23 things you should do after buying a second hand 4WD

Buying a 4WD is an awesome experience, and it gives you access to so much more of this spectacular country. If you are lucky enough to pick up a new 4WD then most of these tips become null and void.

If however, like the rest of us, you are picking up a second hand 4WD, its a good idea to work your way through this list. It will save you a lot of headache down the track, and provides a basic guide for what to look for when buying a used 4WD.

Some of these jobs require basic technical skills – if you aren’t sure, get someone who knows what they are doing to show you how, or take it to a qualified mechanic.

Check the air filter

Your air filter plays a critical role, and it needs to be kept clean. A dirty air filter will result in bad fuel economy, lack of power and can allow dust into your engine, which is a quick way to destroy it. It takes a couple of minutes to unlatch the air filter cover, pull it out and clean it. A few taps against your tyre is usually all that’s needed, unless you can visibly see its dirty and then it needs to be washed (if its washable), or replaced.

Clean your air filter
Make sure your air filter is clean

Check the age, size and condition of your tyres

Tyre age is really important, and you can check it very quickly. If you don’t know how, check this post out – How to check the age of your 4WD Tyres. Read the size, and work out what diameter they are. Fitting bigger tyres to a 4WD is a common modification, but its not always legal, and is often done without considering the downsides.

Beyond that, look at the tread and wear. If the tread is getting low, or the tyres are wearing unevenly, you need to do something about it. Check for cracks and perishing on all faces of the tyres.

Tyre condition
What condition are your tyres in?

Climb underneath it

Hopefully you’ve done this before purchasing the 4WD, but if not, park the vehicle on a flat surface, put it in gear (or park) and climb under the car. Look for any oil leaks, anything that’s shiny (and indicates wear), or any worn components. Anything you can shake or rotate to see if there is wear is worth doing – tail shafts, exhaust pipes (only when cold!), steering shafts etc. If you find anything out of the ordinary, get it looked at.

4WD inspection
What does it look like underneath?

Check the driveline fluids

If you don’t know the history of the 4WD you’ve bought, its cheap insurance to replace all of the fluids. You should be able to get gearbox, transfer case and differential oil for most 4WD’s for under $200, and replacing them only takes a few hours.

At the very least, remove the filler plug, stick a clean cable tie inside and check the colour and condition of the oil. If its not clean you need to change the oil. Dirty oil will create costly repairs very quickly.

Measure your lift (if you have one)

If the suspension has been changed on your 4WD, you should check to see if it has a lift kit. This can be the difference between having a legal 4WD and not. If you want to know more, have a read of this; Is your 4WD legal?

Aftermarket suspension is usually easy to identify; if the shock absorbers are not black, they’ve probably been changed. If they are black, but they have stickers on them or are chunkier than the factory ones, they’ve also been replaced.

To see if it has a lift, find out the roof height, or hub to hub height from your local dealer, and measure your vehicle to compare.

Lift kit in a 4WD
Does your 4WD have a lift kit?

Check the brake, power steering, radiator and clutch fluid

Under the engine bay, you will find your clutch and brake tanks. Check the fluid is within the minimum and maximum levels. This should be changed every 12 months as it absorbs moisture. If you don’t know the history, take it to a mechanic or if you are competent, do it yourself.

Unscrew your power steering cap and check this is at the right level too. Your radiator overflow tank should have clean, proper coolant in it. If its watery, or brown, you need to change it. If the engine is cold, you are good to pop the radiator cap too. Fluid should be all the way to the top of the radiator cap, and the cap should be in good condition.

Get some decent insurance

If you’ve spent a fair bit of coin on a 4WD, you want to know its covered should something go horribly wrong. Even if it didn’t cost much, make sure you have third party insurance; the risk is simply not worth it. Look into your 4WD insurance properly, as they vary considerably. We’ve moved to Club 4×4 Insurance for a number of reasons; you can read about it here – Club 4×4 Insurance Review.

4WD insurance
How confident are you with your 4WD insurance?

Replace your engine oil and filter

Again, if you don’t know the history of your engine, drop the oil and filter and replace it. For most 4WD’s this will be under $150 to do, and its imperative to ensuring longevity.

Read the tyre placard

Something a lot of people don’t know about is the tyre placard; your vehicle will have a set tyre size that its supposed to run, and this is needed to determine what the maximum tyre size that you can legally run on your 4WD.

You’ll usually find the tyre placard on the drivers side of the vehicle, on the pillar running from the floor to the roof just near your seat belt. If the tyre size is something you don’t recognise, run it through an online tyre calculator to see what the dimensions are.

