Being young and naïve has its pros and cons. As a company we are passionate about making people’s dreams come true for their next adventure, but before you even get to the fun part of decking out the perfect road trip vehicle. It’s important to ensure that the vehicle or caravan you purchase will live up to job of getting you from A to B. We can’t help but notice a lot of people getting sucked into dodgy deals on second-hand cars and vans, only to discover the multitude of problems with the mechanics weeks later.
As many people have noticed, the prices of second-hand vehicles have skyrocketed due to covid shutting down the import industry, effectively limiting the number of cars available in Australia. Although this is great for sellers, too many people are being scammed due to the desperate and competitive nature of the second-hand market. This article will provide a rough guide of what to look for and what to avoid when purchasing second-hand cars, caravans and motorhomes. We know that not everyone has the budget to splash out on a brand-new car, so here are some tips and tricks to avoid the heartbreak and guilt we feel when our beloved vehicles start to cark it.
Please note: Before writing this article, we reached out to the community, friends and family to ask what their experiences were with buying second-hand vehicles. To our surprise we noticed quite a divide in the community when even posing the question, ‘what happened to you’? A majority even questioned if the interest was genuine or if this was ‘just another scam’. Generally, you should never give out personal information to people on the internet, but upon observing the responses to what seemed like a perfectly innocent request for experiences and stories, it’s clear to see that the ‘vanlife’ community has been scarred. We thought this might have been the case but did not expect such a reaction.
This is by no means ‘expert advice’, but rather a collective warning from the wider community and a pool of our personal experience, when it comes to protecting your valuable assets. On that note, we were also appreciative of anyone that came forward with advice and stories they wanted to share so that others didn’t have to go through the same thing. There is an abundance of support within these communities. We know the real reason anyone spends money on a second-hand vehicle is to realise the dream of living on the road, it is something so many people have dreamed of at one point.
The main thing to take away from this article is: do your own research. But, in the meantime we suggest that you start by reading other people's experiences and decide on what path is best for you.
Always test drive a second-hand vehicle.
Don’t just take it for a 10min drive around the block. You might feel like you are inconveniencing the seller, but you’d be surprised what starts happening after an hour of driving. There have been too many instances of people purchasing vehicles and then hours later, on the drive home the engine blows up. Here’s what happened. The seller faced the same problem and knew it was a lemon. Either the cooling system has failed and will overheat after a while, or the compression in the engine has been fixed with some adhesive or sealants that were never meant to last. Unfortunately, some of these issues won’t appear until much later and it’s hard to tell without expert advice what’s really going on under the bonnet.
Have a professional inspect the vehicle.
No matter how sure you are that you’ve found the perfect motorhome, always pay a professional to check over the vehicle thoroughly. Don’t rely on Uncle Jimmy who says, ‘I’ve done this a heap of times, trust me I know what I’m looking for’. A professional mechanic will know what to look for when it comes to long term issues. It becomes a little more complicated when your unable to inspect the vehicle yourself, especially now due to the limits covid has placed on travel. So, it’s important to seek out a mobile mechanic with a trusted reputation. We’ve heard a lot of people placing their trust in mechanics they’ve found on platforms like Airtasker or Facebook. Unless it’s a legitimate company like MTA or NRMA, chances are they won’t put in the effort you’re after. If you know a mechanic that’s a friend or family member that’s ideal. However, bear in mind if they get it wrong it will likely put a strain on that relationship if it ends up costing thousands to fix.
A few things you can look for yourself is the presence of oil leaks. Ask to see where the vehicle is usually parked. Check under the car and if you notice oil leaks or water leaks of any kind, consider this a red flag. The presence of rust isn’t always noticeable. But there are simple ways to tell if the panels of a vehicle have been ‘bogged’. Look for bubbles in the paint. These will indicate that there is rust forming underneath and has been gone over with either a layer of car filler or a few coats of primer to hide the corrosion. It is also wise when inspecting an empty vehicle, for example, if the seats have been pulled out of the back, to check under the rubber flooring.
