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Wayne Wilson AUTOS

Things to Watch Out for: WHO REALLY OWNS THE VEHICLE?

Who really is the owner of the vehicle you are buying?

Licensed Motor Vehicle Dealers are required by law to guarantee clear title on the vehicles they sell. So if it turns out later that the car was owned by someone else, you are protected.

A car bought on hire purchase or conditional sale belongs to the finance company until the payments have been completed. So it does not have "Clear Title".

If you buy such a car and there is outstanding finance on it, the lender can take it back. You can sue whoever sold you the car - if you can find them.

There are some limited exceptions to this. If you were not aware that the car was subject to an outstanding credit agreement and bought it in good faith, you may be allowed to keep it. This does not apply to stolen cars or cars which are subject to a hire agreement. You will need to get professional advice on this.

Check with one of the organisations (below) which keep databases of information about cars. They can tell you whether the one you want is clear. If you are buying from a dealer, ask whether this check has already been carried out.

To ascertain that the car has no encumbrances, contact your local Register of Unencumbered Vehicles (EVS) office. (In some states this system is known as the Vehicles Securities Register)

New South Wales
Metro: 02 9633 6333
Metro: 13 1171
Country: 1800 424 988
Country: 1800 814 762

Western Australia
07 3246 1599
1300 304024

South Australia
131 084
03 6233 5201


Low mileage can be a big selling point. But the odometer can be turned back to reduce the number of kilometres shown. If the kilometres are low, but wear and tear on the car looks heavy ­ such as on the edge of the seats - the car could have been "clocked" or had a "haircut".

Professional "clockers" sometimes change tell-tale wear items like pedal rubbers, steering wheels and gear knobs, to hide this. Another sign is that the numbers on the odometer don't line up correctly.

Try to find out about the history of the car.
Roadworthy certificates and service documentation will show mileage readings taken by mechanics.

The kilometre reading forms part of the description of the car. Sellers sometimes protect themselves by covering up the odometer or issuing a disclaimer saying that the mileage may be wrong. To be valid, such a disclaimer must be at least as noticeable as the kilometre reading and as effectively brought to your attention.

It may be worth contacting previous owners named on the registration certification to ask what the mileage was when they sold the car. You could also ask what it was used for, for example, short trips or regular motorway driving.


Assess the car in daylight and always take it for a test drive. Take someone with you if you're not confident about cars.

Drive with the windows both up and down and listen for unusual noises.

Make sure you get the engine warm, then check whether it blows excess smoke or leaks oil when you stop.

If it is a front wheel drive car, find a place where you can slowly turn on full lock in both directions. Any clunking sound could indicate problems with universal joints or drive couplings.

If a car has been in an accident, it may be unsafe. Sometimes, two damaged cars are welded together to create a new one. These are known as 'cut and shuts' and are almost certainly unsafe. If you suspect a car has been involved in an accident there are companies which can tell you, for a fee, whether a car is an insurance write-off.


If you buy a stolen car, the police can take it from you to return to the original owner or the insurance company if a claim has been paid. You will not get any compensation, even though you bought the car in good faith.

You can sue the seller for your losses but this might be difficult if you bought privately and the seller has disappeared. If you bought the car on credit, you may still have to pay off the loan. It depends on the type of agreement you have.

It can be hard to tell whether a car is stolen. Its identity may have been changed. For example, the identity number and number plate of a legitimate car may be transferred to a stolen one. Vehicle registration documents can be forged or obtained by fraud. But there are tell tale signs to look out for.

Signs to look out for

Ask to see vehicle registration documents . If the seller can't produce this document, be suspicious. A common excuse is that it has been sent to the licensing bureau for updating. This may be true, for example, the seller may have changed address recently. But be wary. It means you can't check the car's ownership and identity details.

Ask for proof of identity and address, such as a driving licence, passport, recent gas or electricity bill. Check it's the same name and address as on the registration. All cars have three main identifying features:

  • the vehicle registration mark (the number plate)
  • the vehicle identification number (VIN) - this can be found on a metal VIN plate, usually in the engine compartment. As a security measure some cars have the VIN etched on their windows or lamps
  • the engine number
These are shown on the registration certificate. The numbers on the car should be the same as those on these documents.

Have the identification numbers been tampered with? The engine and VIN numbers may have been interfered with. Areas of glass may have been scratched off the windows, or stickers may cover up etching, which has been altered.

Another clue is whether the seller can show you the insurance policy for the car. If it is stolen, probably not.

Use the checklist above to help you spot the signs of a stolen car.

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