The good thing about buying a used car is that it has a history. The bad thing about buying a used car is that it has a history.
Experience can be a good teacher. When you buy a used car, it's possible to know the reputation of the make and model better than you would for a new car, especially a freshly minted model. But you won't know if the vehicle was treated properly, unless you're a good gumshoe detective. Learn to be one.
To start your research, take a trip down to the local library where books and magazines provide comparative information. Every April Consumer Reports publishes a detailed report of repair and maintenance frequency for used cars. The publication lists cars by price and provides important safety and fuel efficiency information. But don't stop there. Road and Track, Motor Trend and Car and Driver have automotive reviews, too.
Even those who know next to nothing about cars will tell you to consult the blue book to find out what a used car's value is. But don't be thrown when you discover that the blue book is orange. The book's actual title is the "National Automobile Dealers Association's (NADA) Used Car Guide," and it's pocket-sized. Other guides also exist and can be found at the library and in most bookstores. Try this easy to use guide with complete details on every make and model. Click here The Web site will ask you questions about the vehicle, and then give you pricing.
The blue book shows the average trade-in price, average loan price and average retail price for each model car by year. If the car is older than seven years, look it up in the "NADA Older Used Car Guide."
The guides offer estimates only. Naturally, if the car you're purchasing was stampeded by elephants escaping the zoo, its value will be lower than what NADA lists.
When buying a used car, you need to be even more diligent about making sure you're getting your money's worth than when you're buying a new car. New cars are expected to work perfectly. Used cars come with a history of accidents, repairs, rattles, dents and dings.
Following these three important steps will help protect you from being fleeced when buying a used car:
* check the reputation of the seller,
* review the title history, and
* have the car inspected by a mechanic and a body expert.
Although you can't guarantee that you'll know everything about the car if you take these steps, you'll have gone a long way toward it.
Check the Reputation of the Seller
* How long has the dealership been in business?
* How does the Better Business Bureau rate it?
* Has it been sued by the state Attorney General? If so, why?
All these questions should be answered to help you feel secure that the dealer will honor any contract you sign.
Review the Title History
The titles will tell you the following:
1. Ownership history
2. If the car was totaled
3. Odometer readings
Because about 90 percent of odometers that are rolled back come from other states, you should research out-of-state vehicles thoroughly. To get a copy of the title, you'll need to contact the Department of Motor Vehicles in the state where the former owner lives.
Have a Complete Maintenance and Body Check
You can take the car to a gas station mechanic or to a diagnostic center. A body shop is also a good place to stop to see if the car has had body damage or has been in an accident. If the owner won't allow you to have the car inspected, take your business elsewhere.
Your inspection will not replace a mechanic's inspection, but you can eliminate obviously poor vehicles with a few tools and a little know-how.
You'll need to get down and dirty to do this inspection, so wear old clothes and work
gloves. If that isn't your style, find a mechanically-minded friend to go with you. It's
also a good idea to bring a friend to help you check the lights and exhaust when you start
the car, to offer opinions on seat comfort and for moral support.
What to Look at
1. Look for leaks.
2. Check the radiator.
3. Check the battery.
4. Check the dipsticks.
Next, check the transmission dipstick while the car is idling. A low fluid level may indicate a leaking transmission. New fluid is red. Discolored fluid could indicate a transmission problem, but it doesn't always mean trouble. If the fluid smells burnt or is discolored, have a mechanic check it out before you buy the car.
5. Test the shock absorbers and struts.
6. Check the tires.
7. Check the tailpipe.
8. Watch the dashboard lights.
9. Let the engine idle.
10. Look at the exhaust smoke.
11. Test the exhaust system.
12. Test the brakes.
Don't let the owner take you for a ride! Insist on getting behind the wheel yourself for the test drive. Drive over hills, on city streets and on freeways. Make sure the car doesn't pull to one side. Brake the car and check to see that the brakes don't lose pressure when you press hard on them.
If the car has an automatic transmission, see if it shifts smoothly. Drive forward and
backward in an empty lot to see if there's any noise or slippage. And be sure to turn off
the radio while driving so you can listen for strange sounds coming from the engine.
Finally, if the test drive was scheduled ahead of time and the owner warmed up the engine,
be suspicious. A warm engine can conceal many flaws.
If you've decided on a car you want, then make a bid. It's a good idea to review the strategies before negotiating the sale.
If the car comes with a warranty, check it over. Read about used car warranties. Finally, get ready to sign the contract. The car may soon be yours!
Before you sign, take out your magnifying glass or whatever it takes to help you read the fine print on your purchase contract. Sure, sure, everyone says that. So what specifically should you look for on a used-car contract?
* See if the warranty is noted and that you receive a completed copy of the buyer's guide.
* Make sure any agreements you made with the seller to repair the car as a condition of the sale are written into the contract.
* Check that it's in writing that the dealer has completed all federal government safety recall service needed for the car. ** Make sure all blank lines are filled in on the contract. Next Chapter: "Get a Lease on Leasing"