Buyers' Guide: Painting a picture of a car's life
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When you're spending a significant amount on a used vehicle, you need to be informed
Used cars have a past and, while you can look into the standard checks such as Vehicle History reports or servicing documentation to validate any on-record information, it can be difficult to understand just how well a vehicle has been treated by its current owner or anyone who has driven it before them.
Some clues, though, are ingrained in the vehicle's visual DNA and all it sometimes takes is a bit of detective work to identify the things that can help us to paint a possible picture of a vehicle's life.
Element-ary, dear Watson
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 may have.
Always take a close look at the underbody of the vehicle. 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 you're checking out a car that's close to the coast, its exposure to salt air could result in powdery, oxidised deposits. Reviewing areas of exposed metal such as nuts, bolts, shields and aluminum can highlight areas for concern.
It doesn't just take salt water to damage a vehicle's body work, though. 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 country side are likely to suffer from corrosion overtime if manure isn't cleaned off the wheel arches, exhaust system and underbody.
So, if the vehicle has not been garaged, keep your eyes peeled 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 of paint that leaves a dull, matt appearance.
Exposure to the elements can lead to potential corrosion of the vehicle's parts and result in repair work down the line, so these simple checks could save you some money in the long run.
Scratch and sniff
The smell of a car will give away a multitude of sins. A seller may be able to give the vehicle a quick spruce up to get rid of most of the offending materials, but the scent of rubbish, food or cigarettes will often linger and can 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.
Scratch about in the upholstery when you're in the car, and pay particular attention to the seat squabs and buckles for dirt.
Check the rear cabin, boot and carpets for crumbs, staining and sand. If the car has previously acted as a kid transporter or a carrier of the fishing and surf gear (another clue to saltwater exposure), you'll see most of the 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.
Sneaky service snooping
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 you valuable information about its service history.
Mechanics will usually apply labels to vehicles when a major item such as its 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 about what you're paying for.
It's at these times that we need to look at a vehicle as it stands before us, and hope that we can use our common sense and intuition, as well as an all-important mechanical inspection, to paint as full a picture of a vehicle's past as possible, so it stays fit for the future.