Used Cars - the bottom line at the bottom end

Most advice to buyers of used cars is produced in the First World, and presumes the car you are purchasing needs to be roadworthy.  Indeed, the approach to checking and testing is predicated on “zero defect” – while the vehicle is not brand new, and therefore might be somewhat worn, there should be nothing actually “wrong” with it.  Everything should work, and properly.

For cars that are less than 10 years old and which have been reasonably used and maintained, there is a good possibility of achieving that benchmark. Conventional advice is aimed at this bracket, and guides the buyer what to look for, how to test each component, how to assess how much longer this state of perfection might last, and how to bargain any immediate or imminent corrective cost off the asking price.

There is a specific visual, mechanical and driving test for every function of the vehicle, quick preliminary ways to judge the condition of the engine, the transmission, the drive train,  brakes, steering, suspension, electrics, chassis/platform, bodywork, exhaust, fuel system, cooling system, tyres, glazing, interior trim…giving both a part-by-part analysis and also building to an overall picture of how the vehicle has been used and cared for.

In countries which have annual inspection systems and which enforce standards of roadworthiness, market forces ensure that if there is any defect beyond normal wear and tear it must be fixed, either by the vendor before the car is sold or by the buyer (with a price discount to match) immediately after purchase.  If the cost of remedy to a fair standard exceeds the asking price, the vehicle is unsaleable.  The owner doesn’t take it to a car bazaar, s/he takes it to a scrapyard.  The ethos is not to try and make a few bob by selling a wreck, but to get rid of it before you have to pay to have it taken away and crushed.

Where there are standards it cannot be otherwise. The viable life limit of vehicles in such places is between 10 and 15 years, and the average age of all those still using the roads is between 5 and 7 years.  And, by the way, the GDP per capita in such countries is between $15,000 and $30,000.

Kenya does not enforce roadworthiness standards.  It does not have an annual inspection system (the issue of so-called inspection certificates in exchange for a fee we do have, but this process should not be confused with actually inspecting a vehicle and rectifying its faults).  These factors, combined with our GDP per capita of less than $1,000, mean we keep unroadworthy vehicles running for 30 years or more, and the average age of our national fleet is 15 years (and rising).

At the upper end of our used car market (cars costing shs 1 million or more) the conventional guidelines may be applicable.  But what should be the advice to buyers at the lower end of the market  (other than ride a bicycle, catch a bus, or walk)?

And when we’re talking about trading in vehicles well beyond their design life, we’re not talking about a few.  The great majority of vehicles operating in Kenya today are more than 10 years old, and there are hundreds of thousands of buy-sell transactions involving vehicles above 20 years old and/or  in scrapyard condition. 

Every vehicle in that range has faults – lots of them.  And if the level of wear is not yet extreme, it soon will be.

Buyers in this bracket don’t need to be told to check whether all five tyres have a legal and even depth of tread.  They need to check whether there actually is a wheel in each corner, and whether it is securely attached to the axle by something more substantial than iron oxide powder and some botched welding.

They don’t need to establish that the brakes have the right free play in the pedal, and the car does not pull to one side when they are applied firmly.  They need to first ensure that there is a middle pedal, and when they press it firmly that there is a discernible change in the momentum of the vehicle before the pedal hits the floor (well, after a few frantic pumping actions, anyway).

The point here is not to pass judgement between right and wrong, good and bad.

It is to realistically acknowledge where we are and to wonder, conversationally, what advice should be given to first time buyers at the bottom end of the Kenya used car market.

Should it focus on economics...

...the buyer of a shs 150,000 vehicle is often making a massively larger personal commitment than the person buying for shs 1.5 million, and failure of even one major element of the cheapest could mean financial ruin for the buyer;

or should it emphasize self-preservation...

...driving a vehicle with a welded tie-rod end is like playing Russian roulette.

There is, of course, a third angle.  The national and social implications.  Playing Russian routlette with the gun pointed only at your own temple is one thing;  pointing the barrel at all other road users in your vicinity  is not quite the same. 

The age and condition of used imports, and of used parts, is not a suitable subject for political ping pong.  It is a matter national economic importance.  And it is a matter of life and death.

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