Buying a Used Car

3/25/2003

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Update: This article has been revised as of February, 2011. 

BE A SMART CAR SHOPPER
Before launching your search for a good deal on a used car, spend some time considering many of the same factors that would apply to a new car purchase: how you will use the vehicle; how long you plan to keep it; the size, style, features, and appearance you need or prefer; and your budget or financing options for the purchase, as well as for operation, maintenance, and repair costs.

Terms for used auto loans at financial institutions change with the market and interest rates. You should spend some time researching the vehicles that you are interested in. Ask friends about their experiences and satisfaction with their older cars—would they buy the car again? Also, check auto and consumer books, such as Edmund's Used Cars Prices and Ratings, and magazines, such as Consumer Reports, for information on the reliability records of various models. In addition, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) operates a toll-free hotline 800.424.9393 and a page on the Internet, through which you can find out if a particular vehicle has ever been recalled for safety defects.

To help you investigate and compare prices, several publications are available that give general guidance on value for many models. Your library, bookstore, bank or insurance agent should have a copy of the monthly National Automotive Dealers Association (NADA) Official Used Car Guide, monthly Kelley Blue Book or Edmund's to estimate a car's resale value. Comparing prices of similar makes and models can give you an idea of which seller offers the best deals. 

SOURCES FOR USED CARS
Consider the following sources when looking for a used car:

  • New and Used Car Dealers—Both new and used car dealers can be excellent sources for finding a quality used vehicle. These cars may be serviced by the dealer and sold with limited warranties.

    Whether you are considering buying from a used or new car dealer, check out the dealer's reputation and reliability first. Call the Better Business Bureau for a reliability report (Contact and location information on all BBBs in the U.S. and Canada is located at our main website. Ask the dealer how you may contact the car’s previous owner.

  • Superstores—Superstores offer a high-tech (via in-store computers and/or the Internet), no-price haggling way of buying used cars.
  • Car Rental Agencies—These agencies may sell used rental cars, generally 9 to 12 months old and driven less than 25,000 miles. They often provide the car's maintenance and repair records and offer a limited warranty. Mileage on rental cars is often high on a per-year basis. The cars may suffer from the wear and tear that comes from use by a variety of drivers.
  • Bank and Loan Companies—Bank and loan companies sometimes sell repossessed cars to pay off defaulted loans. Quality varies from car to car. But since the vehicle is being sold to recover the amount due on a loan, it may be possible to get a good price on a good car.
  • Private Owners—Private owners usually sell their used cars through newspaper ads. You may find a well-maintained car selling for less money than you would pay a dealer. If you buy a used car from a private owner, ask for the car's maintenance and repair records and, if the seller is the first owner, for records of the original purchase. Also, check the title to make sure the person selling the car is the legal owner.

    Note: Be wary of fraudulent, criminal dealers, commonly known as "curbstoners," who offer vehicles through newspaper ads and may disguise themselves as individual sellers. The cars offered may be stolen or damaged, and their odometers may be rolled back.

  • Vehicle Auctions—Government, private, and online vehicle auctions, which can be attended by the general public, as well as new and used car dealers, are becoming increasingly popular. Some common things to remember about buying vehicles from auctions are:
    1. you will need funds for on-the-spot payment,
    2. getting a warranty is rare, and
    3. it is unlikely that you will be able to take a car to a mechanic for inspection before you purchase it.

FTC BUYERS GUIDE
Under the Federal Trade Commission's Used Car Rule, all sellers of used cars (except private owners), are required to place a large sticker called a "Buyers Guide" in the window of their used cars, light-duty vans and light-duty trucks. The Buyers Guide tells you whether the vehicle comes with a warranty and, if so, which systems are covered, how long coverage applies, and what percent of repair costs the dealer will pay.

The Buyers Guide also alerts you when a car is being sold with implied warranties only, or with no warranty at all ("as is"). Once you complete a purchase of a car “as is” and drive it off the lot, the dealer has no further responsibility for the car. Be sure to sign the Buyers Guide and request a copy for your records.

Under most state laws, if the car does not come with a written warranty, and it is also not sold "as is," it is covered by an implied warranty. Implied warranties make dealers legally responsible if the cars they sell fail to meet reasonable quality standards at the time of sale. Depending on your state's particular laws, the implied warranty may guarantee that the car will run, or that it will live up to the seller's assurance that it is fit for a particular purpose, such as pulling a trailer. Your state consumer protection office can provide more information about the specifics of implied warranty coverage.

ON-THE-LOT CHECKLIST
Keep a sharp eye out for the following as you get your first look at a used car:

  1. Body—Look for rust, particularly at the bottoms of fenders, around lights and bumpers, on splash panels, under doors, in the wheel wells, and under trunk carpeting. Small blisters may indicate future rust sites. Check for paint that does not quite match, gritty surfaces, misaligned body panels and paint overspray on chrome -- all possible signs of a new paint job, masking body problems. Look for cracks, heat-discolored areas, and loose bumpers -- warning signs of a past accident. A welded seam may mean that the car is actually a body shop's "rebuilt" creation from salvaged parts. Look for welded seams in the trunk and on the floor; bumps under the paint around the windshield or rear window, or between doors, may indicate a rough welded seam beneath the paint. Also, look for hail damage. If the vehicle is dirty, have it washed for a better inspection.
  2. Tires—Uneven wear on the front tires usually indicates either bad alignment or front suspension damage. Uneven wear on late model cars with radial tires may signal improper tire rotation. Do not forget to check the condition of the spare tire and make sure the correct jack is in the trunk and in working order.
  3. Battery—Look on the sticker for the guarantee date. A battery generally needs to be replaced after 25,000 miles.
  4. Doors, Windows, Trunk Lid—Look for a close fit, ease of opening and closing, and secure latches. A door that fits unevenly may indicate that the car was involved in a collision.
  5. Window, Glass and Lights—Look for hairline cracks and tiny holes.
  6. Tailpipe—Black, gummy soot in the tailpipe may mean worn rings, or bad valves and possibly expensive repairs.
  7. Shock absorbers—Lean hard or "bounce" on a corner of the car and then release it. If the car keeps rocking up and down, the shocks may need replacing.
  8. Fluids—Oil that is whitish or has white bubbles may mean that water has been introduced into the system and this can be a sign of major mechanical problems. Check the radiator fluid; it should not look rusty. With the engine idling, check the transmission fluid; it should not smell rancid or look dark brown. Check for leaks and stains under the car, on the underside of the engine, and around hoses and valve covers.
  9. Mechanical Parts—Be sure all headlights, taillights, brake lights, backup lights, and directional signals work properly. Test the radio, heater, air conditioner, and windshield wipers.
  10. Interior—Check the upholstery for major wear and tear; look under floor mats and seat covers. Check the adjustability of seats and make sure all seat belts work. Check the locations and working order of airbags. Ask whether they have ever been deployed. Check the steering wheel; unlocked, with the engine off, it should have no more than two inches of play. Lots of wear on the driver's seat and/or heavy wear on the brake and accelerator pedals of a car with low mileage may indicate tampering with the odometer.

ROAD TEST CHECKLIST

  • At Start up—The car should start easily and without excessive noise. Once the car has warmed up, listen for engine noise as you drive; unusual sounds may be signs of major trouble. It is important that you listen to the car's engine, transmission, brakes, etc. Since you are interested only in a mechanically sound car, any noise that sounds strange or unusual should be a warning signal.
  • Test Drive—Drive on a variety of roads -- city street, freeway, two-lane highway and rough paved and unpaved surfaces. Does the car accelerate and decelerate well? Watch for unusual vibrations, noises or odors.
  • Pick Up—Make several stops and starts, at varying but safe rates of speed on a clear, level road surface. The car should accelerate without hesitation and should brake without grabbing, vibrating or pulling to one side. When you step firmly on the brake pedal, it should feel firm, not spongy. Have a companion look at the exhaust while you let the car decelerate from 45 mph to about 15 mph, then step hard on the gas. Blue smoke may mean worn rings or valves; white smoke may be a cracked block.
  • Steering—Try turning at various speeds. Too much sway or stiffness can mean bad shocks and/or front-end problems. Turn the wheel all the way from one side to the other; power steering should feel smooth with little or no squealing.
  • Frame and Alignment—If you suspect a car’s structural condition, have the vehicle checked for frame damage from a local tire alignment dealer. A car with a bent frame can be dangerous and its value greatly reduced.
  • Odometer Accuracy—Look for signs of odometer tampering: white lines between the numbers that do not line up or vibration of the 1/10 mile numbers while the car is moving.
  • Get A Thorough Inspection—Have a mechanic inspect the car. Take the car to a reliable repair shop or auto diagnostic center and have the mechanic give it a once-over. You will have to pay for this service, but the money you invest up front may save you many more dollars down the road. Ask for a written estimate of the costs to repair any problems the mechanic finds, and use that estimate as a bargaining chip when you make your offer for the car. In some states an official state inspection may be legally required. Check with your Department of Motor Vehicles for specific laws in your locality.

CLOSING THE DEAL
Before signing a contract or purchasing a used car, you should do the following:

  • Take your time to read and understand the entire written agreement.
    Ask questions. Don’t sign unless you are satisfied with the answers.
  • Be sure that all blank spaces are filled in, that all of the salesperson's verbal promises are included, and that the type of warranty that comes with the car is spelled out.
  • If you are required to make a deposit, ask whether it is refundable, and under what circumstances, and make sure the information is also included in the contract.
  • Be sure to get a signed statement verifying the mileage at the time of sale. Most state laws require dealers of used cars to provide the buyer with this information in writing.
  • Know your state's requirements concerning emissions inspections; certified state auto inspections; child safety, seat belt, and airbag requirements; and title transfers.
  • Make sure the vehicle is not stolen.

Buying a used vehicle can be a rewarding experience but always remember, “when in doubt, check it out!”

QUICK CHECK LIST
Before purchasing any used car, be aware of the following:

  • Inspect the car in daylight and good weather. Bring someone you trust along to help you make a thorough appraisal;
  • Don’t expect perfection in a used car. Compromise on minor problems you can fix yourself, but don’t overlook serious defects;
  • Make safety a major priority. Older vehicles may not be equipped with airbags, child safety seats, seat belts, anti-lock brakes or security systems. Determine your locality's vehicle safety requirements for cars, mini-vans, recreational and sport-utility vehicles and other vehicles before you buy;
  • Road test before you commit to buy. If you are not allowed to test drive the car, do not buy it.
  • Have a Trusted Mechanic Thoroughly inspect the car before you purchase it.

To learn more about used car issues, contact the following:

* If you find any of the web sites listed above to be inactive, please contact the respective organization. Also, be aware that the above phone numbers may be subject to change without notice.

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