On older vehicles, you will notice that first place rust will form is around the windows or windscreen. By peeling back, the rubber mats and plastic inlays in the front it should be easy to tell if these leaks from the windscreen have found their way into the floor of the passenger or drivers' area. The same goes with rear head lights, the rubber seals on these parts will wear down over time leaving them exposed to water damage. Where possible, lift the flooring or carpet on these areas to understand what you're really dealing with. It also came to our attention that some 4x4’s will be put up for sale in ‘showroom’ condition, meaning that the seller may have sprayed the vehicle with a matching colour to hide paint fade. Look for specs of paint or slight colour variations that may be visible on the edge of rubber seals, windows and door handles to get an idea. See pictures below:
Is it registered/ will it pass a pink slip?
Every vehicle is different when it comes to getting a pink slip and many states vary with rules and regulations. NSW and Victoria are notoriously strict when it comes to registering vehicles. However, it’s important to seek out advice BEFORE booking in a pink slip just in case it’s an easy fix. The basic requirements, depending on your vehicle usually include:
Working head lights and brake lights
The number of seats that the engineering certificate indicate should be in the vehicle
No cracks or chips in the windscreen on the driver's side over 10mm, other areas vary depending on the advice of a professional
No oil leaks
No structural rust damage
No frayed or broken seat belts
No modifications to the chassis or suspension (especially 4x4’s)
There must be a minimum of 1.5mm of tread on each tire
If it’s a motorhome or caravan a fire extinguisher must be mounted correctly within 1.5m of the kitchen area or possibly two depending on the layout of your exits.
For 4x4’s tires must not stick out further than the flares or body of the car
Headlights or light bars must not stick out further than the bull bar
These are general rules to consider, but it’s best that you call ahead to make sure what the registered pink slip provider will look for in terms of safety checks etc. This is not professional advice or a complete list of requirements to pass pink, but rather a guide to make sure you don’t modify or accidentally sell any seats you may need in the future to get it registered. Before ripping out any parts of van in order to convert it into a motorhome, it’s important to check with a mechanic or engineer to see how much it will cost to comply within a blue slip. A blue slip is entirely different, but this refers to the structural and safety precautions the factory where the vehicle was produced have outlined what is ok to change and what is safe to remove from a vehicle for it to be deemed ‘road worthy’.
For example, when converting a bus, it is now standard in most parts of Australia for the side door to open outwards, rather than sliding apart. It is also standard procedure that if seats are removed and the GVM (gross vehicle mass) is now under 4.5 tonnes, then it must be downgraded to a c-class license, meaning anyone with a car license is able to drive it. Many people commented that this is not an excuse to pack the vehicle with as much weight as you like once downgraded, as insurance companies will often weigh the motorhome when conducting reports. If it is found to weigh more that 4.5 tonnes at this time, it will be classified as an overweight vehicle and insurance will be void. We suggest weighing a vehicle before starting the conversion and keeping a detailed list of appliances and materials you add as you go so you can calculate their combined weight when nearly done.
Is it petrol or diesel? Manual or automatic?
These options aren’t necessarily a make or break when purchasing a vehicle, but you can certainly see a price difference when shopping around. Diesel engines for the most part are considered to be harder to work on but the benefit of your fuel consumption being less over time. If you plan on living in your van or motorhome full time a petrol engine likely won’t break the bank, but if you’re planning a lap of Australia... think again. Diesels can produce up to 30-40% better fuel efficiency, when compared to petrol. This is because the fuel can withstand more compression once inside the engine, and therefore gets to expand through a greater burning range. This means you get 30-40% more from each tank. If you are driving a 4x4 and towing a caravan, buying petrol might just become a daily occurrence and in some parts of Australia the price of petrol can be upwards of 2$ a litre.
Automatic cars are easier to drive. However, many people love the feeling of driving a manual. If you haven’t driven a manual before, but your dream van or bus that just popped up is, consider doing a test drive in a friend's car first. Burning out the clutch is a common occurrence, especially in older vehicles where consistent wear and tear may be more present. Replacing a clutch can be an expensive job so it’s important to be confident in your ability to drive a manual first before purchasing.
Is the vehicle stolen or has it been written off?
Vehicle checks are a safe way to ensure the car is not stolen, owes any finance or has outstanding parking fines and tolls. A REVS report can be bought on a registered vehicle for as little as $25 and will tell you if it has a PPSR certificate, if it had been written off or has parts in it that have been recalled. If it is unregistered – consider this a red flag and ask the question as to why.
Was the vehicle taken care of and who is selling it?
