Secondhand Rose

By Vicky Katz Whitaker

April 3, 2009 5 min read


A used car could be a great option, but be careful

Vicky Katz Whitaker

Creators News Service

Savvy auto buyers know you don't have to spend a small fortune or face hefty monthly payments to get on the road. There are plenty of good deals out there on used cars if you know where to look and what to ask.

But there are plenty of bad deals too, experts warn.

Before walking through that lot or scanning the newspaper classifieds and online listings, give some thought to your driving habits, needs and budget, said the Federal Trade Commission in its fact-packed "Buying A Used Car" brochure, available at

"Spending time now may save you serious money later," the FTC said. Just make sure you do your research.

There is plenty of information about used cars available on the Internet. Libraries and bookstores carry publications that compare models, options, safety tests and mileage along with dos and don'ts of buying one. In addition, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's Vehicle Safety Hotline (1-888-327-4236) and website ( provide information on recalls.

The FTC requires franchise and independent dealers selling more than six used vehicles a year to post a Buyers Guide in each one. It must state if the vehicle is being sold "as is" or with a warranty and give the percentage of repair costs the dealer will cover.

"When you buy a car from a dealer, get the original Buyers Guide that was posted in the vehicle or a copy," the FTC said. The Buyers Guide, considered part of the sales contract, must reflect any changes in warranty coverage.

Commission regulations require dealers honor its terms. "If it says the car comes with a warranty and the contract says the car is sold 'as is,' the dealer must give you the warranty described in the Buyers Guide," the FTC said.

No matter what, buyers should get everything in writing and have the vehicle inspected by a mechanic, particularly the mechanical and electrical systems.

A Carfax History Report is another must, experts say. Its vehicle history database, which features six billion cars, is able to provide scads of information from odometer readings to flood, fire or accident damage. It also shows if the vehicle was ever stolen, declared "salvage" or "junk" and whether the manufacturer's warranty is still enforceable. The report also details ownership history and shows if the vehicle was ever leased or used as a taxi or rental.

The Carfax database contains information on vehicles in the United States and Canada made since 1981. A report is provided free by more than 28,000 dealerships in the United States and Canada or can be ordered online for about $30 from, or If you're buying from a private seller, it's not unusual to request they provide a Carfax report along with any maintenance records, industry experts say.

"Two of the biggest problems you'll want to avoid are flood-damaged vehicles and rolled-back odometers," said Larry Gamache, a 20-year auto industry veteran and Carfax communications director. "Ask the seller if the vehicle has sustained any damage or had to be bought back by the manufacturer."

Buying a vehicle privately is different from buying one from a dealer. The seller has no obligation to provide you with a Buyers Guide or warranties. "Before you buy the car, ask to review its warranty or service contract," said the FTC, since some may not be transferable. In addition, "many states do not require individuals to ensure that their vehicles will pass state inspection or carry a minimum warranty before they offer them for sale." You'll need to check with your State Attorney General or local consumer protection agency to get the scoop on local used sale regulations.

Before purchasing, Gamache recommended going a test drive, both on the streets and on the highway. "You want to be comfortable driving the car and check that it runs smoothly," he said. Also, "make sure the wear and tear matches the vehicle age and mileage displayed."

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