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Mechanical inspections anyone can do!

Looking to buy your new, used car and have a specific one in mind already? Sweet, I'll introduce you to some basic inspections almost anyone can do to make sure not to buy a s***** car! If you don't know where to buy and what car you want, have a look here.

Let’s get right at it and start the inspection; begin on the outside and work your way to the inside followed by of course test driving your possible travel companion.

You want to make sure it is in good condition and has the features listed in the offer so there are no surprises when the purchase is completed. Even if buying from a dealer you might want to get a neutral inspection of the vehicle beforehand if you are not sure.

Generally, it is best to inspect the vehicle at daylight, as you might otherwise miss faulty parts and if possible to bring a friend that has knowledge about vehicles. Also, it can help if you research frequent issues for that specific vehicle (make, model, year).

Checking the oil level

Often, the most critical parts of the vehicle are the engine, cooling system and transmission system; if any of these are in bad condition, look for other vehicles.

For the outside inspection you should look at these things:

  • Accident damages

  • Dents and scratches

  • Different colours or colours on scratches and dents

  • Chips in the windscreen

  • All the doors (working properly including locks)

  • Rust

  • All tyres incl. spare

  • Thread depths of min. 1.5mm (legal), min. 3mm is recommended

  • Evenly worn

  • Same type

The most important and easiest things to check underneath the car yourself are:

  • Leaks (fluid dripping or on the floor)

  • Rust

  • If the exhaust pipe is fixed

Things to check when you are in the car:

  • The lights, indicators, wipers and buttons from the dashboard

  • Heating and AC (cold winter and hot summer days can really be hard)

  • Are the seats in a good condition?

  • Mirrors (inside and outside) in good condition and adjustable

If you don’t have a clue about the mechanical side of vehicles, consider bringing a friend who knows a thing or two. Generally however, even laymen can inspect these few simple things under the bonnet:

  • Oil level - a low level might indicate a leak. To check the level, pull out the dip stick, clean it with a peace of cloth and insert again. When you pull it out again, the oil level should be between the marks on the stick

  • Brake and cooling liquid - make sure there are no leaks

  • Cracks in cables and rubber cooling hoses (if a hose is very soft, rock-hard or blown-up it usually needs replacing)

  • Rust (a little rusty colour in cooling liquid is alright) or liquids in the radiator indicate leaks. Oil in the water usually means there’s trouble

There are plenty of videos on YouTube for specific vehicles that can help you find all the important parts you need to look at.

If you or your companion are not mechanics, and are unsure about the condition, consider investing in a professional mechanical inspection, rather than ending up with a faulty vehicle that needs expensive repairs already a few weeks after purchase. You can get pre-purchase inspections at most garages, so don’t save in the wrong end! Two major nationwide companies are AA and VTNZ.

If everything looks good, take the vehicle on a test drive. Make sure the car is insured, even if you just take it for a quick ride down the block, otherwise you could be liable for damages.

Test drive on New Zealand roads when buying a used vehicle

What you should look for when driving:

  • The car should start easily; the easier, the better

  • Check the warning lights

  • If nothing lights up, something might be


  • Oil and cooling liquid icons should only light up for a few seconds, handbrake icons should only light up, when the handbrake is on

Choose a route with the most common road layout in New Zealand and a bit of everything on it; test if it drives properly on steep hills and highways (we have a lot of those in NZ).

  • Odd noises like clunking, tapping, grinding, whining or squealing can indicate various problems

  • Test the brakes and whether the gears are changing easily

If everything looks, sounds and feels good, you might just be minutes away buying your long term travel partner, wuhuuu. Make sure to sort out all important paperwork, insurance, WoF and Rego and you're ready to explore New Zealand. Don't know how? Check out this post about all you need to know about the sales process and paperwork and backpacker vehicle insurance in New Zealand.

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