Always ask to see logbooks and service history papers. If you are purchasing a car from a dealer, you can usually expect that each vehicle will come with papers and logbooks as they must abide by what is laid out by Consumer Affairs and it won’t be worth the small profit of selling a lemon to a customer when they are legally obligated and bound by consumer law to provide the correct information. However, this hasn’t stopped anyone from bending the rules in their favour and there are multiple examples and stories we’ve heard from smaller dealerships and private garages getting away with misleading sales. The answer is: no logbook, no papers, no sale. You might think that this will limit your choices and we are all guilty of going against our better judgement because we really, really wanted something. Again, if you are unsure and your guts telling you there’s something off about this... book a mechanical inspection, just to be safe.
What to look for when buying a 4x4:
The first story that popped up from someone is that some less reputable dealers have been known to take towbars off 4x4’s and charge you to have it fitted upon purchase. If they are offering this kind of service, or any kind of ‘optional extras’ it’s probably best to avoid the sale. 4x4’s that have a had obvious work done to them, like raising the suspension or adding modifications to the engine, like turbos or a larger snorkel fit out. Consider these as red flags or to be extra careful in your due diligence. This is the same for vans, if the part is not attached to the vehicle, its suspicious. Always ask for proof that any spare parts that are being ‘thrown in’ with the purchase are compatible and genuine.
If there are photos of the vehicle at the beach or climbing over large boulders, chances are it’s been put through its paces. Check to see if the aircon is still cold and all the doors lock. Always check if electric windows go up and down smoothly as this affects a pink slip. When buying a 4x4, it’s entirely up to the buyer as to what they are looking for out of the make and model, but generally, if the owners wearing speed dealers and has a ‘certain haircut’ (you know the one), it’s best to organise a private mechanic to give the engine and underside a thorough once over.
What to look out for when buying a van:
There are literally hundreds of makes and models to choose from and it’s hard to say which one is the best to choose, as they all come with their pros and cons. Toyota being one of the most reliable producers of cars in the world, it’s easy to see why Commuters and Hiaces are being snapped up across the country. With the availability of spare parts, they have been deemed one of the more financially viable options for both first time and experienced buyers.
European models are more expensive and therefore have a higher cost of parts and maintenance. Although, the benefit to choosing a European model is usually the aesthetics, a more luxurious interior and advanced vehicle performance. In other words, a Toyota will get you from A to B. A Mercedes will get you from A to B most of the time... in style. Another tip highlighted by some of our ‘vanlife’ contributors was that European cars tend to have more modern electrical parts. That might not sound like a bad thing, but it just means that more parts in that newer model are prone to failing. Ask any mechanic they’re opinion when working on a Toyota compared to a Mercedes or a Renault. More complicated parts mean more complicated fixes, which can end up costing more in the long run if anything goes wrong. When tossing up between old and new, it really doesn’t matter until you’ve had a professional mechanic take a proper look and if the seller states that parts will need replacing. Ring around FIRST to see if these parts are readily available before committing to a sale.
What to look for when buying a bus or motorhome:
An important factor in larger vehicles is weight distribution. An uneven layout could not only cause leveling issues, but should also be taken into consideration, as more weight on one side could cause excess wear and tear to shocks and bearings over time.
If already converted, it's hard to tell if moisture and rust damage is present on a vehicle that’s been covered from top to bottom in panelling so if you can, get up on the roof and check the joins in-between metal panels. Most older transit vehicles like buses and caravans have rust damage on the roof where metal panels join so if you can get a proper look, it's worth it to avoid the hassle of finding out later when the roof starts to leak through the wood... It’s also worth checking the seals around modifications like exhaust fans, sky lights and hatches.
A lucky buyer brought up the fact that she didn’t check the roof and when she pulled back the panelling there was a significant rust damage underneath the vinyl lining of her Ford Transit van. She got around this by cutting out the rust and placing an exhaust fan and skylight in the affected areas, essentially solving the problem. If these appliances are already existing and the rust damage is extensive, it’s best to turn away.
A concerned buyer took the time to explain her story when it came to purchasing a motorhome. This is just one example but may be applicable to many scenarios. She bought a 2000 Ford Transit Winnebago in 2020 for $15,000 after inquiring about the vehicle that had been sitting out the front of someone's home for 2 years. The seller admitted the engine didn’t start and brought out a long list of expenses he had already done to the vehicle adding up to about $8,000 in total so far. This is never a good sign to begin with but the internal fit out was still in good condition. He did say it would probably need a new starter motor and likely a new engine. There was also a small water leak near the hatch in the roof. She did not have a mechanic inspect the vehicle before purchasing. She then spent several months trying to find a new engine and a mechanic to rebuild it.
