Avoiding the issues: How to check a used car's history
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Used cars have a past. And while you can look in to standard checks such as vehicle history reports or servicing documentation to validate any on-record information, sometimes it’s difficult to understand how well the current owner has treated the vehicle — or anyone else who’s driven it before them.
Some clues are ingrained in the vehicle’s visual DNA. All it takes is a bit of detective work to identify the things that can help us paint a possible picture of a vehicle’s life.
Exposure to the elements
If you discover a vehicle with a tow bar, ask the owner if it has been used. Don’t stop there, though. Dig deeper. If they have used it, find out what they towed. If they haven’t, ask whether the previous owner might have. Always take a close look at the vehicle’s underbody. If it was used to launch a boat, the vehicle may have been semi-submerged without being cleaned properly, so there’s a chance of underbody rust issues.
If the car is in an area close to the coast, its exposure to salt air could result in powdery, oxidised deposits. Reviewing areas of exposed metal such as nuts, bolts and shields, and aluminum can highlight any areas for concern.
It’s not only salt water that can damage a vehicle’s bodywork. Exposing a vehicle to any of nature’s elements for a significant period of time will inevitably reduce the body’s lifespan. In particular, vehicles used in the countryside are likely to suffer from corrosion over time if substances such as manure aren’t cleaned off the wheelarches, exhaust system and underbody.
So, if the vehicle has not been garaged, look for telltale signs of damage such as mould and organic matter trapped in the door jambs, rubbers and gutter. Being kept outdoors in direct sunlight may also result in faded paintwork or a peeling top coat that leaves a dull, matt appearance.
Exposure to the elements can lead to potential corrosion of the vehicle’s parts and result in expensive repair work down the line, so these simple checks could save you some money in the long run.
Scratch and sniff
A car’s smell will give away a multitude of sins. A seller may be able to give the vehicle a spruce-up to get rid of most offending materials, but the scent of rubbish, food or cigarettes often lingers and take some time to lift. When looking at the car, activate the fans and air conditioning. Some odours may be trapped within the heating and cooling systems, and this will expose them.
Check the upholstery when you’re in the car, paying particular attention to seat squabs and buckles for dirt. Check the rear cabin, boot and carpets for crumbs, staining and sand. If the car has been a kid transporter or a carrier of the fishing and surf gear (another clue to saltwater exposure), you should see evidence in the back seats.
Ridding the car of these often requires extensive cleaning and it shouldn’t be something that you have to pay for.
Look on the screen for service stickers and in the glove box for a service book. Other clues about a vehicle’s life may be found under the bonnet and in door jambs, giving valuable information about its service history. Mechanics will usually apply labels to vehicles when a major item such as a cambelt, coolant or ATF (automatic transmission fluid) has been replaced and this will give you leverage to ask the right questions about its history and any warranties.
Many sellers will be upfront and honest about where their vehicle has been before. Many won’t have the information about what it was used for before they bought it. Some won’t necessarily know that external factors have damaged it. And a messy or smelly car doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a bad buy.
But there is no harm in asking, and when you’re looking to spend a significant amount of money on a used vehicle, you need to be as informed as possible.
If you’ve done your own checks of a used vehicle and you are interested in buying it, your next step should always be to get an independent pre-purchase vehicle inspection done.
This often uncovers secrets of a vehicle’s past that you may not spot yourself — and can better protect you from making a poor investment.