Pre-purchase car inspection

Pre-purchase car inspection

What to look for when inspecting a car

Because not all backpackers or working holidaymakers majored in mechanical engineering, most tend to get a bit lost when it is time to inspect a car before purchase and just stick to a quick test drive. A thorough car inspection is critical in choosing the right car and shouldn't be done lightly. No seller will ever reveal all the flaws of a vehicle, so you will have to uncover them yourself. Then comes the test drive that we cover in our next article.

Most car problems can be found by simply looking in the right place for the right thing, and this is where our backpacker car inspection checklist comes in handy.

Backpacker car and campervan inspection checklist

Inspect the car that you are interested in in a dry well-lit place for best results and follow our easy checklist below to know what to look for. Make sure to wear clothes that you do not love too much, as you may get dirty during the inspection.

Now, before we get started, be aware that when this inspection process starts, most buyers start to get anxious or nervous. You will be asking a lot of questions that, frankly, they may not have the answer to. You too can’t really remember everything that has ever happened to your car. A seller that is not 100% sure of everything that's happened, so might not necessarily lie to you. So use your own judgment and take their answer with a grain of salt. And, of course, keep asking questions. Even if the seller seems bothered by it, you are spending your hard earned money on this car, you owe it to yourself to be sure that this is THE ride for you.

Walk around the car or campervan

Look for obvious signs of damage

Although a few small bumps and scratches are usually common on most backpacker cars, any major ones can be a sign of a major accident. You will also want to give it a bit of a kick on the bumpers to see if they hold strongly. A bumper that is loose or damaged is a bad sign. Finally, have a look at the car paint. Any different shades of colour will be a sign of a recent replacement and may hide a major damage.

Look for rust

A general rule is that “a rusty car is not a well maintained car”. Most importantly, if the car has any rust, its value will decrease tremendously. The areas that you want to focus on when looking for rust are any angles or gaps between panels.

Check the gaps further

Make sure that the gaps in between panels are even and that the gaps on the car doors are straight. This is the most important part of a well working door. Uneven gaps will only increase during the use of the car and ultimately make the door impossible to use.

Look for broken glass or chips

It seems obvious and is very easy to check but here you are: any chip on windows or the windscreen is unacceptable. A simple bump in the road could turn it into a major crack.

Crawl under the car or campervan

Check the exhaust pipe (tail pipe)

It needs to be well fixed and barely move when played with. Also, it should not leak or be wet inside.

Check for leaks

This is not really hard to find, any wet parts, leaking parts or pool of oil on the floor when the car is parked is a very bad sign.

Look for rust (again)

The bottom of a car should be able to sustain extensive pressure, hits and wear and tear. Any rust will weaken it and is almost sure to be an issue in the long-term.

Spend time checking the tyres

Ideally, they should all be the same type of tyre. At least the same pair of front tyres and the same pair of back tyres. Then check that all tyres are worn evenly, as uneven wear will be a strong sign of wheel misalignment.

Now pick a random spot on each tyre and check the crack in the tyre (it is called the tread). It needs to be 1.5mm or deeper. A good tip to check this is to use a NZ$2 coin. When placed in the crack it should cover half or more of the word “TWO DOLLARS”.

And of course, don’t forget to have a quick look at the spare tyre.

Open the hood of the car or campervan

Look for suspicious signs

Any parts that look much newer than the rest is a sign that repair has been done. You might want to ask about it. Another way to spot repairs is to look at the brand of the part. If it differs from the brand of the car, then it is likely to have been repaired. See why repairs are important to look out in the paragraph below: “Is a sign of repair a good thing?”

Check all the fluids levels

This includes: brake, power steering and oil. Any low level can be sign of a major leak.

Look around for leaks

The most common leaks in an engine is oil, but a water leak or gas leak can happen too and usually means that extensive repairs are needed. The engine needs to be dry.

Check the radiator

It should be the major part right in front of the car, and it needs to be rust free. The radiator uses water to cool down the car. If it breaks, your car breaks.

Get inside the car or campervan

Sit comfortably

To inspect the inside of a car, you want to sit like you would when driving the car, so adjust the seat and the mirrors.

Take a deep breath

If the previous owner was a smoker, the car smell will strongly reflect that. Not all people are happy with this. In fact, over 78% of backpackers said that they would not purchase a car that smells like cigarettes. Think about this selling your car and don’t smoke in it!

Check for rust one last time

By lifting the carpet on one or two corners you will reveal the metallic floor. Have a quick look for signs of rust.

Close all windows

You want to make sure that all window seal properly for safety reasons but also if you plan on sleeping in your car or campervan. A window that is not properly sealed is also very easy to open from the outside which is not ideal when leaving valuables in your vehicle.

Use all lights

Make sure that all lights work: break, warnings, indicators, front lights, back lights and fog lights.

Test the locks

Lock and open every door to make sure that the car can be properly locked from the inside and the outside.

Test the heater

Test if the heater works properly and, if air conditioning is an option, check that one too.

Is a sign of repair a good thing?

We talked extensively in this article about how to spot a sign of repair. Signs of repair can be a good thing or a bad thing. If there have been reparis of normal wear and tear, then this means that the car has been properly maintained and any sign of this is great when purchasing a used car or campervan.

However, any sign of major repair might indicate that the car was in a major accident and has been pieced back together. Major accidents often impact more than the one part that needed to be replaced; it might have weakened other parts that will break much faster as a result, even with normal use.

This is the reason why spotting signs of repairs and asking about it is critical when inspecting a car or campervan. It will help you get the story of a vehicle and its potential hidden weaknesses.

Get a mechanical check!

You are about to spend a lot of money on a car or campervan, so better be safe than sorry. For $120-$150 you can get a professional mechanical check from almost any mechanic around. This will uncover most problems with the car and offer you an independent opinion on the value of your car or campervan. We strongly recommend doing so. If a seller is sure about the car or campervan that they are selling you, they will be happy to comply.

Quick tip: choose a mechanic by yourself, as the seller might want to point you in the direction of his friend’s garage.

Car and campervan insurance for backpackers

Don’t forget that Backpackers Motor Insurance offers reliable and affordable car insurance for travellers like you. It includes unlimited kilometres, low excess and has no age limit. You can even add fire and theft cover and roadside assistance! Get a free quote right now:

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Ashley L. UK
Backpackers Motor Insurance was a great resource for me to buy my campervan in New Zealand. I used their guide step by step to check the campervan that I wanted to buy. Their cover was pretty cheap so I decided to go for it. The whole process was super easy!
James M. Singapore
I found out about Backpackers Motor insurance through a friend of mine that left New Zealand just when I arrived. It was perfect for me as I only wanted to travel for about 6 months and did not want to take the risk to travel uncovered but also did not want to spend too much.
Anna K. Germany
I was lucky enough not to have to claim anything during my trip - we had no accidents at all. But it was a great option to have this safety blanket at a cheap price. I compared quite a lot different insurance options before my trip and this one had the best cost-to-cover ratio.
Michael S. Canada
I was so relieved to be able to find an insurance option that would not cost me thousands after seeing the prices in the US. I only had a very small issue with the car and the whole claim process took only a few days. It was super easy. Thanks all!