During this process, because of covid and the limited parts available at the time, she was unable to find a suitable mechanic to do the job as they were all too busy and didn’t want to bother with such a hard job. The mechanic that did end up doing the work left the vehicle exposed to the elements for months and eventually the roof caved in, which meant it needed to be re-engineered and replaced. Another $10,000. Most people would have given up by this point, but when your $35k in the hole and still haven’t been able to even drive your dream van, there really isn’t any turning back at that stage. The moral of the story is a lot of people get stuck fixing up motorhomes so they can live this dream. The question to ask yourself currently is, am I able to budget in major fixes if they pop up? How long am I willing to spend trying to realise this dream? Mechanics, auto electricians and panel beaters around Australia are under the pump right now, so if you are in the market, please ensure you have every vehicle thoroughly inspected and if it needs work, ring around FIRST to get quotes on new parts before purchasing.
What to look out for when buying a caravan:
Prices of caravans have soared recently and it’s now more about supply and demand. One thing to be wary of is if there isn’t a phone number listed with the ad, only an email contact, then it’s likely a lemon.
Avoid buying a caravan from someone who has bought it at a damaged vehicle auction and is looking to make a quick turnaround profit. Obvious damage can be covered up and repaired improperly. If it has been repaired, have a professional inspect and if they say it was done properly, then ensure you get it at a decent price as the resale will be affected. You should always do a full REVS check for any purchase, if the caravan has been bought at auction as a repairable write-off, it’s best to walk away.
The first thing you should look for is moisture/water damage. This is the most common problem with used caravans, in particular aluminium-clad vans with timber frames.
It won’t be easy to spot wood rot, but if there is the smell of mould or dampness, make sure you inspect the back of cabinets and storage areas, as it will be easy to tell from their condition if there is water damage.
Always check out the roof of a caravan to look for rust or leaks in the metal joinery. Hail and damage from low hanging branches can wear away paint that protects the steel underneath. If the paint is chipped, there will usually be signs of rust forming. Check for things like silicone in between joins. This is cheap way of hiding water leaks and will break down over time.
While down at the wheels, look underneath for cracks in the chassis as well as split or water damaged plywood flooring or timber-frame damage.
From the late-1980s caravans were fitted with a compliance plate, typically in the front section near the driver's side. Make sure that the VIN number corresponds with that on the registration papers, and that the wheel and tyre sizes also correspond with what is fitted to the caravan.
Also check all the other 12-volt and 240-volt equipment works such as fridges, toilets and exhaust fans, as well as gas and plumbing components. Ask for the appropriate compliance papers when it comes to electrical and gas fittings. All motorhomes need to be signed off by a professional in order to be registered and insured. Faulty wires or gas fittings could easily cause a fire. The safety of you and your family is not worth the risk without seeing these documents.
What to take away from this?
Converting vehicles into living spaces is not a recent trend. It became popular in the 70’s all over the world and has since gained attention on social media and the news. Some of the most generous and supportive people move through these groups so if you’re committed to the dream, the one thing you can count on is help from the community. The emphasis on research is critical when deciding on the perfect vehicle for you. Not everyone has the time and money to spend months building a motorhome or camper from scratch, but if you do it’s totally worth the experience of trying new things. It’s also important to note that if you do give it a go, it’s ok not to go through with it if you find it to be too overwhelming or has become too expensive. If you really want to give it a go, start by renting a van for the weekend on websites such as Camplify (like Airbnb but for private vans). Test out different set ups, such as 4x4’s with roof top tents or see if something more private works for you, like a stealth van (campers disguised as work vehicles). You may decide that heading off on weekend trips or for a few weeks of the year is all you need to experience the best of outback Australia.
After travelling and living full time in a van for nearly a year, I can say without a doubt it was the best experience I've ever had. No matter where you are, you can always expect to find community and people willing to help you on your journey. If you invest in proper gear and don’t cut corners when it comes to purchasing a second-hand vehicle, the time of your life is just around the corner.
By: Jessica Pritchard