It’s illegal to wind back a car’s odometer, but that’s not always a strong deterrent for people who are trying to offload a car that has racked up hundreds of thousands of kilometres. If you are the unsuspecting buyer, the vehicle could be hard to sell in years to come. And in the meantime you’re stuck with a car that could be costly to keep on the road and inconveniently unreliable, because it’s mechanically tired when you thought it had plenty of life left in it.
Here are some tips to save yourself buying a car that’s not all it appears to be.
Check the distance travelled
The distance a car travels over the course of its life is typically 15,000km a year. A lot of people sell their car when it is six years old because buyers are frequently repelled by purchasing a vehicle that has covered more than 100,000km since new.
So if the car is seven years old, but the odometer displays no more than 50,000km, that should sound alarm bells. That’s about 7000km a year, which is right at the lower end of probability. You need to ask the buyer to explain why the odometer reading is so low, after all that time. The buyer’s explanation could be perfectly reasonable, for a number of reasons. Perhaps the car has only ever been driven to the shops, school, or work in the next suburb.
Check the car’s logbook
Look specifically at dates and odometer readings for each service. The logbook may have been doctored. Look for dates that appear to have been overwritten, or kilometres that appear to have had digits erased. Work your way through each scheduled service listed and calculate whether they’re about a year apart, on average, and check the odometer reading on each occasion. If the car is only notching up 7000km or some other low number between each service, then it’s probably a genuinely low-kilometre car.
Usually service technicians leave a reminder sticker at the top of the windscreen to alert the driver when the next service is due. It’s worth checking that this aligns with the logbook too.
Check the wear and tear
If the car is older, but hasn’t travelled far in its time, abnormal wear and tear could be a tell-tale sign of an odometer that has been rolled back. Because you’re inspecting other cars of the same type, you will quickly get a feel for what is normal wear and tear – the seating, for example, seat belts, carpets, the steering wheel and frequently used buttons.
Get a vehicle history report and inspection
If the car you have your heart set on buying seems like it has led a hard life, and the owner doesn’t really have a credible explanation for the unusually low odometer reading, get a vehicle history report for further information. And having a mechanic inspect the vehicle, through an organisation like RedBook Inspect, will likely flag any anomalies as well.