Buying a car that will take you to faraway places is a big investment. It’s also very risky. You will rely on your overland vehicle to make your trip successful and comfortable. A breakdown at home may mean 30 minutes waiting for a tow truck followed by a day carpooling to work and a couple hundred dollar bill. In a foreign country this will undoubtedly be more traumatic. Your car will contain everything you own, and may be your sole means of transportation or even your home.
The type of vehicle you choose will depend on what you need, what you have to spend and where you are going. Making the right choice is a matter of researching the reliability, recommended factory services, mileage and availability of parts for your vehicle make and model. It’s also important to investigate the specific vehicle you’re planning on buying by checking service records, the title and doing a full diagnostic inspection.
Below are a few simple rules to avoid purchasing a lemon.
Deciding what you need in a vehicle depends on many factors. Number of passengers, road conditions, distance traveled, availability of parts, how much stuff you have...the list goes on. Below is a list of criteria we’ve used to choose our overlanding vehicles in the past.
How much do you have to spend? The most important question. Keep in mind, money does not necessarily equal reliability. A $5000 on a vehicle in excellent condition is not any better than a $3000 vehicle that needs $2000 in repairs.
New or used? Usually determined by your answer above. Used vehicles almost always need something: a major service, new tires or at least an oil change. Factor this into your costs.
How many people need to fit in the car? More than two people usually rules out smaller sedans and requires a full cab truck or SUV to fit everyone and their stuff.
Do you need four wheel drive? Research road conditions. Generally main highways will be passable, but if you’re heading off the beaten track, especially in less developed nations, roads will turn rough in a hurry. Rely on recent advice from other travelers when making this decision.
How well documented are road conditions? As we discovered in parts of Africa, road conditions are not always what the internet, locals or maps claimed. Conditions can also change daily. Make sure your sources have driven the road recently. Or you may find yourself on a “major highway” that turns out to be 500 kilometers of axle deep sand the consistency of baby powder.
Is high clearance important? If road conditions are reported to be poor, especially on main roads, consider a vehicle with higher clearance. Axle-deep pot holes and mountainous speed bumps are common in many countries.
Is the vehicle sold where you’re traveling? You may have to repair your car on the road. If you can’t find shocks to fit your American made truck in Guatemala you may be stuck for a while. Having spares for common parts like belts, fuses and filters is recommended unless you know they will be readily available.
Research the major services required by your vehicle of choice. Services can be very expensive and the cost should be considered when buying a used vehicle. If a service was skipped, the next scheduled service will be more expensive. It may also void the vehicle’s warranty and most importantly it may compromise the reliability and safety of your ride
Look for good balance of mileage and the cost of the next major service. A lower mileage vehicle that requires a major service soon is not as good of a deal as a vehicle that was just serviced but has seen a few more miles.
Companies like Carfax can provide you service documentation for a fee, but only if the mechanic is registered with those companies. In our experience, it’s not likely you will get complete and accurate maintenance record using Carfax or similar service. The best way to determine a service history is to ask the owner or dealer for receipts. Private party sellers tend to have better records than a dealership. When in doubt, check the glove compartment.
In the US, a vehicle’s title can tell you a lot about a car. Inspect the title carefully. If a vehicle has been written off due to collision, fire or flood damage or has been sold for scrap the title will be marked as branded or reconstructed. Such a vehicle might look new on the outside, but can contain hidden problems such as bent frames or inferior replacement parts. Luckily, sellers in the States are required by law to truthfully disclose the status of a vehicle’s title. Take our advice and only buy a vehicle with a clean title, unless you are very comfortable working with cars and are willing to deal with a few surprises down the road.
Finally, make sure to check the reliability and safety ratings of the vehicle you are considering. These reports will tell you what problems are common, how they can be fixed and what it costs. We’ve used the following online tools in the past:
Paying a mechanic or employing the help of a friend to inspect the vehicle before you buy is highly recommended. Don’t take the seller’s word for it. If you don’t know enough about cars to do an inspection yourself, you need someone to act on your behalf and help you make a smart decision.
Below is some of the advice we follow when checking out a car:
Make a list of questions to ask the seller and decide how much you are willing to spend. This will remind you of important details and stop you from over spending. It also helps to take a partner with you to inspect and test drive the vehicle. A friend adds a fresh pair of eyes and gives you a wing man to help with stressful sales pitches.
Don’t believe everything the seller says- even if they look and sound honest. Ask for verification of every statement. There is no "undo button" when you buy a car. Only buy the vehicle if you are 100% satisfied. Remember all cars are sold as-is. Once you hand over the cash there are no take backsies.
Examine the vehicle inside and out. Drive it. Check the exterior for touch up paint. Check the seat belts, frayed or melted fibers may be evidence of an accident. Check the interior for obvious problems, such as a sagging headliner, cracked dashboard, and missing knobs, handles or buttons.
Open the hood and look to see that there is no obvious fluid leaking. Do a cold start and listen to the engine. If the engine has a knock you may not hear it if the engine is already warm.
When the engine is warm, check the tail pipe. Have your partner rev the motor a little and see if there is black, blue or white smoke coming out of the tail pipe. Black smoke is a sign of an air/fuel mixture problem. Blue smoke indicates oil burning. White smoke is evidence of water in the combustion chamber. All of these are all expensive repairs. You should walk away and look for another vehicle.
Beware of excuses. Don’t fall for the “it’s just a fuse” or “broken light bulb” line. These are usually signs of electrical problems, otherwise the seller would have repaired it.