the cards… but hear me out. If you’re looking for a sporty, convertible, and car that you will always look back at after you park it – check out the MX5. They are surprisingly cheap to buy and for the majority of them, will have low mileage. They are 1.6 so a quick phone call to the insurance company is vital before you buy… but did I mention that the top comes down. All Mazda vehicles are mechanically sound and don’t cause problems.

Miniiiiiiiii!

Classic Minis are just great fun and are always well minded. Cheap to buy, cheap to run, and brilliant to drive. For comfort a ’98 onwards car is ideal. Although for those who enjoy a bit more of a challenge, a pre-1980 Mini will save you on the NCT and you’ll also have tax for 12 months for under €60.

Fiat 500: Good

A modern take on the classic little Italian car. Perfect for city driving. White with the Italian stripes is just… bellissimo.

One last thing – colour. Thou shalt not buy a car in the colours of brown or orange. Do you want your virginity to grow back?

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Jennifer Lyons