Read the manual

Your 4WD should come with an owners manual. Read it. I don’t mean word for word, but at least flick through everything and read anything that you might not already know. It might just save your bacon!

Find the spare wheel and get it out

Having a spare tyre that is going to work when you need it to is super important. Find out how to get the tyre out, and check its condition. If it doesn’t hold air, or you don’t have the tools to wind it down from under your 4WD, you will regret it in the middle of the bush when you get a puncture!

Spare wheel carrier
Where is your spare wheel, and how do you get it?

Check your speedometer against a GPS

In Australia, Speedometers can be out by up to 10% from new. Kind of ironic when you can get done for speeding less than 5% over, but anyway. If you have had different tyres fitted, this is especially important; get a GPS and test it against your speedo. If you want to do it very accurately, set a trip meter on your vehicle and on the GPS, and travel 100km then compare.

If you have bigger tyres, your speedo will be out for sure. Remember this then means your trip meter and odometer are also going to be out, which will affect the way you Calculate your 4WD’s fuel economy, and when you take your 4WD to get serviced by a mechanic.

Keen to know more? Check out Fitting bigger tyres to your 4WD.

4WD tyre size Speedo
Big tyres will put your speedo out

Fit rated recovery points

You shouldn’t be going off road without rated recovery points. As a minimum, one on the front of your vehicle and one on the rear is a must. If you have a towbar on the rear, you can safely use the pin inside the hitch to recover from, or you can get a hitch receiver for about $45 which is much easier and safer.

On the front, most attachment points are not designed for 4WD recoveries, so get something rated like the Roadsafe ones. 4WD recoveries are not to be taken lightly; people have died in Australia from them going wrong.

Tow ball 4WD Recovery
Are your recovery points rated and safe?

Find out your payload and towing capacities

Another point often overlooked is how much gear you can carry and tow in your 4WD. You can get these details from Redbook by putting your make and model in, but you need to know your payload, towing capacity and vehicle weight.

If you think your 4WD might be overweight (which is very easy to do), take it to a weighbridge and get it weighed. You want to be under the GVM, GCM (if towing) and have your weight loaded evenly.

Unfortunately, this has been made into a very complicated subject. However, I’ve made it simple again. If you are towing, have a read of this: A simple towing capacity guide to keep you legal.

If you aren’t towing, you could still be in trouble; check this out What does your 4WD weigh?

Heavy 4WD
An overweight 4WD is an illegal and unsafe one

Check your tyre pressures are correct

Tyre pressures are often adjusted on a 4WD, and you should check them regularly. Run the right pressures for the terrain you are driving on. Your tyre placard will give you some indication of what pressures should be run, as will your owners manual. Lower them accordingly as the terrain you are driving on changes.

Tyre deflator
What tyre pressure are you running?

Check the brake pads

Brakes are pretty important, and ensuring you have plenty of meat left on your brake pads is a fairly simple job. For disk brakes, you can inspect them by removing a wheel, and looking in with a torch. If you have drum brakes, you need to remove the drum too, which again is easy (but do it safely), If you have a trip planned and the brake pads are low, get them renewed.

Get a mechanic to go over it

Unless you are qualified, it pays to drop your new toy off to a trustworthy mechanic to get their opinion. A qualified inspection shouldn’t cost more than $200, but will give you the peace of mind that everything is as it should be. If you are maintaining your vehicle then maybe its going to be an irregular visit. If not though, make sure you follow the manufacturers service intervals!

Quickshift Autos in Myaree
I leave the big jobs to Quickshift Autos

Work out how to engage 4WD, and lock your hubs

Engaging 4WD is different from vehicle to vehicle, and if you get bogged before knowing this, you could be in real trouble. Some vehicles have manual locking hubs which require you do get out of the vehicle and turn into 4WD, before moving the second gear into high range or low range.

Others are all done electronically, and some can be done just by turning a knob. Read the manual, test it out and know what you are doing before you head off the beaten track.

If you are putting it in 4WD, don’t do this on bitumen as you can do nasty damage to your driveline; find a sandy/gravel patch to test it out on.

Engaging 4WD
How do you engage 4WD?

Get some decent recovery gear

Heading off road without some recovery gear and the knowledge of how to use it is asking for trouble. At the very least, carry a tyre deflator, compressor, shovel, snatch strap and know how to use it all. Self recoveries are possible in most situation, and asking for help without any gear is a sure way to get people fired up.

