In the next few paragraphs, we will focus a bit on the most basic issues of buying a used vehicle.

Stick to a Common Brand

Forgive me for being so strongly opinionated about this matter.  I am aware that there are a couple of Chinese wheels around these days where a brand new vehicle cost much less than a much older used one of similar specification. It may be very tempting, but just pause to think about the reason for the marked discrepancy in price.

If you evaluate the GWM, Proton, Cherry, Tata, the Maiya or any similar vehicle there is vastly different level of finish and quality. Yes, there are quite a few of them on the road, yet not many survive off the road.  Many a owner wiil tell you that dealers are often not even prepared to buy the vehicle back for a trade-in.

Don't be fooled about the salesman who tells you that the engines or the drive trains are exactly the same as for Toyotas or Isuzus. It is not. It is a cheap Chinese copy with all the shortcuts taken that could be taken.

If you somehow give in and buy any of these brands, you are on your own. Despite many happy owners of these cars, somewhere most owners will bite a bullet, either with unreliability or unavailable spares, but definitely when trying to resell.

Stick to the common, reliable brands. It increases the likelihood of finding spares on one of your off-the-map trips, and naturally, the ability to keep it running well for many years.

Advantages of buying used

There are many arguments against buying a used car.  The most common arguments include not knowing how the previous owner cared for the car or the fact that you are buying a vehicle without a service plan. With decent homework and a little bit of patience, most of these risks can be eliminated.

Obviously, one has to expect higher maintenance costs on a used car than on a new one. Things do wear out, but if you are willing to do most of the basic services yourself and take care of most of the repairs, it has huge cost advantages. Apart from that, if you want to travel to remote places alone, you better be a fairly competent DIY mechanic and know your vehicle well.

I owned 11 used cars over a time span of 15 years and the cars that I selected to take me from A to B, did just that. On 5 of those cars I had to rebuild the motors. Only two had to be rebuild due to wear. Two had to be rebuild because of overheating and one due to running without oil. The one without oil, was an honest accident and the two that overheated, could be prevented from overheating if I had something like an engine monitoring system on it. Also, something like overheating happens irrespective of age. A new car can suffer just as easily from it.

One can find a really good four-year-old vehicle that cost half the original value. A comparable brand new car, will often cost three times at the same point in time.

If you go older, logically it just gets harder to find a good sample, but the price reflects it.

By this time, the reliability issues of a model are clear. Factory recalls have been done, if there were any. There are therefore actually not much surprises. Do your homework, learn what can go wrong, accept it, budget for it.

The biggest apparent disadvantage of a second-hand buy, is that the part prices seems a bit in disproportion to the value of the vehicle. But is that really such a problem?

I say no. Say for example your aircon compressor creams. Whether it is a 4 year old car, or a 15 year old car, it will cost you R 5000 for a new compressor. You want aircon in your car right? Are you any worse off with a second hand car? No, because it costs you the same! Or you need a set of tyres. Let’s say both sets cost the same. Any worse off? Clearly NO!

With a new car, you loose on the following:

  1. Second hand value. Most will lose 40-50% in only four years. 

  2. Much higher insurance premiums. Double the value, double the premium.

  3. Interest. Few people can buy a new car cash. Interest is money you never, ever see again.

Now, let’s say you buy a new R 350 000 van versus a R 100 000 van.

Go and do the basic calculations and you will find than the new vehicle will cost you about R 50 000 per year more than the old one if no repairs had to be done on the older vehicle.

Lets say the older vehicle costs you R 50 000 in one of the years, and R 25 000, for a gearbox, in another, surely you still have a LOT more money.

And what is more, once your oldie is running well and you maintain it, it does not cost you that much money! You can drive them forever.

Know the Compromises

Since 4x4 vehicles are by definition compromised in an environment suited for small nippy sedans, you need to be clear with the compromises that vehicles you are interested in, offers. For starters, all 4x4's are heavy on fuel. The short ones like a Land Rover Discovery, turn like ox wagons and the longer ones are worse thank an oil tanker. They don't have sharp handling. They cannot stop fast ABS or not.

The more hard core the 4x4 is, the more compromised it is for life on tar. Suspension setups that allows better of road ability, inherently have properties that affects handling and road holding on tar and fast gravel roads.

