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#303 Buying used cars

mp3 #303 Buying a Used Car (mp3 file)

Are you thinking about buying a used car? The first thing you should consider is from whom you are going to purchase your car. There are some advantages and disadvantages of buying from each of the three major sources of used cars.

1. The advantage of buying from new car dealers is that they usually have late models and their service departments back up warranties. The disadvantages are higher prices, and sometimes an unwillingness to take a trade-in on another used car.

2. The advantages of buying from used car dealers are lower prices, and trade-ins are generally accepted. The disadvantages are minimal warranties and often poor service facilities.

3. The advantage of buying from an individual is a lower price, but you won't get a warranty or a trade-in. When buying from an individual, it may be safer to deal with a friend or acquaintance who is more likely to tell you the truth about the car.

After you have looked over a car, check if it's stolen or about to be repossessed. You can verify the car's legal owner by requesting the information in writing from the California department of motor vehicles, and paying a small required charge. If the legal owner is a loan company, it must give permission to sell the car.

Also, check if the car was ever recalled by writing the national highway traffic safety administration in Washington, D.C.

Take it slowly.

You should take a writing pad along with you when you go car hunting and compare prices and warranties. Take notes on each car you are interested in - including the year, make, model, vehicle identification number, and your rating on the condition of each car.

If everything seems ok so far, take the car to a diagnostic test center or a mechanic of your choice (although some dealers won't allow it). Have your car looked over and get in writing any repairs that are needed. The small sum you invest in a diagnostic test or a mechanic is worth it. You can also ask that a deduction be made from the car's price so that you can have these repairs made.

There are some important provisions of the federal odometer law which protect you.

1. It is illegal to disconnect, reset or alter the odometer of any motor vehicle, to change the mileage.

2. If a nonfunctioning odometer has to be replaced, it must be turned back to zero and a notice must be placed on the vehicle's left door frame stating the repair date and the accurate mileage as of that date.

3. If you feel this law has been violated, you may bring an action against the seller in a U.S. district court (which means you don't have to settle in a small claims court even though the dollar value of your suit is small). If this law is violated, penalties include triple damages or $1,500 penalties, whichever is greater, plus attorney's fees and court costs.

4. One of the little known provisions of the odometer law requires that the dealer obtain a mileage statement from the car's previous owner. Ask to see it and write down the name and address of the former owner. Then call this person and ask if there were any unusual problems with the car, what repairs were made, and even for how much the car sold.

Cars formerly owned by the police force, rental agencies, or from corporate fleets often are in pretty good condition since they usually receive regular maintenance. However, cars formerly owned by taxi companies may have too many miles on them to be of use very long. There are tricks some dealers may try to pull, and some ways you can avoid their traps. One trick is "doping." You are told that the used car you want has been completely "reconditioned" and your test drive seems to confirm this claim. But within a few days the car develops numerous mechanical problems, because the dealer has used various methods which temporarily disguise the car's faults.

The basic rules for avoiding traps are:

1. Don't fall for questionable "bargains."

2. Have a mechanic check the car.

3. Try to get at least a 30-day full warranty with the dealer responsible for paying for all needed repairs.

4. Be sure, if the car has been reconditioned, that the warranty gives the details.

5. If a full guarantee is not available, a "50-50" warranty may be your only alternative. Many used car guarantees include a period of "50-50" coverage during which time you and the dealer "share" the cost of any needed repairs. But you must accept the dealer's word for this cost, and some dealers inflate the figure.

6. Beware of any seller refusing to allow a test drive for any reason. This is an attempt to hide something.

7. Be sure all the promises a dealer makes are put in writing and signed. Whenever you shop for a used car at a dealer's lot, be sure to read the new buyers guide.

The federal trade commission's used car rule requires that the guide be displayed on a side window of every used car offered for sale.

Be sure to read both sides of the buyers guide--here's why:

-The guide tells you if the dealer is offering a written warranty on the car.

-If no warranty is offered, the guide tells you that the dealer assumes no responsibility for repairs and that you will pay all costs for any needed repairs.

-The guide tells you that the dealer assumes no responsibility for anything that is said about the car, and that since spoken promises are difficult to enforce, the dealer should be asked to put any promises in writing.

-If there's a written warranty, the guide tells you whether it is a full warranty (and therefore satisfies the federal minimum standards for full warranties) or a limited warranty (which may provide virtually any level of protection, depending upon its terms).

-The guide suggests that you ask the dealer for a written copy of the warranty for a full explanation of its coverage. The buyers guide only gives you its highlights.

-It tells you which of the car's systems are covered by the dealer's written warranty and for how long.

-The guide describes the car's 14 major systems and alerts you to some of the major defects which may occur in each system.

-More importantly, the guide suggests that you ask the dealer if you may have the vehicle checked by your own mechanic, either on or off of the lot.

The list of the systems and possible defects can be used by you or a mechanic in deciding whether the car is in acceptable mechanical condition -- and is really worth the price that the dealer is asking.

For a copy of the FTC's free pamphlet, called "buying a used car," visit their webpage at or write to the federal trade commission, either in San Francisco or Los Angeles. The addresses are 901 Market Street, Suite 570, San Francisco 94103, or 11000 Wilshire blvd., Suite 13209, Los Angeles 90024. Ask for a pamphlet in English or in Spanish.

It is important that you arrange for a pre-sale inspection of the car.

Most ethical used car dealers will allow you to conduct a pre-sale inspection at your expense. You should insist on a pre-sale inspection by a competent mechanic of your choice.

What can you do if you feel the provisions of the contract are illegal, have been violated, or the seller is breaking the law? Contact the California Department of Motor Vehicles office nearest you.

You may find it helpful to read the annual "used car buying guide," published in June of each year by consumer report books. The price is about $10.00 and is available at your local bookstore or online at

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