Dreamtime Ute

Buying a Car for Travel

So you have landed in a new country, and a car is needed to explore your new temporary homeland. But funds are limited so you will need to avoid getting ripped off while also minimising the risk of breakdown and expensive repairs in the future.

This guide will walk you through some of the finer points of the pre purchase car inspection. Cars are an expensive part of any budget and while you cannot completely eliminate the risk associated with a purchase you can at least try and tip the odds in your favour!

Define the Search Scope

First up you need to look at your needs and decide what sort of car you are in the market for?

There is no point buying a 4wd with higher fuel consumption if you are sticking the the asphalt. Likewise a small hatchback while providing amazing fuel economy is not going to take you across the Simpson Desert either.

Read car reviews, look at the availability of parts and aftermarket addons for your desired models. Not all cars are made equally, what is the manufacturers reputation for reliability?

Another good tip to keep your eye open out on the street! How many older models of your chosen car are still seeing being driven on a regular basis?

I like to think of ageing cars as a kind of “mechanical natural selection”. With the vulnerable and weak consistently being thinned from the herd with a trip to the wreckers.

Be sure to check the car mileage on the odometer.
Not all cars are created equal, time will cull the weak from the heard.

Analyse the market

With your newly created list of potential car models in hand. Figure out where are the most popular places to advertise cars in country you are looking to buy in.

Then get look at all the listings that match your search criteria and price range. The goal of this step is two fold, you need to develop a general feel for the going price of cars like the one we want in the area Plus it gives you a chance to flag some you really like for further follow up later.

Your budget is likely going to be the main constraining element controlling the purchase. So the main challenge will be trying to strike the right balance between cost versus safety, fuel efficiency, features, age and kilometres on the clock.

Legal Bits

Get familiar with the laws in the jurisdiction you are buying and driving the car!

What insurance is needed, required mechanical inspections, the registration process and what Government body oversees all this? Are there any technicalities involved with transferring the registration of a car with “out of state” plates to your area?

This step may be straight forward, if you are buying in an area you currently live. But it gets more complex if you are visiting another country with a different legal system and customs.

If your looking to travel long term you will likely need an address to register the vehicle to. This seems straight forward but when your living with “no fixed address” its a source of headaches.

A mail forwarding service may be a good choice for this, otherwise a friend or relatives home address. Failing you may need to just register it the address of a hotel or backpacker hostel and make peace with the fact any fines or other car related mail are never going to reach you.

Hopefully the “registered address” problem will become less of an issue in future as Governments around the globe switch to email and other online systems. But bureaucrats are not the most forward thinking group so expect the pain to continue for some time yet.

Another issue to research, is how long a car can be in a state with out of state registration. For example if you brought a car in Sydney, Australia. Then drove to Victoria to work at the snow for 6 months after 90 days the car would require Victorian registration.

If you failed to transfer the registration after the 90 day period and had an accident, your insurance company may refuse to pay out.

As the car is no longer technically registered as described by law….. So it pays to be aware of these “gotchas”. While a change of state every 80 odd days in this situation may be annoying, it could save you future legal and monetary pain.

Private or Dealer Sale

There are pros and cons to both approaches. A lot of people feel more comfortable purchasing a car through a dealer. The can help walk you through some of the legal process if your not 100% up to speed.

The lure of a “warranty” is also tempting to less confident buyers. But be prewarned any warranty provided by a used car seller; dictates servicing requirements, has limits on damages and who can assess or re-mediate any issues.

So long story short most of the warranties are not worth the paper they are printed on so don’t let that guide your decision. The dealer also needs to cover costs and provide for their family so the profit margin is built in and you can assume you are likely going to overpay.

End of the day its a personal choice, I got taken for a ride when I was younger by a dealer and it ended up being a very poor financial decision. So now given the choice of being pitted against a “professional or an amateur”, I am going to pick playing in the amateur league every time.

The Shortlist

Ideally you will of started your search a few weeks before you actually need a car. Even if your outside of your destination country ideally you will already be watching the market. This gives you a couple of advantages:

  • Your not rushing into anything, so your emotions are out of the equation allowing logic to guide the car search as much as possible.
  • If a car you like is not selling we can either assume its priced too high for what it is or something is wrong with it. It may just be that there is limited demand for that type of car in the market.