In my case, I have done both the options of a 4x4 as a holiday vehicle with no daily use, and a 4x4 suitable for daily use but limitations for holidays. Both was necessary as a result of changing personal circumstances and the fact that 4x4 vehicles are about compromises.

Do your homework

When choosing a used vehicle, it is obvious that one can easily buy a lemon that will cost a small fortune to fix. With proper homework, that risk can be reduced to almost nothing.

If you fall in love with a specific vehicle, it is probably related to pheromones only since vehicles are almost all female. Keep that lust aside for a while and start reading up as much as you can. Make sure you know at least the following:

  1. The typical issues these vehicles had and what it will cost to fix. Check for all this when you look at used ones. It becomes a nice bargaining chip when you negotiate about the price.

  2. The price of normal oil change services including all filters.

  3. The price of major services, like a cambelt change.

  4. The price of of consumable items, like tyres, shocks, brake pads, brake disks and exhausts.

  5. The price of motor overhauls.

  6. The availability of engines on the used market. That is important because one might damage a motor well enough that it cannot be repaired.

  7. Availability of spares new from third parties, and used. Go to the scrap yards and see what are the first items stripped of that model vehicle. Assume that you will have to buy that new and find out the new prices. We will come back to that later, but those are also good spares to keep in the toolbox when travelling.

Why DIY?

To run a workshop, is not cheap. The owner needs to pay his premises, keep extensive sets of expensive tools, pay the workers and himself and need to guarantee his work. For the level of expertise that he needs to provide, even an independent will charge R 250 per hour at the very minimum, which is definitely not unreasonable and dealers asks at least double that. And remember, he also puts a mark up on the spares he buy out from local franchises. There is nothing wrong with it.

However, you will pay the labour rate per hour irrespective if the work done is a basic service or specialised, like for a gearbox overhaul. This is a great opportunity to save money. Even in a small town like Bloemfontein where everything is 15 minutes at most from my house, a basic oil and filter change, takes less the time it takes just to drive the car to the workshop and back, talk nonsense with the owner for 5 minutes and pay the bills.

Apart from that, it is highly recommended that if you want to venture away from civilisation, you need to know you vehicle well mechanically and have some innovation with repairs.

I see mechanics skills as an integral part of emergency planning and will elaborate more on that later.

Cost of ownership

A car is an expense. Nothing more. One of the most logical ways to express the total cost of ownership, is in R/km. That cost should include the following:

  1. Depreciation

  2. Interest

  3. Insurance

  4. Fuel

  5. Services

  6. Tyres, Shocks, exhausts and brakes.

  7. Major repairs.

When you calculate the cost of ownership of a used vehicle to compare it to a new one, be conservative about what can happen and allow for at least one major overhaul of the motor, when you calculate the costs of ownership.

One of the biggest mistakes that people make when doing major repair work on a used vehicle, is selling it directly afterwards. Obviously if you can find such a vehicle on the used market and you can verify that the work was well done, take it.

If you need to spend money on major work on a used vehicle, it is senseless to sell it directly there after for almost what the overhaul have cost you. If the money is spend, you need to drive it for a couple of ten thousand of kilometres to make it worth the while.

With a new car, one can bargain that it will cost you AA-tariffs per km to keep going. Those tables are well done.

A used vehicle will even with major repairs, cost you half of what a new vehicle of the same class cost, per km. The problem is just that many people cannot get used to the idea of spending the big bugs on an old vehicle that is not worth much. It all comes down to R/km. Do the calculations and be honest.

Don't Cut the Budget to the Bone!

Leave yourself enough buffer to cater for unexpected expenses. Once again: Even on a lean budget, holidays and maintaining vehicles cost a lot of money. For some reason though, so many people strain their budgets to the last cent in order to afford something "better". People are often willing to risk running without vehicle insurance, life insurance, medical aids and other vital safety nets in order to buy a newer vehicle or more gadgets on instalments.

What is the point of that? Using older vehicles, one needs to accept that unexpected expenses is more of reality than with something under service plan. With that, driving on the thin roads have other expenses like writing off expensive off road tyres. It happens, it is part of the game and one needs to be prepared for it. Hoping that damage will not happen, is nothing else than playing the lotto.