80 series rear
Do you have decent recovery gear?

Get a second set of keys

Guaranteed the first time you realise you should have gotten a second set of keys is when you lose your only one! I’ve lost my keys in the past, and its a right pain in the backside. For most vehicles, a set of keys is relatively cheap. If you have one of the fancy electronic ones, then its a bit more costly, but still cheaper than having to get them made in a hurry!

Work out your fuel economy

You’ll get a pretty good idea of fuel economy from information online, but nothing beats real experience when it comes to fuel economy. I reset my trip meter each time I fill up, and take a second to work out my economy each run.

Sometimes I write it down, so I have something to reference off. In sand driving, you will use a lot more fuel, and knowing how much more based on previous runs is invaluable for trip planning.

If you have a big trip planned, you need to ensure you’ve got plenty of fuel on board without overkill and carrying a ridiculous amount of weight. 

Diesel at Mt Barnett
What’s your fuel economy?

Use it

There’s not much point getting a 4WD if you aren’t going to use it. We live in the lucky country here in Australia, and with a 4WD you get to experience the very best of what it has to offer. Plan your trips, and head away as much and as often as you can.

We’ve spent a fortune setting up our 4WD, but you can’t put a price on all the memories and amazing times we’ve had. I wouldn’t change a thing!

4WD's are meant to be used
Go and have the time of your life with your 4WD

Think about what you want from your 4WD

While you are travelling, think about what you want from your 4WD. You can spend a lot of money modifying it the way everyone does, or you can build it around your requirements. The more you use your 4WD, the faster you will identify things that could be improved on.

From there, buy, build and design what ever you feel is necessary to make your style of travel comfortable, reliable and functional.

4WD's vary a huge amount
What do you want from your 4WD?

24) Check the radiator/condenser/intercooler for obstructions

Take a second to look in between and around the above items, as they can get clogged with mud, dirt, sticks and seeds. Any air flow reduction will make your engine run warmer. It’s also a good idea to use a hose with a light spray onto the radiator to ensure that there is no dirt or mud wedged in deep. You’ll see the water colour change if its dirty!

25) Check your viscous fan hubs

One of the most overlooked parts of a 4WD is the viscous fan. If your cooling fan (behind the radiator) is not driven by vee belts, there’s a pretty good chance its got a viscous hub. This hub has oil in it, which when warmed engages the clutch. Essentially, when the motor is cool the fan doesn’t spin much, but if its hot the fan kicks in to cool it back down. These often leak oil and stop driving when they should.

When the motor is warm, you should be able to turn if off, and watch the fan slow very quickly. With the motor off (and it nice and warm), you should be able to flick the fan one way and it should stop almost immediately. If it doesn’t do this, its not working properly. This is probably the most critical part of a cooling system; don’t overlook it!

What have I missed?

I’m sure I’ve probably missed something on this list; what else should you be doing after buying a second hand 4WD?

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  1. Ashley Earl says:

    You should change not just check the level of the brake and clutch fluids, these fluids absorb water which can boil easily causing failures and should be changed every 12 months anyway. Checking for obstructions in the radiator/condensor/intercooler fins is a good idea as is checking what is stuck between these items and operation of the fan (particularly clutch fans) could very easily save being stranded with a cooked engine

  2. Hey Keith,

    It’s not a throw out air filter – its an emergency spare that’s been in there for several years. I don’t intend on ever using it, but it is there should I need it. The drawer is shut, and kept pretty clean. I wouldn’t be too concerned about such a minute amount of dust. However, if I ever use it, I’ll be sure to clean it first.


  3. I’d imagine that’s a throw out air filter you have in the draw. Otherwise I’d have it wrapped in a dustproof plastic bag of some sort so that trip dust can’t settle on the inside part of the element to be fed into the engine.

  4. Great post. You’ve covered most of the big things, but I’d love to see something mentioned about GVM issues. So many 4WD’s in Australia are way over GVM – risking them being unsafe, unregistered, and uninsured. And most owners have no idea! Some are over GVM when you purchase them, too. It doesn’t take many good quality, recommended accessories, along with a few passengers and a full load of camping gear, to be over the GVM in most 4WD vehicles. I’d recommend that if you don’t know the weight of the gear added to the car when you purchase it, take it over a weighbridge (even the one at your local tip will give you a fair idea) and compare to the manufacturer kerb weight. Its not difficult to do it at the start, and sure saves some tears if you find out only after you’ve added a bunch of expensive accessories you may now need to remove!