    But if the car looks good at inspection if may also mean the seller is more open to negotiate with you on price.

When your ready contact a few of the sellers to organise a viewing and then get prepared for the big inspection!

Brake pad replacement

The Inspection

You have the time and the address so figure out how to get there at the prearranged time ( time wasters are shit when selling a car so don’t be an offender! ). Wear some clothes you don’t mind getting dirty ( we will be lying on the ground ), a pair of polarised sunglasses and a torch.

Also bringing a friend or other person you trust is a great idea. On a practical level it makes testing the lights, indicators etc much easier.

But it also gives you somebody to bounce ideas off and compare notes with. One of you can talk to the seller about the car history, reason for selling etc while giving the other team member a chance to look at the car uninterrupted.

You are looking at a used car so you need to keep an open mind. Depending on the age of the car if we look close enough you are bound to find something wrong with it.

Defects and problems are not equal though, some are to be expected, some indicate bigger issues and some just tell you future money and time will be needed ( consumables like tyres, wiper blades ).

Depending on the issues at hand they may not be a “deal breaker” per se. But its always wise to have a clear notion of what your getting into. Any issues can also be brought to the negotiation phase when discussing the final sale price with the seller.

Car Exterior

First up look at the car in sunlight while wearing polarised sunglasses. Are there are patches that look off colour or don’t match the rest of the car? This could indicate the car has been repaired or repainted in that area. Go slow examine every panel, making note of any scratches, rust or dents.

If its a older or higher mileage vehicle look for stone chips around the grill and lights. Contrary to what you think these may be a good omen.

Given the choice we want to buy a car that has had minimal stop / start type driving ( more mechanical stress in its lifetime ) with most of the logged kilometres on the open road if possible.

So small stone chips can indicate small collisions with rocks and other road debris at higher speeds. Combined with some other signs these can help paint a story of the car’s history.

Look at the tyres, unless you have a “tread depth gauge” you will have to just rely on your eyeballs. Is there much tread left on the tyre?

How does it compare with the tread depth markers? Is the wear even across the face of the tyre? If not it may just indicate bad wheel alignment or could be a sign of other more serious issues with the steering and suspension.

Look at the windows and windscreen for any cracks, or chips in the glass. Damage to the rubber seals around the glass ( rain is better when it stays outside the car ) and bubbled or peeling tint. Examine the wipers to ensure the blades are not cracked and the arm can move freely.

Under the Car

This step really depends on the vehicle you are looking at. If its a lifted 4wd, you can slide underneath and have a good look at the chassis and drive train. But most cars are lower and it may be impossible to see anything of note.

But whatever is accessible visually search for rust, and any signs of damage…..


Hopefully you brought someone with you, otherwise you are going to have to get the seller to sit in the car. While you look at the lights from outside the car.


Start with low beam can you see them? Your probably looking at the car outside in the sun which makes it hard to determine. But do they look like they are aimed properly?

Then get them to switch to high beam, did the lights look any brighter? If the high beam globes are separate to the low beam headlights did they come on?

While the headlights are still on quickly walk around the car and check the marker lights are all working. Also ensure the tail lights at the rear of the car are lit up.

Look at the lenses are they bright and clear or dull and foggy? If they are foggy they may need a clean or replacement before you do any night driving for maximum light.

Last up peer inside the cabin and ensure the instrument cluster is illuminated. Along with the gear selector too if you are looking at a car with an automatic transmission.


Get the person in the driver seat to indicate left, check that the indicator light is flashing at the front and back. Repeat for the right, then have them turn on the hazard lights and check that all the indicator lights are now flashing.

Brake Lights

To avoid having someone run up your arse, these are arguably the most important lights the car has. So have your assistant press the brake pedal and check these are nice and bright.

Reverse Lights

Ask the person in the car to put the car in “reverse” you should now be able to see the reverse lights. If you are looking at a van or a small truck you may also hear a warning sound for pedestrians.

Inside the Car

Start at the drivers seat and take a look at the door step / rubber seal, seat, brake pedal and the underside of the seat belt as it passes across the drivers lap.

Brake pedal wear, door seals and the seat belt condition can all tell stories about the cars past life.

