When old rubber hits the road

PUBLISHED : Monday, 23 May, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 23 May, 2011, 12:00am

It's a great feeling driving out of a showroom in a new car, tempered only by the fact that your new toy has, in a flash, depreciated in value by as much as 20 per cent and you've been hammered by a wallet-sucking first registration tax of up to 115 per cent of the retail price.

Fortunately, for those whose budget doesn't stretch that far, compact Hong Kong is a good place to look for a used car with relatively low mileage on the clock - if it hasn't been imported. Car owners in the city are always looking to upgrade, and often lack a parking space for the 'old' second car. So, that top-of-the-range Mercedes-Benz, BMW or Audi you've been green-eyeing isn't necessarily out of your reach, and you might even be able to afford a cut-price Porsche or Ferrari.

Nevertheless, the hunt for a reasonably priced used car can be perplexing and fraught with pitfalls. You may know what model you want and have a budget - mindful that the more common cars seen on the road are easier to get parts for - but where do you look? Do you put your trust in a second-hand car dealer, or the private seller whose wheels you've seen on the internet?

Wesley Wan Wai-hei, president of the Hong Kong Automobile Association (HKAA), says the most reliable option is buying from the used-car department of a marque's licensed dealer. These dealerships are not going to risk putting their reputation on the line. 'The new-car dealership always belongs to a bigger group, but the small second-hand car dealers are not always that honest and there are a lot of ways they can cheat buyers,' he says.

Wan cites the example of a scam by small dealers selling used cars imported from Japan. 'Sometimes they claim the car is accident-free when it has been involved in an accident. It is actually something like a Lego car; they just put the parts together.' He says the most common scam - one many buyers will be wary of - is mechanics turning back the clock so the car's mileage reads artificially low.

'Basically, don't buy cars that are too cheap, as there tends to be problems with them,' Wan says.

Motorist Ed Joyce, who bought a second-hand Porsche Boxster three years ago, agrees it's best to go to a new-car dealer. If you do buy from a smaller outfit, insist on first taking the car to the marque's original dealer to be checked by its mechanics. Most quality marques offer this service for about HK$1,000 - and it's money well spent. 'It's almost like certification that the car is as advertised and has no major faults,' Joyce says.

Failing that, if you are buying from a smaller dealer or private seller, you should still insist on having the car checked by a mechanic before making a decision on whether to buy it.

'They can look for the things that you'd miss,' says Gary Parker, a committee member of Classic Car Club of Hong Kong. 'If you don't take a mechanic, you probably wouldn't notice things like funny noises [indicating a problem] or brakes that are worn out.'

Joyce says a friend bought a European model from a private seller without first taking it to a mechanic and the automatic gearbox needed replacing within two months. That model is known for its problematic gearbox, he says, and an experienced mechanic would have paid special attention to that while inspecting the car.

'There was a bit of an issue with the car. We thought it might be a loose cable, but we went ahead because the car was needed in a hurry. So we made mistakes and the result was the HK$50,000 purchase price [the same price as the new gearbox] was effectively down the sink within two months.'

Andrew Windebank, a former chief executive of the HKAA, says it's possible in Hong Kong to find a great 10-year-old car, but also an unreliable one that's only three years old. He says the association provides the most thorough inspections in town and offers the service to non-members. Apart from making sure that everything is in working order, its mechanics will also check for signs of crash damage.

'The inspections strike fear in the trade,' he says. 'If someone doesn't want the car taken to the association for an inspection, there is something wrong with it, so walk away. And nine times out of 10, the association will catch stolen cars by checking the chassis number and other numbers, which can be altered with replacement plates.'

Private sellers often advertise on the net. Two popular websites are the Chinese-language www.car8.com and the autos section of English-language www.asiaxpat.com, which has sections for individual sellers and dealers.

Parker says you can get a bargain from a private seller, but pay heed to the service log. 'If you're buying a car that's got the handbook with dealer's stamps in it, then you can be pretty sure the car has had regular servicing,' he says. The log will also show the car's true mileage.

In Hong Kong, a car does not need a Certificate of Roadworthiness test until it is three years old, after which it is serviced annually and the record logged in the handbook. When you buy a car older than three years, if it is taxed, 90 per cent of the time the Certificate of Roadworthiness will still be valid, Windebank says, as it needs a valid stamp to be taxed.

'The main thing is to look for a car that's taxed and has a genuine log book,' he adds. 'If someone tries to sell you a car, especially a cheap one, without a log book, forget it,' Windebank says.

Finally, keep your fingers crossed. The certificate is only a guarantee that the car is roadworthy at the time of inspection.