x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

How not to buy a second hand car

After only a few days in Dubai, this consultant bought a Porsche for Dh30,000, but defects forced him to liquidate the car a few months later for just Dh8,000.

Illustration by Rahul for The National.
Illustration by Rahul for The National.

When James Smallwood arrived in Dubai last July, he found himself caught up in what he calls "living the dream". For Mr Smallwood, 30, a technical consultant for an investment software company, this dream was represented by a 1999 Porsche Boxster at the "unbelievable" price of Dh30,000. With his clothes still in suitcases, he was at work for only a few days when he heard about the popular classifieds website Dubizzle.com. Scrolling through thousands of used-car listings, his urgent search had begun.

"This is a horrible thing to have to admit, but I was seduced by the idea of driving a sport car," says Mr Smallwood, who is from Northampton in the UK. "I think this happens to people when they move here. They get excited about the tax-free lifestyle and automatically put themselves in a bracket that is higher than the reality." At the time, the reality for Mr Smallwood was his wife's imminent arrival - in only a couple weeks - to join him permanently in the UAE. As his eyes met the 1999 Porsche Boxster on the computer screen, it was love at first sight. He decided that he wanted to pick her up in a Porsche.

The only problem was, he didn't have the money to pay for it. "At this point, I hadn't yet had my first salary," he explains. "I was living in company accommodation for free during my first month and would have to find somewhere to live soon, but I convinced myself that I could afford to buy the car. I had come to Dubai with Dh30,000 as a 'buffer'. I used some of this and took the rest out on my credit card so that I would have cash to live on until I got paid."

He borrowed Dh12,500 on his credit card, contacted the seller through the website, and met him to finalise the deal. A fellow Englishman, Mr Smallwood seemed perfectly confident about the quality of the vehicle. "The guy was around 50, and said he had bought the car off a friend," Mr Smallwood remembers. "He claimed he was selling it because he'd split up with his wife and could no longer afford to keep two cars while running his own business. He said he'd never had any problems with it and somehow I convinced myself that I could spend all my money on the car, use it for three months or so and then give it to my wife before taking out a loan to buy a new car for myself."

Eager to acquire the car quickly, he neglected to carry out his own inspection of the vehicle. Money changed hands, and the Porsche was in his possession. "I found out after about a week that the sunroof didn't work, but everything else seemed to be OK, he says. "When my wife arrived, I picked her up in the car." But this moment of glory was brief. A few weeks later, when his wife fell ill, the couple set off for the hospital. It was the middle of August, and the car's air conditioning stopped working. The pair found themselves stuck in traffic, pouring with sweat.

"I spent Dh1,500 on trying to patch the problem, but it didn't work," Mr Smallwood says. "I ended up taking it to a specialist garage, House of Cars, which the seller had recommended. When I arrived, alarm bells should have rung, because the mechanics recognised the car straight away." It turned out that the Porsche was a frequent visitor to the garage, having been brought in by the previous owner on a semi-regular basis for the past three years. The garage informed Mr Smallwood that, in their professional opinion, the air conditioning would cost another Dh7,000 to repair.

"That went on the credit card, as I had only two weeks wages to my name," he explains. "It left me with just enough to survive on, but I had to really manage my finances carefully from then on." For two weeks the car behaved itself. But disaster would strike once more during one of Mr Smallwood's long drives between Dubai and Abu Dhabi. "It was early September and I got a puncture and had to pull over," he remembers.

"I changed the tyre in 40-degree heat, which took about half an hour, and drove off. That was when I discovered the spare tyre was also flat. I ended up crawling along the hard shoulder for about 20km until I reached a garage." His money pit on wheels swallowed another Dh1,200 that evening, as he paid to replace two tyres. Sadly, just one week later on the same road, another problem revealed itself.

"I started to notice a few issues with the gear changes, and halfway back to Dubai the gearbox stopped engaging and wouldn't go past second gear," he says. "I had to drive 70km in second gear, stopping every 10 minutes to let the engine cool down." It took Mr Smallwood hours to get home that evening. Dh400 was spent on vehicle recovery, a snip compared the next sum that faced the unfortunate motorist.

"I was quoted Dh35,000 to replace the gearbox," he says. "At that point, I think I was close to tears. I paid another Dh300 to move it to House of Cars, because I wanted a second opinion." For the princely sum of Dh1,000, House of Cars confirmed what he already knew - the car was a lemon. The mechanic advised Mr Smallwood that he might consider selling it for scrap. Unable to stomach the thought of throwing more money at it, he decided to cut his losses.

Mr Smallwood returned to Dubizzle and listed his new purchase for sale for all of Dh8,000. By the end of last September he had sold his beloved Porsche. Mr Smallwood says buying the second-hand Porsche is a mistake he will not be repeating. "Because of the Porsche, we had to move into a furnished apartment where we pay monthly, because I spent all my setting-up money and had nothing left for furniture," he says.

"Instead of saving each month, I have had to pay back my credit card. It's going to be early next year before I am back on track." Mr Smallwood says that one of the most valuable lessons that he's learnt is to be thorough when buying a used car, especially as deals that seem too good to be true nearly always are. Because there are so many second-hand cars in the UAE, he says, you can't always rely on the seller's honesty. Buying the Porsche without doing a thorough inspection was undoubtedly a huge mistake, Mr Smallwood admits.

"Another thing that I would have done differently is I would not have rushed into buying something so early on," he says. "When you arrive in a new city you can lose your bearings a bit, and in hindsight I would have rented something until I knew the market better. I should have swallowed my male pride and rented a Nissan Tiida or Toyota Yaris until I was in a position to do it all properly. One thing is for sure, I'll never buy a second-hand car here again. I was out of my depth. I allowed myself to make a hasty decision without properly considering the facts. And it cost me."