As a South African, you’ve probably come across a few startling ads when shopping used cars. You know the ones? You’ll spot “VW Polo 2014, R35,000” and think “Wow! That’s a good price!” And when you look at the pics, the car seems good, looks good, and the ad stands out from everything else as this car seems so remarkably cheap.
Welcome to the lower end of the South African used car market. It’s true to say that the majority of used car buyers shop within the broad, retail-related market for a secondhand car. Most buyers avoid auctions, dicey dealers and anything below R50,000 - the “park & sell” cheapie used car lots that dot the country. But as long as you know how to check a used car’s accident history and understand what to expect, especially at this lower end, you can often score a great resale car, or a good used car that gives you years of service.
The cheapie used car market defined
First off, many will probably still be relatively unaware of the extent of the cheapie used car market, as advertising is normally local and based on come-in-and-view, not online ads. That said, these cars are often advertised online, but as often poorly, hence ads for used cars in this echelon are less frequently seen than those for more market-related used cars. They can be student cars, or the target of first time buyers shifting economic circumstances.
Buyers in this sector will typically be either traders or end-users. Traders of whatever nature can shop this market and build a business out of buying used cars, doing minor repairs, and selling on. Buyers who simply need a used car for personal use will often have a bit of cash, but either hate credit or find themselves blacklisted. They shop the cheapie used car market as it seems simplest, most affordable, and also most able to produce occasional real bargains.
The cheapie used car market, for those more accustomed to the middle and upper end of the market, presents used cars that for whatever reason have fallen out of the mainstream market. Reasons for a car being seen as a “cheapie” include:
- Accident damaged cars that experience so-so repairs rapidly deteriorate in value. Along with poor repairs comes the usual aging, pushing a badly repaired used car down in value, past middle-market norms.
- Age is a constant negative when it comes to used cars, unless you’re talking collectibles that have been well maintained. Many now-obscure older cars that are still mechanically sound, but simply “tired” inside or expensive to find parts for, end up in this segment of the market too.
- Used cars that were relegated to “runaround” or “farm wheelbarrow” status are often mechanically and physically sound, but are simply old, tired and dusty from their relegation to being the family skorro. The owner decided to employ the car for its usefulness only, forsaking any real maintenance or resale considerations at the time.
- Unfortunately, some dodgy cars also end up in this sector. Often illicitly licensed or “rebranded” somehow, crooked traders will take a last gasp swing at selling an illegal vehicle.
Many buyers in this echelon buy to repair and resell. Particularly with popular used cars like Volkswagen Polos and Golfs, bakkies and small hatches, some traders have built a business out of fielding necessary repairs, polishing up and then reselling the used cars along more conventional lines.
Cheapie used cars are typically older than others, and you’ll have to accept tired or frayed upholstery in may cases. Service histories and other conventional aspects of typical used car deals are often absent, making a vehicle history check here so important. The cheapie used car market is very much a “walk in and decide” experience, although of course you can glean a vehicle’s value from us, and also generate as much intel as possible with our vehicle history check.
In a nutshell, if you have a lean towards function rather than form, the cheapie used car market might just be your ideal shopping mall. Those who value a used car for what it fundamentally is - a Volkswagen Golf or a Toyota Yaris - as well as of course what it does for mobility, can often overlook cosmetic damage and find great value in the cheapie used car market.
Special care aspects of cheap used cars
It’s possible to apply the same strict evaluation of used cars standing in a park & sell lot as the criteria you apply at any other dealership, but you’re likely to be frustrated. The same standards of presentation don’t really apply to cheapie used cars as, for the price, there’s no real motivation to valet and polish them up for most sellers, for one thing. Also, maintenance can be poor over time in a park & sell lot.
That said, there’s only one prime consideration to begin with when entering a cheapie used car lot: is this used car a “cheapie” because there’s something terminally wrong with it? Used cars often do end up selling under R50,000 as cheapies, but for a variety of reasons. The old Jaguar is simply 40 years old, the bakkie was overworked and dinged, or extreme usage wore a car down to clapped-out before its time. All of these things you can accept, depending on the sale price, but what you need to know is whether the cheapie you’re eyeing is there because dealerships or seller have rejected it.
Reputable dealerships will often reject a car that has severe repairs looming or is otherwise fundamentally no longer a car on their terms. As long as you start here with your cheapie used car enquiry, you can avoid the real lemons and try to glean some value in this segment of the market. There are some red flags that always apply, but definitely get a VIN number report to start when viewing a cheapie. Gather as much intel on the car as you can. Ask very direct questions, and think fundamentals, like “Has the chassis ever been straightened?” or “Has this car been rebuilt from various cars?” You want to determine whether dealership rejection has forced this car here into the cheapie lot, because it’s basically junk, or why else then it ended up there.
You’ll need to be proactive when viewing a cheapie used car. Lie down along the chassis lines and see for yourself that the undercarriage is fundamentally sound. The engine inspection should be thorough and comparative if possible - look at similar cars in the lot or take a buddy who knows cars backwards. If important components are missing or faulty, hopefully they’ll know. And the test drive should be extra detailed in your appraisal of everything you encounter when driving the car. The same scams that some pull online can also float around park & sell lots, where liability is minimal all round and there’s limited onus on the “dealer” to vet any used car.
