A friend of the family contacted me recently wanting to know the easiest and safest way to buy her next used car. “Do I buy privately, visit a reputable dealer, buy over the Internet, or visit the auction rooms?” she asked.All good questions... let's see if I can give you some answers...Over the years I’ve bought many, many cars and motorcycles – most of them privately – that is, from adverts in newspapers and dedicated websites such as OLX and Gumtree. It’s the safest way to find your ideal wheels but, with today’s prices being far higher than they used to be, having wads of notes poking out of your shirt pocket to tempt the seller is simply not enough - and hardly safe.GET AN IDEA OF THE PRICEThere are distinct caveats to buying privately. Let me go through some of them with you. Let’s assume the vehicle you are looking for is a 10-year-old Toyota Tazz. Follow these guidelines and always remember the Golden Rule: don’t ever be rushed. (A silver rule might be it’s fair to assume most private cars will travel no more than 12 000km in any 12-month period.)First, you need to have an idea of a fair asking price – and that’s quite easy to ascertain. Just check the classifieds in/on newspapers/websites then work out the average price. Dealers will always ask higher prices to cover overheads as well as profit, risks carried on any trade-in (it’s only got a few dents, the windscreen’s only got a wee chip and the engine only started smoking last week) and will already have paid for any work deemed necessary to give “the car of your dreams” max appeal.But you need always to be aware that dealers are in the business of selling cars and rarely do people favours!Second, it makes huge sense to take along a car-savvy friend. He or she should be of the level-headed persuasion and needn’t be a motor mechanic, but ready to ask questions you might forget to ask such as: “Why are you selling?” I tend to attach quite a bit of importance to that answer. You can often catch the seller off-guard. Perhaps they really are emigrating but beware of: “Bought the car for the wife, three months ago and she hates it,” sort of explanation.CHECK THE BODYWORKThird, attach major importance to the car's service history. In the case of this Toyota it’s easy because their products come with a “Book of Life”. No Book of Life with a Toyota? Say goodbye. Other brands, nevertheless, should still come with a service book; read it carefully. When was the last service stamped by a dealer? Does the noted distance in the book tie in with the current odometer reading? Can you see any receipts in the glove compartment for brake pads, wheel bearings, that kind of thing?Fourth, go over the bodywork very carefully. Are all the panels ripple-free? Such ripples could point rather to a rushed or badly done panel-beating job and you never know what that might hide. Are all the tyres of the same type and size (stamped on the sidewalls) with plenty of tread? Don’t forget to check the spare wheel because a replacement tyre could cost R550-R900 depending on brand.Fifth, take the vehicle around the block – preferably further, but starting it from cold. Does it warm up quickly without exhaust smoke? (Here your friend could prove invaluable.) Does the steering feel fine or does it pull to one side? Is the brake pedal firm and up to the job of stopping the car? Is the clutch light and noise-free; the gears not stiff and juddery? Be sure to glance over at the speedometer and gauges while checking the dashboard lights to see if all’s well under the bonnet.IS IT PAID FOR?Finally, when you’ve come to the end of a ±10km test drive, lift the bonnet and look for any telltale signs of oil/water/hydraulic leaks or exhaust smells. Point these out (if any) and determine who will pay for those faults to be fixed before a roadworthy certificate can ever be secured and a deal closed.. Examine all window-winders, door handles and glass – especially the windscreen directly in front of the driver’s seat. A small crack there will mean never getting that certificate.Finally, ask for proof that the vehicle has been paid for and all the licence and ownership papers are up to date - "Oh sure, yeah...." doesn't cut it. You want paper, preferably from a bank. This shouldn’t ever be a problem for a genuine seller.If it is, walk away!• Next week I’ll discuss buying “the car of your dreams” from a dealer.