Ten checks YOU can do before you buy a car
1: Security checks
It is absolutely essential you confirm a vehicle is free from any existing securities (finance) that may be owed on a vehicle. NZ law unfortunately means if you purchase a vehicle with securities over it, you’re essentially purchasing that debt. Often vehicles are repossessed from the new owners for a debt they didn’t know about. Thankfully the checks are easily carried out by checking the securities register. Other third party history checks will package this check in with police checks (stolen vehicle) and insurance checks (accident history) among others.
2: Check the dealer
If you’re purchasing from a dealer, a quick search through the Disputes Tribunal database may showcase any past disputes and the outcomes. Often the full dispute report is very detailed and could help you decide if the agent is someone you care to deal with.
3: Sight the vehicle
An increasing way for small operators to drum up business is to list vehicles that are for sale overseas, usually at wholesale in Japan etc. They require part or full payment sight unseen, at which point they order the vehicle. There are a lot of things that could go wrong with this practice, not least that the car you want may not be the car you ultimately receive. Best advice is to ensure the vehicle is landed in the country and sighted by you or someone you trust before handing over any money.
4: Vehicle inspections
Obviously the professionals are your best options here; vehicle inspectors see vehicles and common faults every day. The cost (usually $150 - $170) is minimal for the heartache it may save you long term. That said, there are plenty of quick easy things you can look at before you get the professionals in. You may be able to eliminate a purchase without spending a cent.
5: Body panels / gaps
A poor body repair will often be detectable by misaligned gaps around body panels. Ensure the gaps are consistent between left and right side front panels and bonnet, door gaps, boot lid and bumpers. Open the bonnet and look for missing or inconsistent bolts holding the guards, bumpers or grille in place.
6: Key rust checking
Common rust areas are specific from vehicle to vehicle, but generic areas to check are under the vehicle sills and chassis rails, undersides of the doors, in the spare wheel well, under the front windshield and in the foot wells. Take the time to check these areas carefully.
7: Check oil colour
Regular servicing should ensure the engine oil is translucent and golden brown. On older diesel engines this becomes difficult as its normal for the oil to be very dark or black. If petrol engine oil is black or has a sticky tar-like feel, this may indicate irregular maintenance. If the vehicle is an automatic, always sight and smell the transmission dipstick. The colour should be translucent, more often than not a bright reddish colour that browns with age. While a tan colour would suggest a service may be due, anything darker and certainly anything that smells burnt may indicate a lack of past maintenance and the chance of expensive internal damage is increased.
8: Check under the caps
Look under the oil cap and into the engine, the surfaces should be relatively clean with no gummy build up. A dipstick and oil cap that looks milky may indicate coolant mixing with the oil which is very costly to repair and may cause severe damage long term. In the radiator or coolant reservoir, coolant should still have a brightness and translucentness to it, rustiness will indicate lack of regular changing.
9: Squeeze the pipes
Poor maintenance of the cooling system often causes the rubber hoses to get a scaly build up internally – this will eventually cause the hose to fail. Check as many of the rubber cooling and heater hoses you can reach, ideally before the engine has gotten too hot, by squeezing them. Damaged hoses will make a crunchy noise and feel brittle. Again, this can indicate further cooling system problems long term.
The only way you can truly guarantee a cambelt has been replaced is by sighting an invoice for the work or getting confirmation by the repairer. A service sticker can be filled out by anyone, so it’s not a definite indicator the belt has been replaced. If there is an invoice look to see what else has been replaced, ideally idler bearings, hydraulic tensioners and the water pump will have been replaced at the same time.
Read part I and part II of our Car Cuying Tips series.