How UAE residents are saving thousands on buying second-hand cars

Motoring expert Paul Willetts helps drivers avoid buying a 'money pit on wheels'

Paul Willetts of Gemini Automotive Solutions checks a car engine for leaks. Chris Whiteoak / The National
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Motorist Aimee Middleton thought she had found her ideal pre-owned vehicle, priced within budget and in good condition.

But all was not as it appeared — further investigation revealed the SUV had covered considerably more kilometres than its odometer suggested and the Briton narrowly avoided buying a potential money pit on wheels.

Having made the decision to switch from leasing to ownership last autumn after almost seven years in Dubai, Ms Middleton, a teacher and triathlete, set her sights on securing a Mitsubishi Pajero or Kia Sportage.

With help from an automotive consultant, she found a 12-year-old comparably-spaced Volkswagen Tiguan with 75,000km “on the clock”.

“I needed something with five doors that would fit my bike in the back,” Ms Middleton, 35, tells The National.

“We’d looked at a few cars, I loved that this Tiguan had a panoramic sunroof and decided I wanted it.”

Before putting down a deposit, however, her car expert ran a historical check that revealed the VW had actually covered 300,000km and its odometer had been altered.

“The car looked in such good condition so their mileage made sense,” says Ms Middleton, who lives in Sports City, Dubai.

“If I’d have bought that car I wouldn’t have got anything, I would have basically been throwing that money in the bin. The things that could go wrong with it, the dishonesty … I was massively relieved.”

Aimee Middleton sits in the driver's seat of her new car that specialist Paul Willetts helped her to buy. Pawan Singh / The National

The expert who spared Ms Middleton financial heartache and later found her another Tiguan, one that was six years old for Dh34,500 ($9,390) with a genuine 75,764km on the clock, was Paul Willetts.

Building on strong local market knowledge and understanding gleaned while working for two of Dubai’s largest motor retailers, Mr Willetts launched Gemini Automotive Solutions in January 2020.

He helps buyers and sellers navigate the potential used-vehicle “minefield” towards trouble-free vehicles or new owners, largely via personal recommendations.

Ms Middleton contacted Mr Willetts after deciding she would be financially better off buying a car, but was wary of “sellers' tricks”.

“I was leasing and knew I was throwing money down the drain. I really needed to buy because I know I’m going to be here for a few years, but was afraid to take that first step, she says”

Mr Willetts, a father of one, defines his role as “advising and assisting with all aspects of vehicle ownership” in Dubai and says Gemini was established to help motorists have a “good experience” when buying or selling a vehicle.

“A car is one of the biggest purchases we will likely ever make, so why is it that most people here have had an awful experience when finding their next car?” Mr Willetts says.

“Even more so when selling with all the ‘last price’ warriors and 'tyre kickers' making what can be a stressful time even worse.”

Car specialist Paul Willetts set up his company Gemini to help residents buy the right vehicle or sell it for the best price. Chris Whiteoak / The National

Mr Willetts, who lives at Town Square in Dubai, first envisaged a fee-based service when someone mentioned their trepidation at having to sell their car before leaving the UAE.

He offered to handle it instead, listed the car and sold it for double what the owner had anticipated.

Mr Willetts has evolved his business to maximise customer returns and convenience under the Gemini-Sell label. Meanwhile, for a flat Dh2,500 fee, Gemini-Buy helps people purchase “a good quality car, at a reasonable price, in the safest possible way”. The business can also handle finance, vehicle inspections, tyres and servicing, plus registration renewals.

With supply shortages inflating new and used car prices, buyers want reasonable deals but can be susceptible to scams, Mr Willetts says.

“There are countless situations people have found themselves in. Many of my friends and clients have a story or two about nightmare situations relating to cars,” he says.

Mladen Zivanovic thought he had secured a fair deal for a car five months after moving to Dubai from Serbia to take up a volleyball coaching role.

Having decided to end his car lease, Mr Zivanovic found a Nissan Versa on the market for Dh17,000 via an online platform.

“The seller told me the car was in really good shape, no accidents and I trusted him,” Mr Zivanovic, of Dubai Hills, recalls.

Mechanical investigations into a persistent clunking noise revealed the car came from the US, where it had been written off in an accident and rebuilt using other vehicle parts.

This was confirmed by the chassis number, while an odometer reading of 124,000 was revealed as miles, not kilometres — multiplying the distance it had been driven by 1.6 times.

“I was new in Dubai, starting my career and that was like my last money, my whole savings,” Mr Zivanovic, 27, says.

“So I decided to sell the car to find a solution, but you cannot sell at the same price.”

It was then that Mr Zivanovic contacted Mr Willetts after a friend passed on his number.

Mr Willetts helped sell the Nissan to a fully informed new owner at a significant Dh4,000 discount, although more than the Dh3,000 to Dh4,000 being offered by some.

Mladen Zivanovic was originally sold a car that had been written off and ended up buying a Ford Fiesta with Paul Willetts' help. Victor Besa / The National

Mr Willetts then helped Mr Zivanovic secure a fully inspected five-year-old Ford Fiesta two months later for Dh22,000, once the motorist had recovered from his losses and saved more cash. Mr Zivanovic says the ordeal was a costly “learning experience”.

Meanwhile, Mr Willetts says “minefield” is an overused but accurate cliche when describing the second-hand vehicle buying process.

“It is a regular occurrence for major accident cars and write-offs to be cheaply repaired and put back on the road,” Mr Willetts says.

“Similarly common are ‘clocked’ cars where the mileage has been reduced to line the dealer’s pocket further … this puts the owner at considerable financial risk and, most importantly, into a potentially unsafe vehicle."

Quote
It is a regular occurrence for major accident cars and write-offs to be cheaply repaired and put back on the road
Paul Willetts, founder of Gemini Automotive Solutions

Lauren Vayro, 27, had previously owned cars in her native UK, but had been leasing since moving to Dubai in 2020.

She wanted to buy, but had “many concerns” about sourcing a reliable, good-value vehicle by herself.

“After hearing of some friends’ experiences, I was worried about visiting a dealership alone and finding a car,” Ms Vayro, a teacher who lives at Studio City in Dubai, says.

“I have minimal car knowledge and had heard that buying a car here can be very complicated.”

She contacted Mr Willetts following a friend’s recommendation.

Ms Vayro bought a Nissan Juke in March with 92,000km on the clock that was within her “strict budget” of Dh35,000.

Dubai-based teacher Lauren Vayro bought a Nissan Juke with the help of Paul Willetts. Chris Whiteoak / The National

“I definitely feel as though I made the right choice. If it were not for his help, I would still be using a rental. He helped me get a great deal and has since helped recommend mechanics and service providers that I can trust,” she says.

Gemini, meanwhile, is expanding amid rising demand from both buyers and sellers, who Mr Willetts also charges a flat fee plus commission above an agreed target price.

“I have recently had to recruit a staff member to help with the workload, as I have so many enquiries for people needing our help,” he says.

“I have never advertised anywhere and all new clients come from past ones, which is fantastic for them and for me as the trust and understanding is already there once I explain the services.”

Ms Middleton, for one, is happy she called an expert rather than risking her funds alone.

“I feel I’ve saved money in the long run [and] a lot of stress in the long run as well,” she says.

“The whole process would have taken me quite a lot longer and I just needed it done.

“You have to decide when you’re making a big purchase like this what’s worth spending money on and I would happily pay [a fee] for that peace of mind.”

Updated: July 08, 2022, 5:00 AM
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