Any excess wear on the brake pedal may tell you the car has spent a lot of time being driven around town with frequent stopping.

The edge of the seat, the underside of the seat belt showing a lot of wear, combined with wear on the door step and seals. Tell you a story about a life time of small trips with the driver getting in and out of the car alot.

Once again when selecting a car we want the majority of the miles on the clock to be long distance highway travel if possible. Cold starts, accelerating, frequent braking will all take their toll on the mechanical systems of a car.

Take a look at the rest of the cabin, ensure all seat belts work and noting any other wear or damage. Before popping the boot and the bonnet….

In the Boot

This part of the inspection is pretty simple, look for damage. Check if the car comes with a jack and a spare tyre.

A lot of modern cars have switched to run flat tyres or a “space saver” tyre rather than a full size standard full size tyre. This is a major factor to consider when travelling!

Run flats and donut tyres are not intended for long distance or high speed travel if you experience a flat tyre. This may be an acceptable trade off if you are always going to be close to a town with your required tyre size in stock.

But for this reason a full size spare is always preferable to the alternatives. Any travel to remote areas further afield and two spares, a compressor and a way to plug smaller tyre punctures is essential.

Remote Area Travel
If remote area travel is desired you need to take extra precautions.

Under the Bonnet

If you not mechanically minded this is the most daunting part of the inspection. But we are going to keep it really simple, in depth mechanical inspection is outside the scope of this article and most people’s skill set.

So that said what are we looking at? Any belts such as fan belts, air conditioning etc are they tight? Are they in good condition? Excess wear, cracks etc means they need to be replaced.

Car makers don’t help this step on later model cars by insisting that the business part of the engine is covered with plastic shit that makes it hard to look.

Examining a rubber serpentine belt
Depending on the engine orientation in the car you are looking at the belts can sometime take some searching to locate.

Look at the radiator, does it have a lot of damage to the cooling fins, any visible leaking? Can you see any coolant in the coolant reservoir? Look at the hoses coming off the radiator, any cracks, leaks or weird bulges mean they need immediate replacement.

Pull the oil dipstick and take a look at the oil. The colour of the oil on the dipstick will vary from almost clear ( fresh oil is a light honey colour ) to pitch black. It changes colour over its lifetime due to heat and contamination with the byproducts of combustion.

Oil colour at around 6000km
The oil in the picture has about 6000km worth of use. Its showing a bit of colour due to use, but it still looks pretty clean.

Honestly if the oil is filthy I would have second thoughts about the car as mechanical maintenance is obviously not a priority to the current owner.

Look closely at the consistency of the oil on the stick, any frothiness or signs of water could indicate erious engine problems.

While the bonnet is still up have your assistant start the engine. Listen and note any out of place sounds like banging, tapping, screeching etc. As well as any strange smells; fuel, burning plastic etc.

Buying a second hand car
Look for any obvious signs that the car’s vital life juices are leaking out. Pay close attention to the condition of the hoses and belts.

The Test Drive

After the initial visual inspection, if you are still keen. Its time to head out on the road for an actual test drive. This doesn’t need to be very long 5 – 10 minutes maximum. Main goal is to just see how the car performs in a real life setting.

Get yourself comfortable in the drivers seat, adjust any mirrors so you can see what is going on around you. Start the engine on and check that no warning lights stay on for more than a few seconds.

Looking back into rearview mirror

When accelerating is there any hesitation? Braking can you hear any sounds? ( Hopefully you are slowing down! ) How does the brake pedal feel, is it firm? Any spongy type feeling may indicate air in the brake lines.

The steering is it tight and does it feel like it points the car where you want it to go? or is it loose and sloppy? If you take your hands off the steering wheel does the car stay pointed straight ahead or wander to the left or right?

Next Steps

Depending on the situation, at this point I normally like to sit on things for at least overnight. This lets me get my thoughts in order about the car itself and any short comings.

If your still keen at this point, but have some misgivings about your judgement. You should probably find a mechanic to carry out a “pre purchase” inspection for you.

This will normally cost a couple of hundred dollars but having a professional look for short comings can save a lot of money later. A second opinion on the car from someone who is not emotionally involved in the transaction can also provide some great insight.

Safe travels!

Looking forward to the road ahead!