How to buy a second-hand car

Investment! Investment! Investment! Our parents drummed the importance of this monster into our heads so much that we almost ran out of brain. I, for one, was weaned on the line: “A fool and his money are soon parted (or audited)”.

Well, the more aspirational among us sometimes dream of playing the fool and parting with our money in exchange for a chunk of metal, suspended on four rubber doughnuts, that we then christen “our pride and joy”, then rush off to brag to people who care little… or are murderously envious.

The fool and his money are soon mobile. But when the money in question lies in the higher six figures, or creeps into the seven figures, it is important to keep the foolishness at a minimum. How does one avoid being taken for a ride by a wily salesman, or a dishonest middleman, or a desperate con-man when acquiring ownership of the next white elephant in one’s life?

Follow these tips when shopping for your ka-mtumba, lest you find yourself the proud owner of stolen property, or an overworked chariot which is two gear changes away from the scrap heap.

1. Open your mind: My little sister once said “never keep an open mind, your brains might fall out”, but clearly she had never gone second-hand-car-shopping before. A fixation on a particular type of car, or a particular colour, or a particular registration number series will be the beginning of your downfall, especially if the salesman is on to you. Such details matter only to those spending telephone numbers on brand new hardware, where optioning your car according to your taste is an exercisable right.

At the other end of the scale, where “pre-owned” or “previously cherished” ramshackle rust buckets are changing hands for the price of a large plasma TV set, choosiness is not on the menu. Optioning is a privilege. You buy a car according to the money you have, not spend money according to the car you desire. Fixations lower your negotiating tenacity, and with a hard-headed salesman, desperation will begin to show. If he detects you are head-over-heels about a particular car in his collection, he will not budge, even when you walk off. He knows you will be coming back.

DO: Tell the salesman you are interested in something in a particular niche, say, a small sedan; then ask him for quotes against several models he might be having, e.g Corolla NZE vs. Lancer Cedia vs. Nissan N16. Or X-Trail vs. iO vs. RAV4. Also ask him (or me) which is best, and in what ways.

DON’T: Ask for “a black Toyota Mark II, new shape, KBG or KBH with alloy rims and tinted windows”. If he does get you such a car, it will either be knackered, falsely registered or stolen. In case he has such a vehicle in stock, he will not lower his price.

2. Open your eyes: For goodness’ sake, don’t be blind. Some people are charmed by the glare of the recent registration (wow! KBM!), or the dazzle of the badge on the bonnet (oooh, a Bimmer!) and fail to see the collapsing trim, the pustules under the paint, the absence of luster on chrome bits, or, worse yet, the tell-tale pool of oil just below the car. Yes, this might sound unlikely, but I have seen it happen. And I don’t tell fibs.

3. Know your budget: A very silly game I used to play with a friend involved the two of us walking into a dealership and “shopping around”. There is nothing wrong with that, except at the time we hadn’t a single red cent to toss between us. We’d sit in Land Cruisers and BMWs, asking this and that before feigning disinterest and walking off. If you are shopping for a used car, do not repeat this, it will only annoy the salesman, and you are unlikely to land a good deal or get useful help. It is pointless to discuss the new E-Class Mercedes for a clean hour before disclosing that your budget does not stretch far beyond Sh200,000. You might be kicked out of the lot. You don’t have to necessarily announce the money you have up-front, but it only makes sense if you inquire about cars you can afford.

DO: Ask the prices of various cars to establish your area of interest before zeroing in on one or two models.
DON’T: Ask “Where can I get the new Premio for less than 200k?”

4. Shop around: We do it for shoes. We do it for clothes. We do it for lunch. We even do it for liquor. So why not for cars? Comparing prices, that is. It has taken you this long without a car; two more days will not kill you. It might seem difficult to believe, but buying a Toyota Premio from that showroom next to the Village Market is not the same as buying the same Premio from an Embakasi outlet. There is bound to be a price difference. Consider the area from which you are buying, and use that consideration to guess the trader’s client base (Lavington vs Kawangware, for instance). In the same vein, look for places where the seller will not steal his car back from you before you drive out of the neighbourhood.

Shopping around also gives you a ball-park figure for the costs of different cars, making you a wiser negotiator by the time you start some serious haggling. It also gives you leverage, where you could bring a greedy seller back to earth with a price comparison with one of his (cheaper) rivals.

DON’T: Buy a car from the first lot you walk into, unless under very special circumstances, none of which comes to mind yet.

5. Vetting: In light of recent events, once you have singled a car you want to buy, run a background check on it. One wily dealer taught us some days ago that it is very easy to make a fool out of a buyer: sell him a stolen, doubly registered car, then set the police on him and recover the loot. Next? Keep both the money and the car, and look for the next victim.

So vet the car. Make sure it has no outstanding police warrants on it (getaway car?), nor is it pegged somewhere as loan security. Ensure it is registered, and that the Registrar’s records and the VIN/engine/chassis numbers all tally. If it isn’t registered, ask why.

While this might all seem fine and dandy at the end of the day, you might need to know how to tell which car is better than the other. You don’t necessarily have to do it like I do by thrashing it on some early morning road tests, risking crashing and traffic fines. Number 6 is a simple guide to areas that will distinguish your next car from the one that almost was.

6. Road Test: If you have been granted a test drive, lucky you. Before turning the key, assess the comfort of the car. Do you enjoy sitting in it? How is the headroom and knee-room — both front and rear? Is the passenger cabin easily accessible, or do you have to be acrobatic to make a dignified ingress or egress? Sit at the driver’s seat and look at the primary controls (steering wheel, gear lever, pedals) and the instruments. Are the controls easy to reach? Are the instruments legible and comprehensible? Do you like the ambience in the cabin?

Now go for the test drive. Listen to the engine. Is it gruff or is it a Lexus? How is the pulling power? Does it strain up hills? Does it idle with confidence or does it stutter like it is unsure of itself? Try a small handling test. Nothing complicated, just cornering a little harder and faster than usual. Does the car lean excessively? Does it head towards the bushes, ignoring your instructions? Brake hard from about 70 km/h. The car should track straight and true within little skidding (if any) and not pull to one side or spin.

Also, use your judgment to compare braking effort and the results. Are the two congruent? I once drove a Carina Ti that wouldn’t stop even when the pedal was pushed almost through the bulkhead. Pay attention to sights and sounds. Any creaks from the suspension, whine from the engine or unexplained thumps from “somewhere below”? Is the bonnet flapping as you drive? How are the mirrors? How big are the blind spots? How easy is it to park?

After the test drive, now you can nit-pick. Look at the fit and finish. Are there huge, ugly gaps between body panels (both inside and outside)?

How are the interior plastics? Are they well finished or scratchy and unsightly? Do you have leather? Look carefully at the gear lever, the steering wheel rim and the pedals. If they are very shiny (not lustrous, but shiny), beware: this car could be having more miles under its belt than the owner is letting on.

Once satisfied, you can now play the fool and part with your money. Good luck!

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