2008-06-11

Tips on buying a used car from a dealer  

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I have a friend, let's call him Mike, who recently bought a used car from a used car dealer and is going to get burned. Price was right, and he even took the car for a test drive and everything seemed fine.

Mike decides to buy the car, puts $4,000 cash on the table, and is now the proud owner of a 1999 nightmare. Two hours after driving off the lot, the Service Engine soon light comes on, along with a flashing OD indicator light. Not good. Not only did Mike buy the car as-is, he also waived the state requirement that a car dealer guarantee that the car will pass inspection.

Turns out the car may need a transmission, and it is starting to look like Mike will have no recourse against the dealer. This is still an ongoing saga, so there is no final chapter, but I thought it was a glaring example of how not to buy a used car. I got me thinking of all the precautions that I would take when buying a used car. I thought I would list my opinions here and see if other people could add to the list:

  • Never buy a used car from a dealer without a warranty. If the dealer isn't going to stand behind the car, at least for 30 days, then you might as well buy private and pay less.
  • Ask the dealer for the Carfax report. They should be able to print it on the spot. You can get this yourself for $29.99 at carfax.com, but why pay when the dealer should have instant access? I have run a Carfax report against every used car I've bought in the last three years. There is a wealth of information in the report, such as prior accidents, title changes, insurance claims, mileage indicators, etc.
  • Take the car on a long test drive on both local roads and highways. Bring a friend to help listen for noises and vibrations. Check for steady and smooth braking.
  • Check every single device on the car. Lights, horn, wipers, radio, all power windows, seats, everything. Push every button. I would expect everything to work if buying a car from a dealer.
  • Check the tires for even wear. Check for a spare tire and jack.
  • Take a really close look at the paint and body. Any flaws? Any dull spots? Any overspray on the moulding or trim?
  • Look for signs of high mileage. Are the pedals unusually worn for the mileage? Check the door hinges by lifting the open door up and down to look for play. Check the seat cushion and upholstery for signs of high use.
  • Have the car checked by a competent repair facility. A comprehensive inspection could easily cost $100, but is well worth it.

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