A man checks the engine of a car at a used car market. You have the option of buying a car from a used car dealership, or private individuals. In my experience, it pays to buy cars from private sellers rather than dealers, especially when the cars are relatively new (less than 5 years old). Picture for illustrative purpose only. Image Credit: Gulf News Archive

Dubai: Buying a used car? The choice is endless in the UAE and, as a result, it is almost always a buyer’s market; some great deals can be had if you know how to go about it.

Regular people buy used cars for personal use, either from private individuals or from the hundreds of big and small used car dealerships scattered across the country. This article deals with how to buy whatever you are looking for, NOT what to buy.

What are you looking for?

When buying a used car, it is important to be clear on two basic things: (i) what is your maximum budget (remember to include the cost of insurance, and ownership transfer fees in this budget, and also provide for a sum that will be needed to carry out initial maintenance work, such as fluid and battery changes, tyres etc); (ii) what is the type of car you are looking for (luxury car, sports car, 4WD, regular car etc).

Once these two points are finalised, you must have a basic idea of which marque of luxury car you want, which brand of sports cars you prefer, which 4WD you like. Is it a reliable Japanese car you are after? Or a flashy German one? When you have decided on the car, go online, and check out the forums on that particular vehicle. These forums are immensely helpful as they have comments from actual owners of these cars and involve discussions about problems that the owners have faced. Doing this will give you a good idea about what to look out for when you actually approach the sellers.

Dealer or private individuals?

You have the option of buying a car from a used car dealership, or private individuals. In my experience, it pays to buy cars from private sellers rather than dealers, especially when the cars are relatively new (less than 5 years old). In most cases, cars are at least 20 to 30 per cent more expensive when you buy them from dealers.

Most GCC specs new cars in the UAE come with a 5-year warranty, which is offered by the manufacturer (not the agency selling that car new). So, say you are looking for a 3-year-old car. If you buy it from a used car dealer, he may offer it to you with the remaining “manufacturer’s warranty”. But a private individual selling such a car will also offer that same warranty – but at a much lower price. So, in both cases, if anything goes wrong, you are covered by the warranty. All you need to do is ensure that the owner has not done anything that annuls that warranty (regular service that is not carried out at the agency, unauthorised modifications etc). AFTER you negotiate the price with the owner, you should take the car to the agency that sold it new, and ensure that the warranty is valid and transferable.

Advantage of buying from private sellers

Even in cars that are much older than 5 years, you are almost certain to get a better deal when you buy from private sellers. However, visiting the used car dealerships or checking out their inventory online can help you negotiate a price with a private seller. Say you are looking for a 7-year-old GCC specs V8 Dodge Charger with not more than 125,000km on it. A used car dealer might have advertised it online for Dh30,000 (without warranty, as the car is now too old for that). You can be sure that such a car can be bought from a private seller for Dh22,000 or Dh23,000, as private individuals are more amenable to negotiations; they want to sell their cars, and cannot afford to have them lying around for extended periods of time, unlike the dealerships that have the storage space and have ‘unregistered’ the cars (and don’t have to pay insurance/registration fees etc while they are in storage).

Dealing with private sellers

More often than not, private sellers can be cajoled into dropping their price by at least 25 per cent. So, when you look for a car, in your search, include all those cars that are 25 per cent more expensive than your maximum budget. If your budget is, for instance, Dh15,000, look online for cars that are priced at Dh20,000 or so.

What to do after spotting the car you want to buy

So, you think you’ve spotted the car you want. Now what? Read the advertisement carefully, and multiple times. A person who has taken the time to write in detail about the car, and has included clear pictures, is also likely to be someone who is not trying to hide anything. NEVER buy from someone who has put up a car for sale without uploading pictures, or who has not bothered to provide an acceptable description of the car. This is not the kind of person you want to be doing business with.

Call the seller at a time of day you think is not intrusive; in many cases, sellers mention the time (“Pl call after 5pm”; “No calls, only WhatsApp messages” etc). NEVER go to see the car after dusk; always see it during daylight hours, as the bodywork is definitely more clearly visible. Respect people’s time and their vehicles. DO NOT approach sellers if you have no intention of buying, and especially don’t go just for the sake of joyrides (when the vehicles in question are performance cars).

Questions to ask and cursory inspection

Upon meeting the owner, some of the most basic questions you should ask are the following:

(i) Why are you selling it?

(ii) How many years have you owned the car? (the more, the better)

(iii) How many owners have there been (the fewer, the better)

(iv) Do you have the service records of the car since it was new, or at least since you have owned it? If the owner provides you with a nice sheaf of bills of work done to the car, don’t just look at it, READ it. A person who has had all services done on time is the type of person YOU WANT to be doing business with.

(v) Has the car ever been in an accident?

(vi) What are the defects?

If the answer to the last two questions is something you don’t like (serious accident / major faults like blown head gaskets, transmission troubles) just shake hands and walk away. This is not the type of car you want to buy, and there is no point in wasting your time and his.

What you should bring along

1. A torch light to see deep down the engine bay

2. A fridge-style weak magnet to place on the car’s body to check for any body fillers or bondo (indicative of accidents)

3. A tissue paper, to check the colour of liquids like the automatic transmission fluid (if it appears burnt, that means it has not been changed in ages, and changing it now may lead to new problems such as slipping gears, as the only thing holding the plates together may be the friction provided by metal particles and debris in the existing, dirty transmission fluid). Walk away if the fluid is too dark and smells burnt, as transmissions are an expensive fix.

What you should do upon seeing the car

1) Take many pictures of the car, and be sure to take a photo of both sides of the registration card (mulkiya). The VIN is printed on the mulkiya, and there are free sites online that will give you valuable information about that particular car once you type the VIN. You can know, for instance, if the car has been involved in an accident. If the seller doesn’t have a mulkiya for the car (in cases of ‘unregistered’ cars, especially at dealerships), then you can find the VIN number on the dashboard, below the wiper blades on the driver’s side of the vehicle.

2. DO NOT get desperate or emotional. Be ready to walk away if the price is not right; there are tons of cars in the market. Don’t give the seller the impression that your heart is set upon his car.

Test drive

NEVER buy a used car (or a new car, for that matter) without a proper test drive. There is a good chance that by just driving around the car for a while, lingering problems, if any, will be apparent, and you can ask the owner about them. Pay attention to the gauges; is there a ‘Check Engine’ light; check the temperature and oil gauges; the airbag light etc.

RESPECT the owner, and let him know what you will be doing when test driving the car. Whether you will be accelerating hard and suddenly braking (to check for juddering) or whether you will be revving up the engine etc. If the car has options such as cruise control or sunroof, be sure to check them while driving. If these things don’t work, and even if they are not too important to you, you can use these defects to bring down the price of the car.

You are not an expert

Most of us are not technical experts. That means we should NEVER EVER buy a used car without having it inspected at, for instance, centres run by the RTA that do a comprehensive inspection for Dh350 to Dh450, or at least at a decent garage that is likely to have OBD tools to read the computer codes. If you are doing it at a garage, make sure the mechanic puts the car up on the ramps, and inspects the underside.

And the most important thing: Carry out the inspection AFTER negotiating the price. If you do it after the car has passed inspection with flying colours, the seller is more likely to stick to his price. And if the car doesn’t do so well in the inspection, you can use the shortfalls of the vehicle to bring down the price.