Buying a used car is like a box of chocolates – you never know what you're gonna get... And when it comes to making a large purchase, you don’t want any hidden surprises. Getting a pre-purchase inspection and a vehicle history report is always recommended in the buying process, but on your first visit you might want to consider dusting off your magnifying glass and putting your detective cap on.

Some clues about a vehicle’s life can be ingrained in the vehicle's visual DNA and sometimes all it takes is a bit of self-investigation to identify the things that can help you paint a possible picture of a vehicle's past.

Subject A

If you discover a vehicle with a tow bar, ask the owner if it has been used.  If they have used it, find out what they towed. If they haven't used it, ask whether the previous owner may have.  It’s a good idea to always take a closer 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.

Mother Nature

If you're looking at a car that's close to the coast, its exposure to salt air could result in powdery, oxidised deposits on aluminum.  Reviewing areas of exposed metal such as nuts, bolts and shields can highlight areas for concern.

The sun also has the ability to be damaging to a vehicle’s paintwork. Ultraviolet light can burn the clear coat – the layer on top of the paint – causing oxidisation creating a cloudy look.  Paint pigments also absorb UV over time, which makes colours change or fade. Plastics and rubbers can also be impacted and become misshapen, faded or brittle.

If these issues are found, you may need to pop into a panel beater / painter for a professional opinion.

Use your nose

Sometimes the inside of vehicles can be stained with food and drink which can cause lingering, unpleasant smells. If you’ve ever spilt milk in your car, you’ll know exactly what we mean. 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 inspecting the car, activate the fans and air conditioning. Some odours may be trapped within the heating and cooling systems, and this will expose them. 

Has it been serviced?

First and foremost, look on the windscreen for a recent service sticker and check the glove box for a service book.

Other clues about a vehicle's life may be found under the bonnet or in door jambs, giving you valuable information about its mechanical history. Automotive technicians will usually apply labels to vehicles when major items have been replaced – timing belts being a prime example. If you own a Japanese import, you may have to get out Google Translate for this one.

One of the simpler checks is tyres. Having an eclectic mix of tyres isn’t a good thing, nor is having minimal tread or cuts in the rubber.  It’s always a good idea to check all tyres to make sure they meet the appropriate standards.

Bear in mind that no matter how good your investigative skills are, you’re not Sherlock Holmes. For the full story, we always recommend a pre-purchase inspection and a vehicle history report from the professionals.

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