How to evaluate a cheapie used car
Cheapie used car how-to-shop checklist:
- Never view the car at night - Firstly, if a cheapie is still being driven and you’re meeting the owner after work, the light is not going to be on your side. If that car has any electrical issues in terms of charging or starting every morning, you might not pick it up after it’s been run all day. Likewise will a battery that leaks its charge overnight also avoid detection. Inspecting an engine under electric light in the basement or street at night isn’t ideal. Take a torch if an evening inspection it needs be.
- Watch out for huge mechanical issues - Remember that there’s always the potential that the car is a real lemon, going but masking serious issues that caused dealerships to spurn it. From that seat of extreme caution, proceed with fundamental questions about the car’s accident and service histories.
- Lookout for body repairs - Check the car’s undercarriage by lying on the ground and taking your time, working your way around the car. If you have your savvy mechanical friend there, they’ll also spot missing bits in the suspension, something most of us won’t see the first time round.
- Spot body panel resprays - Has this cheapie used car been resprayed? You’ll be able to tell with most informal spray jobs, by looking around the windows and extremities where lines won’t be clean and over-spray visible. If so, why? To mask damage? Was it then properly repaired first? Or perhaps just to make it look a bit more glam for sale? Inspect resprayed cars especially carefully for panel and bodywork irregularities. If a panel seems to not fit exactly, it probably doesn’t, and is going to cost you.
- What components are missing - After inspecting the chassis, open the bonnet and look at the engine. It should be numbered and fastened correctly to the body of the car, with all necessary associated components present. If you encounter abridged electrics under the hood - wires running across the engine that bypass original electrics - ask why.
- Do the cars four tyre rims match? Are the tyres in the same state of wear, and are they all the same specification or size? If there is supposed to be a spare, is it there? What else is in the boot in terms of a jack and spanner?
- Is the rubber work perished? Will you need to refit all round in order to stay dry in rainy weather while driving this car? And the auto glass? Are there any ill-fitting panes or collapsed window mechanisms, and do any windows need replacing for roadworthy?
- Are there any other “home fixes” where the owner has clearly “made a plan” to resolve an issue? An ill-fitting component? Something lashed with wire? Whatever it is, as the new owner you’ll have to effect a proper repair, and you’ll want to figure out what it’s going to cost you first.
- Are the plates correct. Is the car’s paperwork in order. If the vehicle history check turned up anything even vaguely irregular, go through it in detail. If at all possible, get a multipoint check done before handing over your money. This can be frustratingly difficult when the owner is absent and the lot owners don’t offer that kind of service. That said, if the owner makes bad excuses for it not being possible, there’s every chance that they know of major issues that will be highlighted by a multipoint check.
Every secondhand car can have issues and new cars too, but it’s particularly important that you shift your paradigm when shopping cheapie used cars. While the average dealership will sort things out quickly if you get home and the boot lock won’t open, it’s not the same when you’re buying from a park & sell lot, or buying privately. Also, the average age or accumulated user abuse of the average cheapie used car is greater. It pays to assume everything has failed, and then check everything to prove otherwise.
- Volkswagen Golf. Older Golfs have a reputation for failing door handles, and any Golf in a park & sell lot should have all four doors, the bonnet and rear door checked for functionality.
- Bakkies. Many small and larger contractors shop the cheapie used car market for workhorse bakkies they can employ for a time in the business. Conversely, many of the bakkies found here are so clapped out, there’s very little life left in them. Diesel bakkies especially pose a higher risk of lemonhood, as a poor service record might result in big problems on your watch.
- Performance cars. See a relatively modern performance car in a cheapie lot? Watch out! You’ll know something’s wrong when you see a BMW M3 being sold of next to a Nissan 1400 bakkie and an Uno. Performance cars maintain their own market, although some can eventually end up as cheapies, but not late model ones! It’s true that these cars can excite you when you encounter them here, and we all immediately think “Oh wow - bargain!” Performance cars can break the bank in servicing and repair costs, however. And it’s almost certain that the current owner can’t afford some major repairs on the car, and that’s why this sleek beast has ended up on grass in the countryside. If it was really still the awesome beauty it’s being sold as, it would be being traded elsewhere by performance enthusiasts. Buy it at your peril!
- Engines and gearboxes. Engine and gearbox repairs can be some of the most expensive. Many times, nagging or unaffordable or even botched repairs are done, only to fail and render the car now a cheapie. Inspect the engine visually and ensure that the car idles, revs smoothly and pulls evenly when you pull away. In the test drive, feel repeatedly for any strange play or stickiness in the gearbox if it’s manual, or any jerkiness on an automatic transmission drive.
For many, particularly in more status-conscious cities around the country, cheapie used cars just “look” too tired or “unsexy” to consider as personal vehicles. To some extent, it really is a matter of personal tolerance or balance of form and function. While one man might consider a slightly tacky old Nissan 1400 bakkie as an ideal extra bakkie for the staff, another might only see a tired, worn-out piece of junk. One man’s food, as they say after all.
Those who value reliable engines and certain attributes or performance will often buy the cheapie they’re after, as knowing they can trust the car to tow or load or otherwise perform is more important than looks. There can be bargains in that park & sell lot, and this is usually the biggest incentive for those with the money to be elsewhere. If you shop here, be extra careful when inspecting cars. And extra honest when calculating repair costs. If you know you’ll want to replace the driver and passenger seats, for example, because you know you’ll never live with the damaged current ones for long, be realistic in calculating replacement costs. It’s also possible for many shoppers in this market to at least gain mobility with a cheapie, and to slowly sell on and upgrade over the years.